The jazz community was stunned to learn of the unexpected demise of clarinetist Kenny Davern, born John Kenneth O’Davorin, who died of a heart attack on Dec. 12, 2006, at the age of 71. This Sunday, that community is coming together to celebrate the life of a man whom drummer John Trentacosta, one of the event’s organizers, calls “a true master.”
Hyperbole it’s not. Davern has been hailed as the savior of the jazz clarinet, an instrument that had been marginalized as traditional jazz gave way to bebop. Although comfortable in progressive jazz settings, as his appearance with the Instant Composers Pool at the Outpost last year demonstrated, Davern was especially noted for his work in traditional jazz, where melody and swing are the governing principles.
There he carved out a unique sound rooted in but unfettered by tradition. Whether the music was hot or sweet, Davern blew with passion and extraordinary nuance, dedicating himself to the profound and surprising insights of the subconscious (see sidebar).
Davern moved from New England to Sandia Park with his wife Elsa five years ago. The man who turned down a spot in Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars—with characteristic mordancy, he said he didn’t want to be Armstrong’s “lip rest”—was soon playing local venues. He appeared at Bumble Bee Bob’s Baja Grill in Santa Fe monthly for the last three and half years with a group headed by Trentacosta.
“Musically, Kenny became a mentor to me. He just knew so much,” says Trentacosta, who comes from a bebop background. “And it really opened my eyes: It doesn’t matter what genre you’re in. It’s not that anything that’s more modern is any hipper than anything that came before.”
“He was a real jazz guy,” says Mark Weber, musician, poet, record producer and a close friend of Davern. “He went to the heart of a song, and he was always working toward lyricism. He always swang. He tried to get a song cooking—always. But he could play very tenderly and delicately.”
This Sunday’s celebration is free and open to all, says Trentacosta, adding that Tom Guralnick, the Outpost’s executive director, has donated use of the space.
Among the events planned are an audiovisual presentation from Jazz of Enchantment, a radio series and website (www.newmexicojazz.org) produced by Paul Ingles. The presentation will include a segment from a Weber/Davern interview and the photos of Genevieve Russell. Photographer Paul Slaughter’s portrait of Davern will also be on display.
A musical set will feature guitarists Howard Alden, Michael Anthony and Jim Fox; clarinetist Eddie Daniels; saxophonist Doug Lawrence; singer Terrie Richards Alden; and Trentacosta. Hopes are high that cornetist Warren Vaché will also be able to join the group. Some expenses are being covered by Bumble Bee Bob Weil’s Santa Fe Jazz Foundation and Mat Domber, president of Arbors Records, for which Davern recorded.
Interviewing Davern for Jazz of Enchantment, Mark Weber asks him what he’s working on when he’s improvising. Before Weber can complete the question, Davern jumps in:
“I ain’t working on nothing. All I’m trying to do is get to my subconscious [as fast] as I can, just to get away from myself. And then I don’t know what happens. Whatever happens, happens. I plan nothing ... It doesn’t matter if I’m playing ‘Three Blind Mice’ or ‘Lady Be Good.’ The thing that’s going to happen, if it does happen, is that I’ve stepped out of myself, and I’m watching myself dance with whatever’s going on.”
The Kenny Davern Memorial Concert and Celebration will be held Sunday, Feb. 4, at the Outpost Performance Space. Call 268-0044 for details.