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Kenny Davern
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Biography
About Kenny, Will Friedwald has written aptly in 'The New York Times,' "Mr. Davern is probably the finest clarinetist playing today." Whether this encomium was meant to extend beyond the field of Jazz is less important than the fact that Kenny Davern has achieved in his playing beyond just his astonishing mastery of the clarinet what all Jazz musicians aspire to but only a handful ever reach, a unique and sterling voice, instantly recognizable, deeply personal.

Born on Long Island, New York in 1935, the child of a broken marriage, young Kenny Davern passed through nine foster homes before being settled with his mother's parents in Queens. "My grandfather was a red-haired, blue-eyed descendant of Austro-Hungarian army people and my grandmother was a little peasant woman from the then-occupied Lithuania. They were Jewish, and my father's side was Irish-Catholic."

Kenny came to his awareness of Jazz during the years of World War II when the swing music of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and the Dorsey Brothers was the popular music of the day. Some of the hottest names in music were clarinet players. Artie Shaw's playing especially impressed Kenny. He pleaded with his mother to buy him a clarinet. She found one for sale up the block for $35 -an outmoded Albert system, on which he learned the fundamentals of the instrument. Eventually, he acquired a Boehm system clarinet, and made the switch-over to this more efficient fingering.

Though his first awareness of Jazz was the music of the big bands, it was really the small group Jazz of the '30s and '40s that enthralled his ear and molded his style. "In those days, I was listening to 'Ted Husing's Bandstand,' and for 15 minutes of each day he'd play Dixieland Jazz. One particular day, I heard this thing and whack!, it was like a baseball bat between the eyes. I stood transfixed. I said, 'I want to spend the rest of my life doing that.'" The sound Kenny had heard over the radio, the sound that fixed the direction of his musical career was the quirky, plaintive, angular meandering of Pee Wee Russell's clarinet on the Commodore recording of 'Memphis Blues' by Muggsy Spanier's Ragtimers.

In the thoroughly personal voice that Kenny Davern has evolved over the five decades of his career, Pee Wee Russell's sound certainly vibrates palpably as an impetus, an inspiration. Nonetheless, Kenny's voice has, from the beginning, been completely his own. It is a voice combining power and flawless command of this almost devilishly difficult instrument with subtle and perfect melodic and harmonic intelligence. The articulation of his notes is unerring and silken at any speed. His whispered musings command the attention of even the most chattering, self-absorbed audience. Or he can cut through a raucous, brassy ensemble in a controlled, but visceral siren wail that rises above and floats over the athletic counterpoint of a trumpet, a trombone, drums and two-fisted piano. Ordinarily, even in large spaces, Kenny will impatiently wave off approaching sound men with their microphones and amplifiers. He doesn't need them. He is enamoured of reed and wood; why would he want to squeeze so pure a sound through a wiry maze of electronics? Put Kenny in a room and he'll fill it with the sound of his clarinet.

In high school, he and some friends (trombonist Larry O'Brien, for one, who went on to lead the Glenn Miller Band) started a Dixieland combo. The Band's drummer, Bobby Grauso's father (the drummer, Joe Grauso) used to take the boys to clubs like the old Eddie Condon's, near Washington Square, where they heard their idols play in person: Wild Bill Davison, Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell, Lou McGarity, Walter Page and others. Jazz legend Henry "Red" Allen hired Kenny for gigs when he was 16. At 18, he went on the road with pianist Ralph Flanagan's big band, but the next year, when the opportunity to join Jack Teagarden's Dixieland band came up, he jumped at it. As popular and successful as Flanagan was, when Kenny gave him his notice, Ralph asked, "Do they need a piano player?" It was with Teagarden that Kenny made his first Jazz recording.

In 1955, although the Teagarden band had been booked for an extended engagement in California, a union regulation requiring six-months' residency for a member to work in a new jurisdiction would have benched Kenny for half a year had he stayed with Teagarden. Instead, he joined Phil Napoleon's 'Memphis Five,' then touring the East Coast. During the next few years, Kenny worked often at the legendary Nick's in Greenwich Village, not only with Napoleon, but also with Pee Wee Erwin's Jazz Band, and finally with his own band, the "Washington Squares," that included Johnny Windhurst, Cutty Cutshall, Dave Frishberg, Cliff Leeman and Jack Six. During this period he also appeared frequently at two cavernous, beery Jazz landmarks - The Central Plaza and The Stuyvesant Casino.

