There were only about four good bass players during the 1930's, and John Kirby wasn't one. Still, he somehow made his name (in part because of connections and good looks), and he led one of the most popular small bands of the time. Pete Brown (alto) and Frank Newton (trumpet), both magnificent blues players, began as the primary soloists, and the band (originally a coop) began recording in 1937 under the name of whoever got the gig: Newton, Buster Bailey, vocalists Maxine Sullivan and Midge Williams. Kirby envisioned a more refined sound. Through a series of power plays he gradually took over the band, replacing Newton with Charlie Shavers and Brown with Russell Procope. At age 21 Shavers became musical director and immediately contributed "Undecided", the band's biggest hit. The band recorded under Kirby's name for the first time in 1938. Now established as headliners, the sextet continued together five more years until the draft and personal differences broke up the band.
Sixty years later the jury is still out on Kirby's band. It is easy to put them downthey didn't swing, they played brief, unemotional solos, and their music was mainly borrowed. Individual creativity was downplayed, and there was little connection with the blues. It is not clear they were even a jazz band. On the other hand they had their own light, rhythmic sound, their arrangements were immaculately conceived and performed, and the musicians all enjoyed jazz reputations. Performance-wise pianist Billy Kyle was the key, acting as a bridge between the rhythm section and the horns. He filled in rough edges, meshing wonderfully with whispering drummer O'Neill Spencer. (Shavers and clarinetist Buster Bailey both had rhythmic problems that were more apparent on their other records.)
Most of the band's repertoire was drawn from European light classical music. Shavers would distill an aria or a salon piece down to a song and orchestrate it His harmonies and melodic variations were often interesting and clever, and he sometimes ended his pieces with flying riffs. The entire band played much of the time with soloing relegated to secondary importance. Shavers stayed away from extremes in tempo to keep his audience feeling comfortable. The three-minute time limit mandated by recording technology of the time was just right for him. He also mixed in pop tunes of the day, using the same formula. As the band neared its end there was a sense of sameness from one piece to the next.
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.) I suspect those who like the early records of Gerry Mulligan and Chico Hamilton will also be drawn to the Kirby band. But I do not believe the Kirby sound affected or influenced later jazzit was forgotten after the war. (Mulligan, Hamilton, Jack Montrose, and other "West Coast" musicians took their inspiration from Lester Young.)
Kirby may have taken his lead from Raymond Scott who led a chamber music ensemble that also borrowed from and gently parodied the classics. Scott's band made more use of novelty and special effects, and their musicianship was rougher. Composer Alec Wilder wrote some lovely octets with woodwinds over harpsichord that dropped the jazz feel. George Barnes led a little-known octet with his guitar in front of woodwinds. Artie Shaw led the Grammercy Five, a band within his big band, that featured Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord. The music of Barnes and especially of Wilder was far beyond Kirby in development and depth. Spike Jones also played in this area although he was more like the Three Stooges.
The sound is probably the best Kirby's records have ever enjoyed.
Personnel: John Kirby (bass); Russell Procope (alto saxophone); Charlie Shavers (trumpet); Buster Bailey (clarinet); Billy Kyle (piano); O'Neill Spencer, Specs Powell (drums).