Like virtually everyone who knew him or his music, I was shocked by Kenny Davern’s death on Tuesday. A heart attack–sudden and massive–took him at the age of seventy-one. The New York Times obituary by Dennis Hevesi offered the perfect description of Davern: “a radically traditional jazz clarinetist and soprano saxophonist.”
I listened to and enjoyed Davern for years, but met him only once, introduced in passing by pianist Dick Wellstood, the clarinetist’s alter-ego in musical taste and off-kilter humor. He shared with Wellstood a preference for older jazz styles but fondness for many musical eras and the ability to work into his improvisations inspiration from all periods. He admired Thelonious Monk, for instance, and avant gardists like John Coltrane and Steve Lacy. The spirit Davern and Wellstood shared is captured in their duo album, Dick Wellstood And His All-Star Orchestra Featuring Kenny Davern. The wryness of the title carries over into the music, beginning with their joint composition “Fast as a Bastard.” In that 1973 encounter, Davern played soprano sax, passionately. Later, he devoted himself solely to the clarinet.
In his long career Davern played with Red Allen, Jack Teagarden and an array of traditional artists, but one of his most memorable collaborations was with the swing tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips. Another was with an orchestra led by bassist Bob Haggart, the composer of “My Inspiration,” the album’s title song, and “What’s New.” With Haggart’s arrangements for strings, Davern gave some of his warmest performances. In the notes, another clarinetist, Tommy Sancton, wrote, “Since Benny Goodman disappeared from the scene, Kenny has had no peer in the swing-mainstream mode.” The CD of My Inspiration is out of circulation except for used copies. You may be able to order the vinyl LP from this web site.
In the past couple of days, many musicians and others in the jazz community have expressed sorrow at Davern’s death, none more eloquently than in this messsage from the trumpeter and composer Randy Sandke:
Kenny was a true original — on and off the bandstand. He was one of very few players who was able to take a pre-existing style and make it totally his own. He sounded fresh every time he played, even if it was his 10,000th rendition of “Royal Garden Blues.” How many people can you say that of? What saddens me, beyond the personal loss, is that his sound is gone forever. As with the passing of Ruby Braff or Milt Hinton there is no one to take his place; no one with that sound and conception. As they say in England, he was a one-off, which should be the goal of every jazz musician but which few attain.
For all the talk of preserving the “jazz tradition” it also saddens me how few people were really aware of him and his astonishing talent. When he moved away from the East Coast he was heard around here very infrequently, and I doubt that the people at Lincoln Center even knew who he was (they haven’t yet discovered John Bunch who lives practically next door). Thankfully Matt Domber of Arbors Records gave him opportunities to record over the last decade.
Kenny could hold a room spellbound, with the audience hanging onto every note. He was one of those players whose intensity extended into his personal life. You had to accept him on his terms, but if you did he was own of the sweetest, smartest, funniest people you’d ever meet. He was very stubborn about his smoking- the last of his vices that he refused to give up, and which undoubtedly did him in.
I miss him already and can’t believe he’s gone. Kenny didn’t do things half-way so I guess it’s appropriate that as far as life was concerned it had to be all or nothing, no lingering illness. As George Avakian said last summer at Bix’s grave, with Kenny present, “You were here for just a little while but we’re all the better for it.”