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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

As promised........the John Kirby list.....

John Kirby

John Kirby (December 31, 1908 – June 14, 1952), was a jazz double-bassist who also played trombone and tuba.

Kirby may have been born in Winchester, Virginia, although other sources say he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, orphaned, and adopted.  Kirby hit New York at 17, but after his trombone got stolen, he switched to tuba. Some link him to Baltimore in 1926, but he seems to have been based in New York until moving to California shortly before his death.

Kirby joined Fletcher Henderson's orchestra as a tuba player in 1929. In the early 1930s, he performed some amazingly complicated tuba work on a number of Henderson's recordings. Kirby picked up on the double-bass at the time when tuba was falling out a favor as jazz bands' primary bass instrument (this was unusual, because few tuba players continued their role in the orchestra by switching to double-bass).

About 1933 Kirby left Henderson and played with Chick Webb (twice), back with Henderson, and with Lucky Millinder. He briefly led a quartet in 1935 but generally kept busy as bassist in others' groups.

Securing a gig at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, Kirby really got going as a bandleader in 1937, although in the first Onyx Club lineup, singer-drummer Leo Watson got featured billing.   Soon Kirby's sextet was known as the Onyx Club Boys, and it took the shape it would basically hold until World War II, usually with Kirby on bass, Buster Bailey on clarinet, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Russell Procope on alto sax, Billy Kyle on piano, and O'Neill Spencer on drums.

"The Biggest Little Band in the Land," as its P.R. called it, began recording in August 1937 and immediately had something of a hit with a swing version of "Loch Lomond." The group's name would vary with time and depending on who was officially credited as session leader: John Kirby and His Onyx Club Boys, John Kirby and His Orchestra, Buster Bailey and His Rhythm Busters, Buster Bailey and His Sextet. This would become one of the more significant "small groups" in the Big Band era and was also notable for making the first recording of Shavers's song "Undecided". Vocals were often performed by Maxine Sullivan, who became Kirby's wife in 1938 (divorced 1941).

Kirby tended toward a lighter, classically influenced style of jazz, often referred to as chamber jazz, which has both strong defenders and ardent critics. He was very prolific and extremely popular from 1938-1941, but World War II took away Kyle and Procope; bad emotional health ruined Spencer, who died from tuberculosis in 1944. Nevertheless, Kirby kept trying to lead a group in clubs and in the studio, occasionally managing to attract such talents as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Clyde Hart, Budd Johnson, and Zutty Singleton.

As Kirby's career declined, he drank too much, and he was beset by diabetes. After the war Kirby got the surviving sextet members back, with Sarah Vaughan as vocalist, but this didn't last long. He had one last hope with a December 1950 concert at Carnegie Hall, again reuniting with Bailey plus drummer Sid Catlett, but the small turnout "crushed Kirby's spirit and badly damaged what little was left of his career."   Kirby moved to Hollywood, California, where he died just before a planned comeback.

In 1993 Kirby was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. Unlike other then-popular "novelty" jazz groups (like Raymond Scott), the Kirby sextet is not particularly well remembered today, although in New York the Wayne Roberts Sextet  (formerly the Onyx Club Sextet) pays tribute, and in France it is commemorated by the band Kirby Memory, with vocals by Flora Sicot. His small-group, light-jazz style is a great example of how swing can also be elegant.

Soooo.........either folks like Kirby, or they don't. There's a lot of opinion on both sides. Here is what I have........not a complete list of every thing they released, selections where he appeared  on other peoples' recordings, and of all the transcriptions available, but still quite a nice sized list. Enjoy.

Oh, and, other than the next installment of the Fletcher Henderson list coming up.......look for one coming of Maxine Sullivan, and possibly some Rosemary Clooney on the near horizon :)

Andiology 1940
Anitra's dance (5-19-1039)
Arabian nightmare 1941
Beethoven riffs   1941
Begin the Beguine (radio transcription)
Birth of the blues  (radio transcription)
Blue fantasy 1941
Blue skies 1939
Blues in the night (w/ Larry Adler on harmonica)
Blues petite (radio transcription)
Blues petite 2
Bounce of the sugar plum fairy 1941
Bugler's dilemna (radio transcription)
Bugler's dilemna
By the waters on Minnetonka (10-28-38)
Can't help lovin' dat man (radio transcription)
Can't we be friends? 1
Can't we be friends? 2
Charlie's prelude (radio transcription)
Close shave 1941
Comin' back
Dawn on the desert (01-09-1939)
Do you savvy 1944 (V-Disc)
Do you savvy
Double talk
Double talk 2 (radio transcription)
Down on the Riminent (radio transcription)
Drink to me only with thine eyes (05-19-39)
Duke's idea (radio transcription)
Echoes of Harlem
Effervescent blues 1939

