Unusual jazzman - and his music

Tribute: The music of Baltimore-born bassist John Kirby will be performed Saturday at Smith Theatre at Howard Community College.


August 22, 2002|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jazz, at its heart, may be one of the most improvised of art forms, but some of its most distinguished practitioners believed in maintaining a decorous balance between the written and the unwritten.

One such jazzman was John Kirby (1908-1952), a Baltimore-born bassist who joined the celestial Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1929 and wound up leading his own marvelously disciplined sextet in some pretty iconoclastic directions. For this ensemble would not only swing, but bridge the gap between popular and classical music thanks to Kirby's ingeniously breezy arrangements of melodies by Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky and other greats.

"Kirby really was a sort of hybrid," says Bob Thulman of Columbia, a jazz clarinetist who plays with local groups Swing Street and the Last Chance Jazz Band, and is a great admirer of Kirby's legacy. "The light, disciplined style he developed became enormously popular and quite influential back in the 1930s."

Thulman is so enthusiastic about Kirby's music that he and the Potomac River Jazz Club are sponsoring a concert of the great bassist-arranger's music this weekend in Columbia. At 8 p.m. Saturday, string bassist Wayne Roberts and New York City's Onyx Club Sextet will take the Smith Theatre stage to present Kirby's takes on standards like "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Blue Skies," along with his marvelous riffs inspired by the likes of Chopin's "Fantaisie Impromptu" (with its "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" melody), Dvorak's "Humoresque" and even the "Allegretto" movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's 7th Symphony.

The musical gifts of Kirby were recognized early. He became so proficient on his first instrument - the trombone - that he headed for New York City as a precocious 16-year-old with only his instrument and a few dollars to his name.

On his first night in the city, his trombone was stolen, and Kirby was forced to take menial jobs to survive.

He soon acquired a tuba and became so adept at oom-pah-pahing out his bass lines that he was invited to join the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.

Kirby later moved to the string bass and quickly became a bassist in demand.

In 1937, he approached the owner of the Onyx Club on 52nd Street in Manhattan with a proposal to form a band. Before long, Kirby and his musicians - Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Russell Procope on sax, clarinetist Buster Bailey, pianist Billy Kyle and drummer O'Neill Spencer - had become known as "The Biggest Little Band in the Land."

"They didn't just sit around and jam," says Thulman, a retired engineer who has been performing at Columbia's Last Chance Saloon for 24 years. "He attracted terrific musicians and won the respect not only of jazz people, but of the classical audience as well. Musically, he was a different kind of guy."

Bassist Roberts and the modern day Onyx Club Sextet who will visit Columbia on Saturday realize the elegance of the inimitable Kirby style with empathic sensitivity.

Their evocations of trumpet man Shavers' muted pianissimo sounds are eerily beautiful, while the caps Kirby tipped to Chopin (in "Fantasy Impromptu") and to old Ludwig in "Beethoven Riffs On" are doffed with such harmonic sophistication that one can easily be in love with two distinctive musical genres at the same time.

"When it sounds good, it is good," said Duke Ellington, who was known to straddle more than a few musical boundaries in his day.

Thanks to concert promoter Thulman and the Onyx Club Sextet, we will get an authoritative reminder that Kirby's music was - and is - very good indeed.

Columbia's Bob Thulman and the Potomac River Jazz Club present bassist Wayne Roberts and the Onyx Club Sextet playing the music of John Kirby at 8 p.m. Saturday at Smith Theatre on the campus of Howard Community College. Tickets are $20 in advance; $23 at the door. Tickets may be ordered online at www.prjc.org or www.last chancejazz.com. Checks made out to the Potomac River Jazz Club may be mailed to Last Chance Jazz, 11814 Chapel Bells Way, Clarksville 21029.

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