Thursday, December 17, 2015

John Kirby Meets Beethoven

John Kirby
Since we're celebrating Ludwig Van Beethoven's 245th birthday today, it seems interesting to remember that there are numerous jazz compositions that have been inspired by—and in some cases are plain rip-offs of—classical themes, not to mention jazzmen like Benny Goodman who have dabbled in classical music and classically trained musicians like Andre Previn who have tried their hand at jazz. In fact, Igor Stravinsky was so fascinated by the sound of the Woody Herman Orchestra that he famously composed an Ebony Concerto for Herman in 1945. The examples are too many to list thoroughly here, but one of them is particularly interesting because it concerns a composition by Beethoven himself—John Kirby's "Beethoven Riffs On," based on the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Born in Baltimore in 1908, Kirby was a tuba player who switched to bass and played with Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb before forming his own group, the John Kirby Sextet, which was extremely popular at the height of the Swing Era, in the late 1930s and early '40s.

The John Kirby Sextet on stage.
Critical appreciation of Kirby's small band has been mixed. Although he admires some of its soloists, such as Charlie Shavers or Buster Bailey, critic Gunther Schuller considers that the sextet "can in balance barely be considered in the realm of jazz." Ben Ratliff is somewhat more appreciative of Kirby's music, but he still calls the sextet "a gimmick band." While this is true, it must be admitted that Kirby's gimmick was witty and exciting and that many of his recordings have actually stood the test of time. His was a tightly arranged band that oozes with enthusiasm and musicianship, and all the members of the sextet usually sound like they're having fun, whether they're romping through an Irving Berlin tune or jazzing up classical compositions by Frédéric Chopin or Beethoven. One of their most memorable treatments of a classical piece is "Beethoven Riffs On," cut in New York City on January 15, 1941, with Kirby on bass, Shavers on trumpet, Bailey on clarinet, Russell Procope on alto sax, Billy Kyle on piano, and O'Neil Spencer on drums. Clocking in at just under three minutes, this recording is a classic example of Kirby's sound, heavily based on ensemble playing and musical gimmickry, but still allowing a couple of solid, though brief solos by Procope and Shavers. All these years later, it still comes across as engaging and inventive, and I have no doubt that Beethoven himself would have approved of this syncopated version of his composition had he had a chance to listen to it! Unfortunately, despite the huge success of records such as 1938's "Undecided," by the mid-1940s Kirby's recording activities were in steep decline and he disbanded around 1945. He did attempt a failed comeback in the early 1950s, and following complications from diabetes, he passed away in 1952.

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