Fantasy impromptu (08-10-1939)
Fifi's rhapsody
Fifi's rhapsody 2 (radio transcription)
Flamingo (radio transcription)
From A Flat to C (10-28-1938)
Front and center (07-28-39)
I may be wrong (but I think your wonderful (08-10-1939)
Ida! sweet as apple cider
It feels so good (01-09-1939)
It feels so good (07-28-39)
It's only a paper moon
Jumpin' in the Pump Room 1940
Keep smilin' (Keep Laughin', Be Happy) 1942
Lass with the delicate air (w/ Maxine Sullivan)
Last night a nightingale woke me (w/ Maxine Sullivan)
Little brown jug (10-12-1939)
Manhattan serenade (radio transcription)
Milumbu 1940
Minute waltz (05-19-1939)
Mood in question
Move over
Night whispers
No blues at all
Nocturne (10-12-1939)
Oh no John (w/ Maxine Sullivan)
Old fashioned love (radio transcription)
Opus 5 (07-28-1939)
Pastel blue (10-28-1938)
Prelude for a trumpet
Rehearsin' for a nervous breakdown 1938
Revolutionary etude
Rose Room (in sunny Roseland) (08-10-1939)
Royal Garden blues 1

20th Century closet
9:20 Special
Chloe 1940
Humoresque 1939
I could make you love me 1946 (w/ Sarah Vaughan)
I'm scared 1946 (w/ Sarah Vaughan)
Impromptu 1939
It might as well be spring 1946  (w/ Sarah Vaughan)
One alone 1939
Royal Garden blues 1939
Rustle of Spring
Schubert's serenade
See what you did (radio transcription)
Sextet from Lucia (radio transcription)
Shoo shoo baby (radio transcription)
St. Louis blues
St. Louis blues (w/ Larry  Adler on harmonica)
Sweet Georgia Brown
The peanut vendor
The turf (01-09-1939)
Toselli's serenade
Tunisian trail
Tunisian trail (radio transcription)
Tweed me
Whirlaway (radio transcription)
Wondering where (radio transcription)
Wondering where
Zooming at the Zombie


  1. Kirby has fallen into something near oblivion, whereas his contemporary and parallel Raymond Scott has been considerably revived and feted in the last 15 years.

    Kirby's sextet music of the late 30s appears to be considered quaint, almost effete, full of "trivialisations" of the classics.

    And yet I find it not dissimilar to the output of Scott's sextette of the same decade. Both featured excellent musicianship (from a usually muted trumpet, clarinet and alto (Kirby) or tenor (Scott) together with piano trio), tight and attractive arrangements well carried off.

    Perhaps Scott's is a bit quirkier - though I fear the bigger difference is the the way the coincident vagaries of taste have recently swept towards short-attention, colourful cartoons, and away from less bold elegance.

    (Of course, Scott, had the advantage of greter longevity, and developed two or three further
    strings to his bow - a rather more conventional
    big band, generally with a very much more conventional repertoire, and the beginnings of synthesizerdom with (ugh! primitive) industrial advertisements and (aw!) baby sleepybye sounds)

    Don't get me wrong, I like both bands very much, and their high quality musics of the 30s especially.

    But I think Kirby's music, with the excellent Charlie Shavers and Buster Bailey playing blinders, is unjustly neglected. Only a few of the tunes are archaically corny - most have a zip, a humour, and affable melodiousness about them, some go beyond that and are memorable (Blue Skies, Echoes, Rehearsin' Zooimg being four examples). If only you open your ears. :D

  2. Quaint....a good word for it. I like it, though . True about being neglected, but it certainly is in a category of it's own for the period, like Scott.

  3. Any chance of this being uploaded again? Kirby is VERY hard to find.....

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  5. Got a John Kirby 78 rpm record on the Asch label Side A: K.C. Caboose, side B: J.K. Special. Asch Records New York, 3573.