Born: December 31, 1908 | Died: June 14, 1942 Primary Instrument: Bass, acoustic
John Kirby led a most unusual group during the height of the big-band era, a sextet comprised of trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey, altoist Russell Procope, pianist Billy Kyle, drummer O'Neil Spencer and his own bass. Although Shavers and Bailey could be quite extroverted, the tightly arranged ensembles tended to be very cool-toned and introverted yet virtuosic.
Kirby, originally a tuba player, switched to bass in 1930 when he joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. He was one of the better bassists of the 1930s, playing with Henderson (1930-33 and 1935-36) and Chick Webb's big band (1933-35).
John Kirby was born in Winchester, VA in 1908 and died in Hollywood, California in 1952. His musical gifts were recognized early and he was encouraged to pursue them. As a young child he was given a trombone and he quickly became proficient-- so proficient, in fact, that in 1924 at the age of 16, with only his trombone and a few dollars to his name, Kirby picked up and hitchhiked to New York City. Unfortunately, on his first night in the big city, his trombone was stolen and he was forced to take all sorts of menial jobs to survive.
Despite these hardships though, Kirby somehow managed to acquire a tuba and soon became so proficient a player of this instrument that by 1929, he was good enough to join the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. He then switched to the string bass, which was common for tubists at that time, and shortly thereafter became one of the most in-demand bassists in town.
In 1937, having worked for many years in small groups and the big bands of Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter and Lucky Millinder, Kirby made his breakthrough from sideman to leader -- which ultimately led to both his personal success and national fame. With an as yet nonexistent band, Kirby approached Joe Helbock, part owner of the Onyx Club on 52nd Street, for an engagement. Kirby, notoriously charming and affable was evidently first rate at stating his case: Helbock gave Kirby's band an audition. Kirby went back to Harlem to Lenox Avenue's Brittwood Bar and Grill (adjacent to the Savoy) and took the personnel he wanted out of the Blue Rhythm Band. As his soon-to-be-wife Maxine Sullivan stated, he went into the band and left with it. He took Pete Brown, Frank Newton, Don Frye and others with him as a group to the Onyx Club audition and, of course, landed the job.
An all-star sextet was eventually formed consisting of Charlie Shavers-trumpet (usually muted), Russell Procope-saxophone, Buster Bailey-clarinet, Billy Kyle-piano and O'Neil Spencer-drums. During the sextet's initial 11 month's residency, the Onyx Club Boys gained a wide reputation as The Biggest Little Big Band In The Land. The seventh member of this group was singer, Maxine Sullivan. Sullivan gained wide recognition with her jazz adaptations of Loch Lomond and Annie Laurie which became immediate popular hits. These songs were recorded in 1937 with an earlier assemblage of the John Kirby group with Claude Thornhill/piano, Frank Newton/trumpet, Buster Bailey/clarinet, Babe Russin/tenor, Pete Brown/alto and O'Neil Spencer.
The sextet subsequently worked at many New York clubs including: The Famous Door, Fifi's, The Pump Room, Monte Carlo Club, Beachcomber, The Hickory House as well as the New York World's Fair, Zombie Club (summer 1940). On December 20th, 1950 the original sextet (with the exception of Sid Catlett, who replaced the late O'Neil Spencer) re-formed for a final concert at Carnegie Hall.
He tended toward a lighter classical influenced style of jazz, which has strong defenders and critics. He was very prolific and popular from 1938-1941. After World War II his career declined and he died in Hollywood, California, just before a planned comeback. In 1993 he was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. Unlike other then-popular novelty jazz groups (like Raymond Scott), Kirby is not particularly well remembered today; his small group light jazz style is a great example how swing can also be quite elegant.
By 1937 Kirby had his own group at the Onyx Club; Frankie Newton and Pete Brown passed through the band before the personnel was set. With Maxine Sullivan (Kirby's wife at the time) offering occasional vocals, the John Kirby Sextet was quite popular during 1938-42. Shavers's Undecided became a hit and the band's abilities to swing the classics caught on.
The sextet gradually declined in the 1940s. Spencer became ill and was replaced by Specs Powell and later Bill Beason, Kyle was drafted and Procope was replaced by George Johnson. By 1945 (with Shavers's departure to join Tommy Dorsey), the only original members still in the group were Bailey and Kirby himself. The following year the band disbanded and despite some attempts by the bassist to form another similar sextet (including a poorly attended Carnegie Hall reunion in 1950), John Kirby was never able to duplicate his earlier successes. Classics has reissued all of Kirby's prime recordings.