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Kenny Davern: Just Four Bars

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Readers accustomed to novels may find most jazz biographies only intermittently satisfying. Lives, of course, cannot be arranged into dramatic arcs worthy of Trollope or Faulkner—but, just the same, the chronicle of the life and music of your favorite musician often has all its drama in the beginning: attempts to find a personal style, to become proficient, to be recognized.

Once the musician is reasonably successful, the narrative might become a listing of gigs, concerts, recordings. Some musicians aid a biographer (unintentionally) by having dramatic or melodramatic lives—drug use, illness, marital and economic strife—but a comfortable musician with a spouse, family, regular income and housing, might offer a biographer a challenge.

It's a pleasure to write that Edward N. Meyer's biiography of Kenny Davern's life and music, JUST FOUR BARS, published by Scarecrow Press and available through Amazon, is a triumphant book on all its many levels.

Meyer, best-known in the field for his bio-discography of Dick Wellstood, GIANT STRIDES, was the logical one to write about Davern, and although Davern said at first he did not want a biography, he eventually told his wife that Meyer would be his choice.

Meyer's coverage of the facts of Davern's musical life couldn't be better. With diligent accuracy, he chronicles appearances, recordings, gigs satisfying and frustrating, the bands Davern led and was part of for more than fifty years.

If a reader might weary momentarily of the data from Davern's date book, it should be said that the biographer is writing for two audiences at once—people like me who saw Davern and for whom he is a living presence still, and the Future—those readers for whom it will be crucial to have all this data properly arranged and assessed in one place. The result is satisfying throughout, especially because Meyer interviewed Davern—making one wish that Davern had written more on his own, for his voice is salty, witty, and precise. Also invaluable are the voices of Davern's friends and colleagues: Marty Grosz, Greg Cohen, Dave Frishberg, Warren Vache, James Chirillo.

Where Meyer is even more fascinating is in what he has uncovered of Davern the private man: the child (the painful twists and turns of his childhood are too complicated to be retold here, but they would have ruined a more fragile person), his development as an adult, husband, father, grandfather.

In his conversations with everyone who knew Davern on and off the stand—including candid passages from his wife and children—Meyer has shown us the man we didn't know. And that man is an enthralling study, because the public Kenny was often comically irascible in ways that felt dangerous to onlookers. But the private man was erudite, deeply-interested in a variety of subjects, generous, and introspective — genuinely lovable and deeply loved.

The record of Davern's musical life is equally detailed and rewarding. We read of his musical apprenticeship with big bands (which he hated), with Jack Teagarden, Phil Napoleon, musical maturity alongside Bob Wilber and Dick Wellstood, Dick Hyman, and his later quartets and quintets. And through it all we see a man always striving for something beyond the heights he had already scaled — subtlety, emotional connection, mastery of the horn and the idiom. His life's goal, he said, was to be recognized in “just four bars." And he did just that, and more.

Meyer's biography of Kenny Davern is wide-ranging, analytical as well as enlightening, generous to its subject as well as to readers, now and in the future. It made me want to revisit my Davern collection, and it brought up memories of seeing the great man plain—for which I am grateful.

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This story appears courtesy of Jazz Lives by Michael Steinman.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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