Wonderful, Wonderful Jazz
by Russell Procope - Jazz Journal May 1967 Vol. 20 No. 5
The John Kirby band! Now the Kirby band for a start was a great organisation. The thing that has puzzled so many people is how these things come about, how this band in those days came to be formed—a jazz band playing to a more or less society audience. Some famous man once said 'there is no formula for success' - things just happen, you can't plan them. You can get together all the ingredients, but if a certain set of circumstances don't coalesce the ingredients, without outside interference, so that things are allowed to go their own ways, then nothing happens. And I suppose that happens to many things otherwise than music. But in this particular case, the John Kirby band, it happened this way. John Kirby got the idea of getting a band together - this was of course before I joined the group-and took them down- town for a gig. Now almost before he was ready for it, the job got to be more than he bargained for-in other words what it required was better musicians, instead of just a kind of honky-tonk jazz band. So Kirby found it necessary to change the personnel, as and when he could find the musicians he wanted and thought would ﬁt into his scheme of things.
Well, this particular place was the Onyx Club on 52nd street - a famous jazz spot situated on that street they named Swing Street. Now at that time Stuff Smith the violinist was all the rage. He was playing at the Onyx at that time but it seemed that he was getting a bit too big for the place, and so certain suggestions were made and John Kirby took over. To begin with he had O'Neil Spencer, Buster Bailey and Charlie Shavers, then along came Billy Kyle and myself - I was the last to join the group. I had been over in Europe for a while and was around looking for a place to get my reed wet, when this opportunity occurred, so I joined. I was with the Cotton Club Show over here in the band led by Teddy Hill - it was a good show and it was a good band, but I left in 1938 when we got back to New York.
Now Stuff Smith he was put back in the Onyx Club, but the man who ran the club he was clever enough to recognise the potential of the Kirby band and didn't entirely want to let us go, so he kept us on at half salary for the time until Stuff Smith ﬁnished his contract. And in those days that was really something. So what we did was to go to the club and work out numbers and rehearse in the afternoons. We'd sit round in a circle, with a little refreshment, and work on certain arrangements and ideas we all had. That was the time that canned beer ﬁrst came on the market I remember. We'd just sit around, work out parts, and music and so forth, until we had a real good library. Nothing written mind you, but we rehearsed these things and played them so often at these sittings, that when we came to open at the club, we had a well rehearsed programme all ready.
It was the same with our first records. They sound as if they were written, but all it was, was rehearsal - they don't sound as if they were thrown together, but in a way they were. But Charlie Shavers was a very brilliant young man (and still is as a matter of fact) - he was about 19 years of age at the time - and he wrote-out eventually a whole lot of these arrangements we used. So too did Billy Kyle. The band soon started to get quite a bit of recognition around New York and the people at CBS and NBC, with whom we had a sustaining programme on the radio (no sponsor you know), they liked our music well enough to give us a radio show, once a week. Eventually we got a sponsor, the shows were increased to twice and sometimes three times a week, and we were away. And that was the somewhat unusual way this outﬁt got under way. You can't plan a thing like that; it just happened.
I played with Kirby for six years from 1937 to 1943. The war was on then and finally they got around to my number. Billy Kyle had gone into the Army before me, and so the band finally disbanded. O'Neil Spencer died in 1944, Billy Kyle went just recently and John Kirby moved out to the Coast where he died in 1952.
I player a job or two with them after I left the army but it wasn't the same. Then I did a lot of things, here and there and everywhere before I joined Duke in 1946, April. As a matter of fact the circumstance which led me to join Duke was quite extraordinary. I was at home one evening when Duke rang and asked if I could play a broadcast with him, just for this one night, Well I played that one night, and here I am, twenty years later still with him! So again I say, you can't plan these things, they just happen.
I suppose I fitted into the band, made the sound Duke needed or something. I hope there are enough people still around who like the type of clarinet playing I indulge in and trust there will be enough people coming along who like it. The style supposedly originated from New Orleans and fundamentally I hope it is a style which won't become extinct for want of people who will carry on the style - indeed perhaps even develop it! I play this way, because I came along, heard it and liked that way of playing. I liked it before I ever owned a clarinet - that's true. You see my musical background was a little varied. As a child I played a violin, but it had exactly nothing to do with jazz - in fact I didn't know anything about jazz at all. I wasn't introduced to jazz until I was about fourteen or fifteen years old.
My father he used to buy records by Mamie Smith and her jazz band, by the Memphis Five and even by Ted Lewis. He and I would sit down and listen to those old records. He was very keen on music, though he didn't play anything - but he studied it and would buy all kinds of records, including many by the great opera stars - and so I got to listen to all kinds of music. But this jazz, and particularly this type of clarinet playing, which quite a few played in those days, such as Jimmy Noone, Albert Nicholas and you know the original jazz players, those who were content to play jazz and not try and mess around, they were the ones I liked.
