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Clarinetist Kenny Davern Dies at 71

Once hailed by the New York Times as “the finest jazz clarinetist playing today”-he was able to hit notes far above the normal register-Kenny Davern passed away from cardiac arrest on the night of Dec. 12. He was 71.

Born John Kenneth Davern on Jan. 7, 1935 in Huntingon, N.Y., he decided to become a jazz musician, picking up the baritone saxophone, after hearing Pee Wee Russell for the first time. At the ripe age of 19, he joined Jack Teagarden’s band and made his first recordings within a few days. Later in the ’50s, Davern worked with Phil Napoleon, Pee Wee Erwin, Will Bill Davison and Buck Clayton, eventually joining the Dukes of Dixieland in 1962. Stints with Red Allen, Eddie Condon, Ruby Braff, Ralph Sutton, Yank Lawson and Dick Wellstood followed in the ensuing decade.

By the late ’60s, Davern learned the soprano saxophone and switched mostly between the soprano and clarinet throughout the ’70s, co-leading the band Soprano Summit with Bob Wilber. After the group disbanded in 1979, Davern concentrated solely on the clarinet, further honing his skill and solidifying his arguably unmatched position as master of the instrument.

Davern recorded for many various labels throughout his career, such as Arbors, Music Masters, Jazzology, and Chiaroscuro. Though he was devoted to traditional jazz and swing, Davern occasionally ventured into avant-garde territory, collaborating with Steve Lacy, Steve Swallow and Paul Motian in 1978 on a free-jazz-infused album appropriately titled Unexpected. In November, he released his latest album, No One Else But Kenny, on Sackville.

[Photo by Barry Quick]

Originally Published