For those composers looking for ways of creating new ways of performing traditional material, there is no better example than the remarkable John Kirby. Few people have heard of him today, but back in the years just prior to World War II, Kirby had one of the most inventive, swinging little jazz units on the scene. Many of his recordings were based on familiar classical compositions, which resulted in Kirby fathering the sub-genre that was called “chamber jazz.”
Born in Winchester,Virginia on the last day of 1908, Kirby got his start as a trombonist, until his instrument was stolen, upon which he switched to the tuba. He joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in 1929 but switched to string bass after the tuba fell out of favor in jazz bands. In 1937, Kirby found his way to New York’s Fifty-Second Street, where there was a greater concentration of hip jazz clubs than anywhere else in the country. It soon became known as “Swing Street,” and although the clubs that lined both sides of the thoroughfare are long gone, street signs in New York still commemorate the street’s historical heritage. That year, Kirby and clarinetist Buster Bailey joined a small band at the Onyx Club that backed singer Maxine Sullivan in a jazzy arrangement of the old Scottish folk song, “Loch Lomond.” Sullivan and Kirby soon formed a musical partnership and married in 1938.
While playing at the Onyx Club, Kirby formed his own six-piece band that became known as the Onyx Club Boys, which had their first recording session for Vocalion on October 28, 1938. Initially, their repertoire consisted of tunes commonly recorded by the larger swing bands, including “April in Paris” and “Am I Blue,” but a change occurred at their session the following May 19, when they recorded three infectious, swinging arrangements by trumpeter Charlie Shavers of folk and classical tunes, inspired by the success of Sullivan’s record. The first was “Anitra’s Dance” from “Peer Gynt” by Edvard Grieg. Also included were the 19th century English tune “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” and Frederic Chopin’s popular “Minute Waltz.”
Between 1938 and 1941, Kirby and his band recorded prolifically, sprinkling their repertoire of original compositions with effervescent musical cameos of traditional folk and classical tunes, including “Sextet from ‘Lucia’” (Donizetti), “Humoresque” by Dvorak, the Irish folk song “Molly Malone,” and Serenade by Franz Schubert. Other songs received tongue-in-cheek retitlings, such as “Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”) and “Beethoven Riffs On” (from Symphony No. 7). They broke new ground with their innovative approach to small group jazz, balancing written and improvised segments with swinging variety, charm, and precision. They soon became known as “The Biggest Little Band in the Land.”
Unfortunately, Kirby’s fame was short-lived. World War II robbed the group of pianist Billy Kyle and saxophonist Russell Procope, who were drafted, disrupting the band’s unique chemistry. Kirby’s career declined rapidly after World War II and he began to drink heavily and contracted diabetes. Attempting a comeback, he performed with a new band at Carnegie Hall but the dismal turnout crushed his spirit. He moved to Hollywood in 1950, tried one more comeback, but died in 1952 at the age of 43.
John Kirby proved that with a sharply focused musical vision and the right personnel, he could not only work wonders with public domain music, but create an entirely new sub-genre of jazz in the process. Today, composers can learn from Kirby’s example in not setting up barriers to exclude any kind of music.
We’ll conclude with a rare clip from a 1947 film called “Sepia Cinderella” which shows the Kirby Sextet in action, playing an original work called “Musicomania.”