John Kirby (musician)
December 31, 1908|
Winchester, Virginia (see text)
|Died||June 14, 1952
|Instruments||Double-bass, trombone, tuba|
John Kirby was born John Kirk in Winchester, Virginia on 31 December 1908. His mother, Dolly Kirk (died October 1925) gave him up for adoption and he was raised at 442 North Kent Street, by Reverend Washington Johnson and his wife, Nancy.  Kirby was a student at the Winchester Colored School (renamed Douglass school in 1916) and started trombone lessons around 1917 under the guidance of Professor Powell Gibson (principal, math, drama and music teacher). Kirby (after success in New York), stated that Bach's work fascinated him as a kid and that he learned to play music just as it was written. Kirby's formal education ended around 1923. That same year, he met Mary Moten of Airmont, Va. and they married on 25 August 1925. On 14 December 1925, Mary gave birth to Yvonne Constance Kirk. Based on known affiliations (Yvonne, Powell Gibson, Mary Moten and former schoolmate, Anna Bertha), Kirby's father lived in Baltimore and he was a frequent visitor to the Winchester area. By 1936, Kirby was a successful sideman on the New York city jazz scene and his eleven year old daughter, Yvonne (a student at Douglass) heard stories about her successful father from Powell Gibson. 
Bands and recording
Kirby arrived in Baltimore around 1927. There he met trombonist, Jimmy Harrison, saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins and composer, Duke Ellington. Harrison persuaded Kirby to switch from trombone to tuba. Shortly after his arrival to New York, Kirby played tuba with Bill Brown and His Brownies at the Star Ballroom on Forty-Second Street. Later, he performed with pianist, Charlie Sheets at the Bedford Ballroom in Brooklyn and then with John C. Smith's Society Band at Harlem's Alhambra Ballroom. Kirby joined Fletcher Henderson's orchestra as a tuba player in 1929. In the early 1930s, he performed some complicated tuba work on a number of Henderson's recordings, but switched to double-bass when tuba fell out of favor as jazz bands' primary bass instrument. In the early 1930's, Kirby took bass lessons from legendary bassist, Pops Foster and Wellman Braid (bassist with Duke Ellington) About 1933 Kirby left Henderson to play with Chick Webb (twice), before returning to Henderson, and thence joining Lucky Millinder; he briefly led a quartet in 1935, but was usually employed as bassist in others' groups. Jazz enthusiast, John Hammond assembled what he felt was the greatest jazz band ever to record with Billie Holiday and pianist, Teddy Wilson. This band included: Roy Eldridge - trumpet, Ben Webster - tenor sax, John Truehart - guitar, Cozy Cole - drums and Kirby on bass. John Hammond once said," He is by far the best bass player around. It had to be Kirby on the first Teddy Wilson-Billie Holiday recording date."
Securing a gig at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street in 1937 confirmed Kirby's status as a bandleader, although in the first Onyx Club lineup, it was singer-drummer Leo Watson who got featured billing. Kirby's sextet was soon known as the Onyx Club Boys, and took the shape it would basically hold until World War II, usually with:
"The Biggest Little Band in the Land," as its P.R. called it, began recording in August 1937 and immediately enjoyed success 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. The band 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 second wife in 1938 (divorced 1941). In 1938 four members of the group (Shavers, Bailey, Kyle and Kirby) participated in two recording sessions for Vocalion Records (11 May and 23 June) accompanying singer Billie Holiday as Billie Holiday and her Orchestra.
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 health claimed 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 heavily and was beset by diabetes. After the war, Kirby got the surviving sextet members back together, with Sarah Vaughan as vocalist, but the reunion did not last. A concert at Carnegie Hall in December 1950, with Bailey plus drummer Sid Catlett, attracted only a small audience, which "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 well remembered today, although in New York the Wayne Roberts Sextet (formerly the Onyx Club Sextet) pays tribute, while in France the sextet is commemorated by the band Kirby Memory, with vocals by Flora Sicot. In the UK, trumpeter Enrico Tomasso played John Kirby arrangements with his Swing Six at the Naturist Foundation Jazz Festival in 2010, following success at a concert at the Cadogan Hall, London, with a group led by drummer Richard Pite.
Kirby's small-group, light-jazz style is regarded as an example of how swing can also be elegant.
|This section requires expansion. (February 2014)|
With Benny Goodman
- The Complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings (RCA Victor, 1935-39 )
- 1920 Frederick County Census list.
- Williams, Alan (1993). Fall From Grace-The John Kirby Story. Pensacola, Fl.: Alcoral Books. p. 11 thru 28. ISBN 0-9647441-0-4.
- Williams, Alan (1993). Fall From Grace-The John Kirby Story. Pensacola, Fl: Alcoral Books. p. 50. ISBN 0-9647441-0-4.
- "Sunday's Highlights-On the Air Today (page 27)". Radio Television Mirror. December 1940. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
- Taylor. p. 4. Missing or empty
- Taylor. p. 4. Missing or empty
- Video on YouTube
- BBC radio 2
- All about Jazz (mostly negative)
- Columbia University (more positive)
- John Kirby at AllMusic