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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Andy Kirk

The three great Kansas City bands that achieved national recognition during the Swing Era were Count Basie, Jay McShann and Andy Kirk. And although they all recorded for Decca Records (one of the big three companies at the time - the others being Victor and Columbia [Brunswick/Vocalion]) and were placed in the general stylistic category, each found its own unique niche. In the subsequent years, the McShann and Basie bands have been celebrated first and foremost for the conjunction of a brilliant soloist (McShann had Charlie Parker, Basie featured Lester Young and a host of other exceptional men) with a dynamic rhythm section. It's difficult to understand today, but at the time, the Kirk was thought of as one of the more "sweet" of the jazz-oriented big bands, due largely to their subtle dynamic range and the success of vocalist Pha Terrell, terribly popular for his hushed and intimate way with a ballad (none of which alas, found their way into this largely instrumental collection.) As you will hear, the innovative writing and playing of pianist Mary Lou Williams was at the core of the Kirk band's best work. Never heavy, always swinging and blessed with a superior melodic conception, Williams' arrangements are the very definition of elegance, as is the work of the band's other major soloists, first and foremost tenor saxophonist Dick Wilson.

In an era when tenor saxophonists were placed in either the Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins camp (with the notable exception of Bud Freeman and his small, but fervent group of admirers), Dick Wilson defied convention. His light and malleable tone is usually the first thing brought up on the rare occasions when he is remembered these days, but his individuality lies beyond the aural surface in the realm of musical ideas and their logical development. He knew how to begin a solo, and give a coherent middle and ending - a seemingly basic tool for improvisers, but one that has always been a rather rare commodity. Listen to Wilson throughout these recordings, and on repeated hearings his solos retain their freshness while gaining more and more of that inevitable quality that is one of the benchposts of greatness in this truly American idiom.

Wilson never grabs you by the neck, as some soloists do. His approach is more patient and melds perfectly with the band's approach, which was by and large the same. This may account for the aforementioned perception of the Kirk unit as something other than a "hot" band, but as Count Basie was to enjoy great success proving just a year after Kirk's initial breakthrough, you could swing hard and quietly at the same time. There is also an ensemble blend, balance and general ease that may have disconcerted those looking for a more rough-hewn sound from a mid-western band. There was also the latent modernity in many of Williams' arrangements, many of which helped lay the foundations of modern jazz. As she told Ira Gitler in his definitive Swing to Bop: "In Kansas City, we'd jam all night until seven or eight in the morning and then we'd go to somebody's house or speakeasy. There would be a piano there, and the musicians would have their girlfriends with them, and they're a little tired, and they're resting up for another session. I'd sit there andplay modern harmonies and things that came to me, just as modern as what you hear now. It would seem that they'd some out of the sky...After awhile it became so that after I'd start an arrangement they would copy certain things. Or like if it was a club I was playing in, while I'm playing I may play something that's never been played before in the strain of a lick." The evolution of the music during this magical era in Kanasa City was obviously a very loose and natural thing.

After the Kirk band began recording for Decca in early 1936, it was only a matter of time before other bandleaders began beseeching Williams to write for them. One of the first offers she accepted was from Benny Goodman, and during 1937 she wrote a handful of originals for the Goodman band, then approaching it's zenith, what with Gene Krupa, Harry James, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson aboard. One of them was "Roll 'Em" , among the first and most tasteful of all the big band boogie-woogie adaptions. One small but interesting piece of jazz history is resolved with the inclusion of "The Count" in this set. When Goodman recorded the same arrangement 10 months later, it was credited to his pianist Mel Powell. It is now clear that the work was Mary Lou's - Cootie Williams, then with BG, even copied the original trumpet solo note for note! Kirk went on to write for Duke Ellington, which was surely one the accomplishments that must have brought her the greatest satisfaction. As the years went by, Williams served as a mentor to succeeding generations of young players, from Thelonious Monk to Dizzy Gillespie and legions more.

One area she explored thoroughly in the mid-'40s was writing for small combos, and the two septet tracks from November, 1940 (Baby Dear and Harmony Blues) reveal her to already have been a past master. So many small groups that were taken out of larger ensembles seems to be attempting to equal the power of the full band - a losing proposition if ever there was one. Williams side-steps the issue completely by altering her conception to fit the assignment at hand, and consequently the effect is one of full realization of her ideas, which on many levels were more complex than they were for the big band. While creating an atmosphere of relaxation and space, there are modulations, interludes, backgrounds, and most amazingly, the transcendence of the three minute limit imposed by the 78 recordings of the day. "Baby Dear" especially packs such a pungent and detailed musical message that it appears on first hearing to be much longer than two minutes and forty-five seconds. Albert Murray, writing about Count Basie in his seminal Stompin' The Blues, quoted a style sheet for the old Kansas City Star that Ernest Hemingway learned from - it could equally apply to William's spare but lucid way of arranging: "Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative. Never use old slang...slang to be enjoyable must be fresh..."

It has always been a mystery why the Kirk band didn't enjoy greater commercial success. Certainly, there were lesser groups who far outdistanced the Clouds of Joy in popularity, but yet didn't possess one-tenth of their originality or musicality. Such are the vagaries of the music business. It's as much being in the right place at the right time as anything else, and for whatever reason, Andy Kirk's band never received what it truly deserved. Luckily for us, they recorded prolifically from 1936-1941, and it is certain that their reputation will only grow as the years go by.

 

 

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