Now of course if something else comes along one is supposed to be able to play it, in an academic sense, in a broad sense. But if you are going to play jazz, then I think, despite the fact that some people say one can't categorise music, and say that this is this and that is that, I think one has to do that, and that's my ﬁrm opinion. I strongly believe that jazz is jazz and just that! Maybe one can vary it a bit, but when you get too far out, then it ceases to be jazz anymore. I think with most of these people who get too far out, it's just a quest, a quest for something new, and that's pretty hard to do. You can foster a style, and develop it along your own lines, but after all, one has musically always got to get back to the same basics. One can add up to a million, but to get there one has still got to use one, two, three, four.
Jazz I think is a wonderful, wonderful creation. People who just blew for the pleasure of it, added a little of this and a little of that to it, to make it a little more complete. And many of the great jazz solos, and particularly the clarinet solos, descend from marches and even from classical selections. The old players they just played what they heard, for there was nothing written for them. Actually many of them knew nothing about music, but they just played and often played very well, because they loved the music. So I think one shouldn't lose sight of the fact that jazz has a background. Some jazz is better than others, but I do hope the real jazz with its heritage won't get lost in the shuffle.
People who appear to want to be in the know with the modern playing of instruments profess to be knocked out by what they hear, but I am sure at least half of them don't know what they are listening to. The only reason they say they like it is for the same reason they'd wear a red coat if everyone else wore one. They just don't know what's happening. So many musicians say they want to advance, and I suppose if you look at it that way, then my musical career went backwards. Because what I think they are striving to do, I accomplished when I was a boy and played all the masters on the violin - badly. I still like the sound of the blues, the growling brass and all that side of jazz which spells personality.
The musicians who had personality, they are the ones who made jazz. Personality. As an example, what about Fats Waller's personality, he certainly had it. He was one of my boyhood heroes. I remember one morning I had stayed up late - everybody used to go to bed late, especially in summer time, and up there on 7th Avenue and 132nd Street was a great place to be in those days. It was where the Rhythm Club was, and the Band Box, Big John's and other eating and drinking places. This particular morning, a summer morning around daybreak, come about 4 o'clock, I spotted four pianists walking along arm-in-arm. James P. Johnson, Willie Gaut, the Beetle and Fats Waller were ahead of me on their way from one bar to the next. These bars were really speak-easies, but they all had a piano in the back room. These four were working their way up one side of the Avenue, and then down the other, visiting all the bars and working a while in each one. All the pianists of those days used to do that thing - they had a kind of clinic to discuss any new tunes and then play them. One of them would start and then another of them would break in saying he was sure he could do it better - and so on and so on.
And of course they brought business to any bar they visited, and so picked up a few drinks, and maybe something else as well. I followed them this particular morning and after we had visited quite a few places, suddenly Fats became aware that I was following them around; he kind of sensed my presence. 'Hey, hey,' he said 'you're crazy, why don't you go home, kid, ain't you got a nickle for the subway?' He knew I lived downtown, and the fare was 5 cents. 'No. Mr. Waller,' I told him. 'I just wanted to follow you all around and listen to the music.' Well he grinned at me and told me it was alright. That made me feel very good. Fats had noticed me, and from that time I was in, one of the 'in-crowd', which enabled me to listen to them any time I wanted to - and that was often.
Fats was a great character—full of fun. I don't ever remember seeing him when he wasn't laughing and feeling good. When he was up and around he was a very jolly person, very jolly - and anyone with him was jolly as well! And you know he was also a very interesting person, when you got him talking. But I have found that on the whole all jazz people are interesting. They have that urge and talent, and the ability to invent, because jazz is invention. I mean that jazz musicians go through life inventing like they do on their instruments which by necessity makes them apart from most ordinary people.
Sometimes of course this 'apartness' takes them in the wrong direction, but not all of them. Some of them are really great people, really truly great, who would have been great not only in music, but in any other line of the arts. Duke of course, Benny Carter and quite a number of musicians have that certain know-how which would have taken to the top whatever they had been - you might call it applied personality. Many musicians have outside interests at which they apply themselves with talent. Jack Teagarden, one of my favourite musicians, was a good engineer, and there are lots of others who are really clever at their hobbies. (I must break in here to say, talking about Teagarden I have one record of his that I would guard with my life. Have you ever heard his record of Lover? What a record!) Anyway the point I want to make is that most good jazz musicians are by nature adaptable, and they just have to be that way to make out as good jazz musicians.