John Kirby (musician)

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John Kirby
John Kirby, Buster Bailey, Washington DC, May 1946 (Gottlieb).jpg
John Kirby and Buster Bailey, Washington D.C., ca. May 1946.
Photo: William P. Gottlieb.
Background information
Born (1908-12-31)December 31, 1908
Winchester, Virginia (see text)
Died June 14, 1952(1952-06-14) (aged 43)
Hollywood, California
Genres Jazz
Instruments Double-bass, trombone, tuba

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


Kirby's early life is largely unknown; he may have been born in Winchester, Virginia, although other sources state he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, orphaned, and adopted.[1] He began working in New York at 17, initially playing trombone until it was stolen, when he switched to tuba. Some sources link him to Baltimore in 1926, but he seems to have been based in New York until moving to California shortly before his death.[2]

Bands and recording[edit]

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. 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.

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.[3] 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 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.[4]

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."[5] 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[6] (formerly the Onyx Club Sextet) pays tribute, while in France the sextet is commemorated by the band Kirby Memory,[7] with vocals by Flora Sicot[2]. 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.


With Benny Goodman


  1. ^ Taylor, J.R. (1978). John Kirby: The Biggest Little Band, 1937-1941. CBS Records and Smithsonian Institution. p. liner notes 1. 
  2. ^ Taylor. p. 4.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  3. ^ "Sunday's Highlights-On the Air Today (page 27)". Radio Television Mirror. December 1940. Retrieved 14 July 2010. 
  4. ^ Taylor. p. 4.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. ^ Taylor. p. 4.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ Video on YouTube

External links[edit]