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Several of the critiques in this review are glib and beside the point when discussing the John Kirby Sextet.
A couple of paragraphs in the main review are well done (as I note below). I don't intend to trash the writer or say the whole piece is off-base. Below I'll point out what I'm talking about.
"There were only about four good bass players during the 1930's, and John Kirby wasn't one."
Well, for an opening sentence in an essay about John Kirby, this is about as bad a one as I could imagine. First, it implies that Kirby wasn't playing at a professional level. Kirby was no Jimmy Blanton, but he was a solid enough player. More to the point, his music is remembered and enjoyed primarily for the arrangements and general delightful qualities it possessed. It's not serious jazz (there wasn't a whole lot of that before WWII anyway), and it's not about virtuoso performances by Kirby or anyone else.
"Still, he somehow made his name (in part because of connections and good looks)..."
Interesting point!...too bad bad we don't find out who he was connected to and how they helped him. Was this info in the liner notes?
"Through a series of power plays he gradually took over the band, replacing Newton with Charlie Shavers and Brown with Russell Procope."
He wasn't the only band leader of his day to start out as an equal and end up on top. Again, I wish the writer would give us more detail if he has knowledge that Kirby was (as is implied) being a jerk when he took over the band. Otherwise, why bother to phrase it negatively ("power plays") rather than, say, "showed a talent for organization"? I'm not saying anything should be white-washed, but leading a group of jazz musicians ain't easy, musically, logistically, or otherwise.
"Sixty years later the jury is still out on Kirby's band."
Well, the writer hasn't made up his mind, perhaps, but there's not that much question about what Kirby achieved and where he fits in the history of American popular music. Kirby produced music that at its best was memorable, swinging, and somewhere in between early Ellington and Raymond Scott. He's something more than a footnote and something less than a jazz giant.
The reviewer is fairly even-handed on the matter of whether or not they swung, and why they are remembered today. Kudos for that paragraph. Then come more lazy factual errors.
"Most of the band's repertoire was drawn from European light classical music."
Wrong. A glance at the track listings from the Classics series of Kirby reissues on CD will show that about a third of Kirby's recorded repertoire was drawn from either the classics or from European folk song sources. But two thirds of the material comes from either the jazz canon or from band members. I'm not arguing that the choice of material was progressive...there are plenty of swing standards (like "Sweet George Brown", "Blue Skies" "It's Only a Paper Moon"), along with early jazz warhorses like "St. Louis Blues" and "Royal Garden Blues".
Also, a big group of the classical adaptations was recorded shortly after the ASCAP ban began, which meant that Kirby could not record or broadcast tunes written by ASCAP composers (this is the period when Ellington had to ditch most of his book and feature new tunes from Billy Strayhorn like "Take the A Train"--Strayhorn wasn't an ASCAP member, so his material was fair game).
The paragraph on Charlie Shaver's musical direction is another good one--no complaints from this commenter.
"I hear this music as a sort of predecessor to California jazz of the 1950's with its light, steady rhythms, under-control feel, and emphasis on band sound and clearly defined, catchy themes. (In fairness the Californians were accomplished soloists, particularly as ballad players.)"
Scott Yanow makes this comparison in his Kirby reviews on Allmusic. It's apt, up to a point. But, there was an intellectual current flowing through part of the West Coast jazz scene (Konitz, Giuffre, Mulligan, Brubeck) that the Kirby band really did not foreshadow.
If anything, Ellington and Strayhorn (with their more adventurous pieces anyway) were more clearly predecessors of cool jazz than Kirby. Kirby's group, like Raymond Scott's Quintette, was intent on being catchy, novel, and swinging. It was not pointing to the third stream, and it was "cool" sounding only in passing.
"I suspect those who like the early records of Gerry Mulligan and Chico Hamilton will also be drawn to the Kirby band."
Yeah, or also those who like Ellington's small group session, or Raymond Scott, or any good late-1930s pop and swing music. The appeal is broader than just grad-students and old pipe-smoking guys. Don Byron digs the best of the Kirby charts enough to play and record them, and he's no repressed jazz fogy.
"Kirby may have taken his lead from Raymond Scott who led a chamber music ensemble that also borrowed from and gently parodied the classics."
True as far as the recorded record shows. Scott's Quintette years were 1934-39, whereas Kirby's group recorded from 1938-1945 or so.
"Composer Alec Wilder wrote some lovely octets with woodwinds over harpsichord that dropped the jazz feel."
Both Kirby and Wilder were frequently employed for Mildred Bailey vocal record sessions. And Bailey's then-husband Red Norvo was certainly influenced by and influencing this larger group of musicians (Kirby, Scott, and others interested in novelties and arranging). Norvo's early pieces like "Dance of the Octopus" are reaching toward the same goal of hot and swinging novelty music. ("Novelty" not being a pejorative term in my book.)
"George Barnes led a little-known octet with his guitar in front of woodwinds."
This is great stuff, available on CD (it's called "The Complete Standard Transciptions"). It was recorded mostly from 1946-51, and has a bit more of a Raymond Scott feel than a John Kirby feel.
"The music of Barnes and especially of Wilder was far beyond Kirby in development and depth."
Perhaps, but Barnes' Octet is sometimes a little too clever for its own good, whereas Kirby's group always has the listener in mind (and not just a pointy-headed jazz nerd listener!). They are both great groups with different sounds and strengths. Wilder's music was cooler and doesn't reach out to the average radio listener in the way that Kirby's did. Kirby wanted to be simultaneously clever and accessible, and he often achieved this. Kirby's lesser charts, it's true, are ho-hum.
"Spike Jones also played in this area although he was more like the Three Stooges."
Spike Jones, who I love, was straight out of vaudeville. His musical jokes were very broad (not that there's anything wrong with that) and his music really has very, very little connection to John Kirby's. Spike grabbed you by the collar and said "listen up!" whereas Kirby was a bit more subtle and sly.
If you happen to read this, please drop me a line.
Section Editor & CD/DVD Reviewer
All About Jazz
Hi, Im studying a bit about John Kirby for a dissertation, and haven't been able to find out wether he was black or white? It obviously won't make me think any less of him, but Im making a point about the perceived differences in swing styles at this time and how they related to race and class in America. Does anyone know, pictures are inconclusive.
Jane Ira Bloom
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