Kenny Davern 07/01/35 - 12/12/06
By Steve Voce Dec 16th 2006

KENNY DAVERN “ Louis Armstrong can say something with one note, but then there are others who take an hour to rev up and wind up with a fart in a bathtub.”

Although Kenny Davern became one of the most effective jazz clarinettists of the last 50 years, he always regarded a trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, as the wellspring of his inspiration. Unusually for a clarinet player he had a forceful attack, almost as though he was playing the trumpet. He played the instrument with great fire and probably more passion than any other clarinettist playing today. 

“When I was a kid we’d go to Bop City and Birdland to listen to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell. Bird was a great musician but his points of reference were different from mine…I thought the real jazz was Louis Armstrong and I still do.
“I can listen to ‘Jubilee’ by Louis Armstrong and know that good will triumph after all and that there’s justice in the world.”

Self-taught, Davern was given an old Albert system clarinet when he was 11. Three years later he acquired a more convential Boehm system instrument. 

He began playing professionally when he was 16 and three months after he left high school auditioned for the big band led by Ralph Flanagan. 

“When I got there were about ten guys ahead of me, but I went up to the manager and said ‘Let me play, I gotta be somewhere, I have an appointment….Then Flanagan went over to the piano and we played two choruses of “Muskrat Ramble” and that was it.’”

In the Flanagan band he was required to play alto and baritone saxophones as well as clarinet. He stayed for a year, leaving because he couldn’t stand life on the road.

Perhaps he was fortunate in being a New Yorker, for all his formative work was in the city, often playing with the jazz greats of earlier years.

“To be on the bandstand with a Roy Eldridge or a Buck Clayton is an honour and a privilege not granted to everyone. Making harmonious music with such people in your formative years, you come away with something in your head. Call it tradition if you must, although it’s a word I hate – maybe because I overreacted to it by playing revival music at one time.”

Back in New York he rejoined Flanagan on a temporary basis. One of the saxophone players asked him how he’d like to play with Jack Teagarden.

“I was gassed. I joined the band at the Meadowbrook, played a couple of tunes and got off the stand. Teagarden hadn’t said anything so I went over to him and asked how I’d done. He smiled and said ‘Where’ve you been?’

After Teagarden, with whom he recorded with in 1954 when he was 19, Davern freelanced in the city and led his own band which he called his Washington Squares. It included his friends and contemporaries Dave Frishberg and Johnny Windhurst. He worked with Ruby Braff, Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Bud Freeman and for Eddie Condon at Condon’s club. He also appeared in the play “Marathon 33” on Broadway. The play starred Julie Harris and the band, which stayed on stage throughout, included Davern’s long-time colleague and pianist Dick Wellstood.

An avant-garde band that Davern helped to run in the Fifties that included Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd and played arrangements by Carla Bley and Cecil Taylor inspired the remark at the beginning of this piece. Davern also appeared along with Rudd in the film The Hustler (1961).

Following a jazz party in 1973 where he and fellow clarinettist Bob Wilber played together they formed the band Soprano Summit – two soprano saxophones and a rhythm section. The band lasted until 1979 and recorded several albums, including reunion ones in 1991 and 1997. The soprano sax is a difficult instrument and Davern became bored with it and returned to the clarinet after a couple of years.

When the band broke up he worked in small groups and led a trio with Dick Wellstood called The Blue Three. He and Wellstood worked together until the pianist’s death in 1987. He frequently worked with two other pianists, Ralph Sutton and Dick Hyman. He toured Europe with the New York Jazz Repertory and the successful Kings Of Jazz and appeared regularly on jazz cruises and at European jazz festivals. He worked in Australia and New Zealand in August 1988.

A concert of his with Humphrey Lyttelton was recorded in 1982 and he returned to record with Lyttelton in 1985.

He was described by Lyttelton as “Fluent, hot and with as original a slant on traditional clarinet as you’ll find anywhere.”

In the Nineties he became much involved with the Arbors record label, where he was given a free rein to record what he liked by the sensitive director Mat Domber.

Last year he put a band together for a one-night appearance at New York’s Tavern On The Green by an old friend, the film star Billy Crystal. He visited Britain last summer with The Statesmen of Jazz.

Davern could have an alternative career in stand up comedy. He hated microphones, preferring to play acoustically and in clubs would always turn them off if he could, sometimes to the annoyance of the audience. He answered complaints that his announcements couldn’t be heard with “I’m not saying anything. Just passing the time.” He would elicit requests for tunes, asking members of the audience who would respond with everything from early New Orleans marches to, say, Artie Shaw’s “Concerto For Clarinet”.

“I’m not going to play any of them,” Davern said. “I just want to know where your heads are at.”

Steve Voce 16/12/06

John Kenneth Davern, clarinettist and saxophonist: born Huntington, New York 7 January 1935; married Elsa Last (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Sandia Park, New Mexico, 12 December 2006.