In 1961, Kenny joined clarinetist/entertainer Ted Lewis for a month-long engagement at New York's Roseland Ballroom. From 1962 to 1963, he was with the Dukes of Dixieland. A highlight of his tenure with the Dukes is the remarkable Gospel album the band recorded with the Clara Ward Singers. In 1963, he was in the on-stage band for the nine-week run on Broadway of June Havoc's 'Marathon '33,' starring Julie Harris. Over the years, Kenny has also appeared on the screen and the soundtracks of several movies, including 'The Hustler,' 'The Gig,' and 'The Mighty Aphrodite.'

Later in the '60s, at an extended gig at The Ferry Boat along the New Jersey shore in Brielle, Kenny began what would evolve into a long-term working association with pianist Dick Wellstood. The two had known each other, and occasionally worked together since the early '50s, but it was only now that their association blossomed into the very special relationship that reached its zenith in their collaborations as a duo, recording under such whimsical names as "Dick Wellstood and his Famous Orchestra, featuring Kenny Davern." Between Wellstood's omnivorous imagination, his powerful, all-ten-fingers style of piano-playing, and Kenny's lyrical, soaring clarinet, it was no hyperbole to refer to this two-man outfit as an "orchestra." It was during this period, too, that Kenny was called to replace the late Buster Bailey with Louis Armstrong's All-Stars. "But I was working at the Ferry Boat with Jack Six, Dick Wellstood, Al McManus and Eddie Hubble" he explains. "We had a great band; I was a mile from my house and I was courting my wife. I would have had to go out for six months with Louis, but I had too many wonderful things going for me, so I turned it down."

In the 1970s, the club scene for traditional forms of Jazz having all but evaporated, Kenny began finding more and more of his work at Jazz festivals and Jazz parties. 'The Jazz party' was more or less the invention of Dick Gibson, a Denver entrepreneur and Jazz aficionado whose annual Colorado Springs event brought together outstanding mainstream musicians from across the country every Labor Day weekend for three days of non-stop Jazz. Regulars included Clark Terry, Billy Butterfield, Benny Carter, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Trummy Young, Carl Fontana, Urbie Green, Roland Hanna, Ralph Sutton, Ray Brown, Milt Hinton, Bob Haggart, Grady Tate, Gus Johnson, Joe Venuti and many others. It was at one of Gibson's Colorado Springs parties that Kenny (who was playing soprano saxophone at the time) was teamed with Bob Wilber to play a version of 'The Mooche,' and their lengthy and prolific association as 'Soprano Summit,' was born. The group has recorded a dozen memorable albums so far.

In 1978, Kenny teamed up with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (a former colleague on the Dixieland scene in the '50s and '60s), Paul Motian and Steve Swallow to record an adventurous free-Jazz album titled 'Unexpected.' In this format of ensemble playing, freed from the strictures of set chord sequences, or "changes," Kenny sees connections and analogies to the older New Orleans style of Jazz, in which group improvisation, rather than the solo performance, forms the central focus of the music.

In the 1980s and '90s, Kenny has continued to be featured at festivals and Jazz parties throughout the U.S. and Europe. He has appeared often at the Newport Jazz Festivals, and has traveled abroad with the New York Jazz Repertory Company under the direction of Dick Hyman. He has played at the Nice, North Sea, and Brecon Festivals, as well as the prestigious Edinburgh Festival. Aside from the festivals, Kenny has toured throughout Europe as a featured soloist. He played for President Carter at the White House, and has performed at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, the Smithsonian Institution, Royal Albert Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, and other celebrated venues around the world.

Over the past decade Kenny has issued a series of at least half a dozen albums that spotlight his playing with just a rhythm section. In 1992, he produced the CD 'Kenny Davern: My Inspiration,' a collaboration with bassist/composer/arranger Bob Haggart, on which he is backed by a string orchestra and rhythm section. "It's every player's dream to perform with strings," Kenny says of this album. "Charlie Parker always said his string sessions were his favorite recordings." The arrangements are by Haggart, the songs are wonderful standards, and Kenny's playing is quintessential.

In 1997, Kenny Davern was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame. In May 2000, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Hamilton College.

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