John Kenneth Davern was one of the most distinctive and original voices in jazz. This week Riverwalk Jazz celebrates the life and art of the great jazz reedman with an encore presentation of his 2004 collaboration with The Jim Cullum Jazz Band at the Landing in San Antonio; a program of blues-driven live performances. Jazz critic Owen Cordle described Kenny Davern as “someone who touches the bluest feelings of longing” with his playing.
Jazz piano legend Earl Hines called him “The best jazz clarinetist since Jimmy Noone.” And The Jazz Journal Readers’ Poll voted him “The best jazz clarinetist in the world.” In 1997 he was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame at Rutgers University. Bandleader Jim Cullum says, "There was no one like him in the history of jazz music. Kenny was unique both musically and as a man."
Davern was born in 1935 on Long Island, NY and was raised by his maternal grandmother in Queens. At the age of 11 Kenny first heard a radio broadcast of clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. In an interview with Brian Peerless, Kenny said, "I heard this thing and whack! It was like being hit between the eyes with a baseball bat...it was a true emotional experience in jazz, and I remember it like it was yesterday. The music grabbed me and I listened to everybody I could.”
Early gigs with trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen led Kenny to his first big break at the age of eighteen when he won the baritone sax chair in the popular Ralph Flanagan big band. A year later he was invited to join trombone legend Jack Teagarden.
With the advent of the rock and roll revolution in the 1960s, just as Davern had made a name for himself in jazz, the scene in New York began to cool. Davern found gigs around town with Buck Clayton, Red Allen, Bud Freeman and others, but audiences for jazz continued to dwindle. Davern recalled, “I could go to the Metropole …and on the bandstand there would be all the great players—Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge. There was an awful lot going on musically, but not very much in terms of an audience.”
Beginning in the mid-60s weekend “jazz parties” began popping up all over the United States, Europe and Australia, revitalizing the careers of many jazzmen. One of the most memorable groups to come out of that scene was an ensemble Kenny Davern launched with reedman Bob Wilber in 1973. They both set aside their clarinets to play soprano sax in this group known as Soprano Summit. Together they recorded a dozen widely acclaimed albums, and toured the U.S. and Europe. Other members of the group included Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Bucky Pizzarelli and Bobby Rosengarden.
Davern appeared on screen in major motion pictures including The Hustler with Paul Newman, and on the soundtrack of Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite.
In recent years Davern had put aside the saxophone to concentrate his efforts on the clarinet. Known for his acerbic wit on the bandstand, he was very much in demand worldwide at jazz festivals and concerts.
Jim Cullum Jazz Band members remember Kenny Davern:
Bassist Don Mopsick: "I will be forever grateful to Kenny for recommending me to Jim Cullum for the bass position in his band. Playing behind him was a singular experience; just the sound alone was enough to give you goose bumps."
Clarinetist Ron Hockett: "Kenny inspired us all with his big beautiful sound on the clarinet and his strong, melodic improvisations in his own unique style. He knew more about the clarinet than anyone I know! I am grateful for his friendship and I will miss him."
Jim Cullum: "Kenny could have had a career as a stand-up comic. He was so much fun to be around. We're going to miss him and his playing terribly."
Photo credit for Home Page: Kenny Davern, photo courtesy atlantajazzparty.com
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick Copyright 2007