Clarinet Great Kenny Davern This Week on Riverwalk Jazz


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This week, Riverwalk Jazz celebrates Jazz Appreciation Month with never-before- broadcast tracks featuring the great reedman Kenny Davern. The hour-long program is carried in the US on the Public Radio International network, on Sirius/XM sattelite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.

Kenny Davern was a kid when he first heard Pee Wee Russell play “Memphis Blues" and he knew then that he wanted a life in jazz. Over five decades, his world-class playing on clarinet and soprano sax wowed the most discriminating fans. Even so, the spotlight that shone on him was never really bright enough. When we asked writer Nat Hentoff what he heard in Kenny's playing, he said, “Kenny had this extraordinary presence, vitality and a continuous imagination. And he's never gotten the full credit he deserves..."

Kenny Davern galvanized audiences around the world for over 50 years with his instantly- recognizable clarinet sound, his riveting solos and jewel-like tone. The New York Times called him “the finest clarinetist playing today." Piano legend Earl Hines described Kenny as “the best jazz clarinetist since Jimmy Noone." 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 raised by his maternal grandmother in Queens. Explaining what it was like when he happened to hear clarinetist Pee Wee Russell on the radio for the first time at the age of 11, 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 every thing I could."

Early gigs with trumpeter Henry “Red" Allen led Kenny to his first break at the age of 18 when he won the baritone sax chair in the popular Ralph Flanagan big band. A year later, he was invited to audition for Jack Teagarden. Kenny recalled that day. After playing a few tunes with the band, Kenny said, “I saw Jack and his wife Addie up in the bleachers, talking during a break. So I walked over there. And I said, 'Well, what's going on Jack?' He says, 'What do you mean, Kenny?' I said, 'Well, am I hired?' 'Of course you're hired.' He said, 'Where've you been all my life?'"

With the rise of Rock in the 1960s, the jazz scene in New York began to cool. Kenny found gigs around town with Buck Clayton, Red Allen, Bud Freeman and others, but audiences for jazz continued to dwindle. Davern recalls, “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 known as Soprano Summit. They recorded a dozen widely- acclaimed albums and toured the US and Europe. Other members included Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Bucky Pizzarelli and Bobby Rosengarden. Over time, 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 the years prior to his passing, Davern had put aside the soprano saxophone to concentrate his efforts on the clarinet. Known for his acerbic wit on the bandstand, he was very much in demand worldwide for jazz festivals and concerts.

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