Everybody I know who plays jazz for a living was sickened–no other word is strong enough–to learn of the death of Kenny Davern, who was struck down without warning on Tuesday by a heart attack. He was seventy-one, not so old for a jazzman, and not nearly old enough for so pungently individual a player.
The New York Times, which isn’t always sound on such matters, gave Davern a good sendoff this morning, describing him as “a radically traditional jazz clarinetist and soprano saxophonist whose liquid tones linked him to the classical sound of New Orleans but who could also play free jazz.” I’m told that he was, or could be, a difficult person, but his many friends are quick to add that he was worth the trouble, and then some.
Dan Morgenstern, who knew Davern for a half-century, called him “a master of his chosen art and craft” when he heard the bad news. You can see and hear his artistry by going here. If that clip piques your interest, I suggest you order what I gather was Davern’s own favorite of the many albums on which he played, Dick Wellstood and His All-Star Orchestra Featuring Kenny Davern, recorded for Chiaroscuro in 1973. The title is a characteristically Wellstoodian joke, for the “orchestra” in question consisted solely and only of Davern on soprano saxophone and Wellstood on piano, both of whom were, as usual, in scorchingly fine form. The liner notes, unlikely as it may sound, are by William F. Buckley, Jr., and they end with this magisterial pronouncement about the All-Star Orchestra: “I hope you like it. If you don’t, I’m sorry about that; sorry about you.”
It is at times like these that I bless the name of Thomas Edison, and recall Shakespeare’s words: Death makes no conquest of this conqueror,/For now he lives in fame though not in life. Thanks to the invention of the phonograph and its successor technologies, we no longer need settle for the fading memories of those lucky enough to have heard the great musicians of the past in person. We can hear them ourselves, and know that they were as good as their reputations (or not).
This unprecedented capacity to preserve the passing moment has been of special importance when it comes to an improvised music like jazz. As I wrote in Fi a number of years ago, “Without the phonograph, jazz might well have vanished into the humid night air of New Orleans, to be remembered only by those who first played and heard it; instead, it became America’s principal contribution to twentieth-century music, known around the world.” So, too, might Kenny Davern’s playing have been forgotten. I’m glad we have it to comfort us today.
UPDATE: The London Independent ran an excellent Davern obit written by British jazz critic Steve Voce.