A John Kirby repertory band

As many folks are probably aware, New York and Los Angeles are in the grips of a "swing" revival. Basically this consists of a number of nightclubs where people in their twenties and thirties get dressed up in retro suits and dresses, put lots of gel in their hair, and dance the jitterbug to music performed by bands like the Cherry Poppin' Dudes. If there is anything qualitatively different to this revival than the teenagers I see around me nowadays wearing bell-bottom jeans and peace medallions, it escapes me. Both seem to be fads focused on style.

Having said that, I decided to take part in the swing revival in my own modest way and went to the Firebird Café on West 46th street to hear the Onyx Club Sextet, which plays the arrangements of John Kirby's late 1930s band. The Onyx Club was located on West 52nd street and Kirby played there often. He and his band were African-Americans, while the group performing at the Firebird were all white.

Now, at first blush this seems like another case of white men ripping off the black man's style, but there's more to this than meets the eye in a Derridean post-structuralist sense. A photo of Kirby's band performing at the Onyx Club in the 1930s depicts the six musicians in white formal dress, like the kind that conductors of symphony orchestras used to wear. Did you ever see Leopold Stokowski conducting in those old Disney movies? That's what I'm talking about, a white tuxedo with tails half-way down their legs just like Stokowski. Moreover, many of the Kirby arrangements, co-written by trumpet player Charlie Shavers, were based on tunes by Dvorak, Chopin or Schubert rather than the blues.

This is not to say that the Kirby band did not cook. With Kirby on bass, Shavers on trumpet, Ellingtonians Buster Bailey and Russell Procope respectively on clarinet and saxophone, Armstrong cohort Billy Kyle on piano, and O'Neill Spencer on drums, the band was rooted in big band traditions. After the first set I chatted with Wayne Roberts, the bass player who leads the Onyx Club Sextet and raised the possibility with him that Kirby's main influence was Bix Beiderbecke, the white cornetist who fronted Paul Whiteman's orchestra in the 1920s, making a facile connection between white classical composers, white jazz musicians and their possible influence on blacks. Roberts clued me in. He said that the main influence on Kirby was Fletcher Henderson, the African-American bandleader who employed him prior to starting his sextet. Which makes perfect sense. After Henderson ran into difficulties keeping a big band going, he went to work as an arranger for Benny Goodman. The distinctive sound of the Benny Goodman orchestra, superficially viewed as a "white" sound, actually was the invention of Fletcher Henderson.

Trumpet player Dick Sudhalter, author of the definitive biography of Bix Beiderbecke, has a new book out titled "Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945" which basically tells the story of neglected Caucasian jazz musicians. At first blush this sounds like a book about underappreciated white basketball players, but I suspect that there's more to this than that. Sudhalter is no racist, but simply is interested in showing how black and white musicians cross-fertilized each other's musical thinking. I had a casual acquaintance with Dick's sister, a flute player, in the Trotskyist movement in the early 1970s. She was fortunate enough to care more about her musical career than politics. I was never lucky enough to be good at anything except Marxist politics.

Speaking of Marxist politics, I found myself dispensing same to young Ben Ratliff, the NY Times Jazz critic, who occupied the table next to mine. I gave him my analysis of the crisis in jazz, which is based heavily on the one put forward by the great Sidney Finkelstein, house musicologist of the CPUSA in "Jazz: a People's Music". Finkelstein says "the creation of art is a social function; that music should be made for people to use." in contrast to "the museum and connoisseur atmosphere that surrounds 'classical' musical culture." However, the dialectic that began to be introduced with Kirby's sextet eventually turned Jazz into an art music itself, disconnected from the masses.

Kirby's attempt to present jazz in classical trappings anticipated the Modern Jazz Quartet, which also performed in formal wear and worked up jazz arrangements of Back and Mozart. More importantly, Kirby's music was to be listened to, rather than danced to. The bebop revolution of the 1940s was an extension of this aesthetic and led to the avant-garde movement of the 1960s, which once and for all severed the connections between jazz musicians, black or white, and the working-class. It became a cerebral music for analysis, rather than one to dance to instinctively (ha! to Andy Austin).

Perhaps the swing revival is an attempt to get back to the roots of what jazz lost. My mother told me about growing up in Kansas City in the 1930s, when she and her friends would go to swing dances with live music by Basie, Lunceford or Goodman. I am more doubtful about the possibilities of turning back the clock. Whatever the art form, swing music or mural-based social realism, unless you have the socio-economic institutions in place to give them some kind of base-superstructure reality, you are going to end up with revivalist kitsch.

That being said, I strongly recommend New Yorkers or visitors to New York to hear the Onyx Club Sextet, which plays on Mondays at the Firebird Café. (Reservations 212-586-0244). I also recommend Don Byron's "Bug Music (Music of the Raymond Scott Quintette, John Kirby & his Orchestra, and The Duke Ellington Orchestra)" or the Kirby group itself performing on Qualiton CD's. Unfortunately, the best Kirby performances were on Columbia vinyl and are now out of print. If you ever see them in an used record shop, buy them. And buy yourself a turntable just to play the records, if you don't own one already--that's how good John Kirby is.