Sad news via the Dixieland Mailing list. The brilliant American clarinettist, Kenny Davern died from heart failure in his sleep.

His career included spells with Jack Teagarden as  teenager, the Dukes of Dixieland and a super session (Jazz At the New School) with Gene Krupa, Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison and Dick Wellstood. He co-led the highly successful Soprano Summit with Bob Wilbur.

In 1985, he toured with Martin Litton & myself playing dates including the Royal Festival Hall in London. The CD 'Playin' For Kicks' was recorded for Jazzology Records in New Orleans.

We also played some dates with a larger swing band with Roger Nobes on Vibes, Martin Litton, piano and Keith Donald, bass. The session at Harlow was recorded by Essex Radio and we released it on the CD, 'Live & Swinging', CMJCD 001 (my first ever CD) with part two on 'Makin' Whoopee' RRCD1008. I also did a session with Kenny and Art Hodes at Eastbourne, which I have yet to release.

Kenny played hot clarinet, with a big tone and a driving swinging style. He was instantly recognisable.

It has not been a good month for jazz & swing veterans. Anita O'Day, Martha Tilton (ex Benny Goodman) and Jay McShann have all passed away recently.

Keep swinging
John Petters


I read a lovely story about Kenny Davern in Bill Crow's 'Band Room' column. 

Apparently Kenny and a very good quartet were working at a Boston Hotel. As the band played, a flunkey on the microphone was frequently announcing dining room spaces. "Table for four Mr Miller's party, Table for six Mr Johnson's party etc". Totally seething, Davern went to the mike and announced "Table for thirteen, Jesus Christ and party!"

It is not known how this was received by the hotel management!

Ian Royle

ALISON KERR December 19 2006 Glasgow Herald

Jazz clarinettist and saxophonist; Born January 7, 1935; Died December 12,

There can be few sounds as thrilling as clarinettist Kenny Davern cutting loose with one of his characteristically passionate and exhilarating solos ? as anyone who heard the American jazz star during one of his countless visits to Scotland over the past 20 years will testify.

Davern, who has died suddenly at the age of 71, was widely regarded as the foremost exponent of his instrument in the world; a musician whose sound was immediately identifiable and who brought a touch of class to everything he did. 

Among regulars at the Edinburgh and Nairn jazz festivals, and at the former Glasgow Society of Musicians, Davern was also known as an intimidating character who did not suffer fools gladly, and who reserved his greatest contempt for anyone who tried to make him play in front of a microphone. Woe betide any sound engineer who hadn't been alerted to Davern's strongly held views on acoustics.

Similarly, festival organisers were known to vanish mysteriously when Davern went on the attack ? and he never let anything like an audience get in the way of a rant. He often treated his listeners with derision, too: one trick was to ask for requests and then shoot them down with an acerbic comment. However, the cantankerous clarinettist was a part he enjoyed playing. It wasn't the whole story.

The intimidating Davern was my first-ever interviewee. Forty-five minutes into the nerve-racking session, the significance of the fact that the wheels on my borrowed tape recorder weren't turning dawned on both of us: I had forgotten to lift the pause button. After a terrifying five minutes, during which I was ready to jack in journalism, the unthinkable happened: he softened. At 11.30pm, as I tried to make a break for the door, he offered to start the interview again. Not only did the second version turn out better than the original, but, years later, I learned that Davern was dining out, among mutual musician friends, on the story.

The soft centre shouldn't have been so unexpected. Davern was a player of great warmth and passion. He routinely sent shivers down the spine and made hair stand on end when he broke out of his hitherto controlled solos and let rip. There was nothing like it when he soloed, exploding into the upper register, then swooping down again.

Playing ballads or blues tunes, he had a seductive style, coaxing the sound from the horn the way a snake charmer would draw the reptile from a basket. His playing embraced extreme musical characteristics in the same manner as his personality was, by turn, intimidating and charming. His sound was sweet, fluid and polished one minute; thrillingly spiky, raw and plaintive the next. It is impossible to think of his signature songs ? especially Sweet Lorraine ? without hearing him playing them.

Born in Huntington, New York, the self-taught Davern began his jazz career at the age of 16. He played with many older greats, including Jack Teagarden, and despite flirting with avant-garde jazz during the 1950s, his primary influence was always Louis Armstrong.

In the 1970s, he and fellow clarinettist/saxophonist Bob Wilber formed the super-group Soprano Summit. Davern then formed The Blue Three with pianist Dick Wellstood, before operating as a touring soloist after Wellstood's death. He leaves an impressive, though not vast, legacy of recordings, and once told The Herald: "Just to record for the sake of being in a studio is masturbatory." He is survived by his wife, Elsa, his two step-children and four step-grandchildren. 

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