Kirby: One Fine Vacuum Cleaner Or One Fine Swing Musician?

He led one of the most influential small-groups of the swing era and played with such notable bands as Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman. He also scored several hit standards including “Loch Lomond” and “Undecided”. And yet in spite of his innovation and talent, more people are inclined to associate the name “Kirby” with vacuum cleaners than that of double-bassist John Kirby.

John Kirby was born in Virginia in 1908.  At his birth, his mother immediately gave him up for adoption. Raised by a local minister and his wife, Kirby began trombone lessons around the age of nine. As a child he was fascinated with classical music, in particular that of John Sebastian Bach, and the budding young musician learned to sight read at an early age.  Kirby abandoned his formal education before graduating high school, and in 1925 married his first wife Mary (née Moten) and in December of that same year the couple gave birth to a daughter, Yvonne.

In 1927 Kirby encountered trombonist Jimmy Harrison, who persuaded him to switch to the tuba. By 1929 the Kirby family moved to New York and soon thereafter Kirby became a tuba player with Bill Brown & His Brownies. By 1930 Kirby had made enough of a name for himself in jazz circles to be invited to join the Fletcher Henderson organization. In so much as the string bass was rapidly replacing the tuba in popularity, Kirby began taking bass lessons and by 1932 had switched entirely to the double-string bass.

From 1930 to 1933, Kirby made numerous recordings with Fletcher Henderson’s band on such ground-breaking recordings as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The New King Porter Stomp,” and “Yeah Man.” Kirby also recorded with a small group co-led by jazz tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and on a session directed by Horace Henderson. In late 1933, Kirby left the Henderson outfit to play with drummer Chick Webb, before returning to Henderson, and then joining band leader Lucky Millinder. Kirby briefly led his own quartet in 1935, but was generally employed as bassist for bands lead by others at that time.

By 1936, Kirby was a successful and respected sideman in the New York City jazz scene. By 1937, Kirby had secured a coved gig along New York’s famous ‘Swing Street’ at the Onyx Club, located on 52nd Street. This cemented John Kirby’s status as a bandleader. The group was soon known as the Onyx Club Boys, and was made up of a consistent group of musicians until the outbreak of World War Two, including Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Buster Bailey featured on clarinet, Russell Procope on alto saxophone, Billy Kyle on piano, and O’Neil Spencer playing drums. Known casually as “The Biggest Little Band in the Land,” the group landed its first recording contract in August 1937 with a swing version of “Loch Lomond” (which became the first big hit for vocalist and soon-to-be second wife of Kirby, Maxine Sullivan (the pair divorced three years later).

Together, the Kirby group recorded more than 60 sides, the music tending towards a lighter, classically influenced style of jazz, often referred to as chamber jazz, which has both strong defenders and ardent critics. John Kirby loved the blend of muted trumpet, clarinet in its lower register and alto saxophone. Playing in a fashion that came off as “emotionally restrained”, it gave the group the feeling of just-below-the-surface excitement. At the same time, the rhythm section had a light feel with single-note lines at times ringing over the ensembles while Kirby and a quietly supportive drummer O’Neil Spencer kept time.

In 1938, Kirby was invited to join a group of other talented musicians, backing vocalist Billie Holiday. The group was assembled by jazz enthusiast John Hammond and included pianist Teddy Wilson, Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Ben Webster on tenor sax, John Truehart on guitar, Cozy Cole on drums and of course Kirby on string bass. Together, they participated in two recording sessions for Vocalion Records, accompanying Holiday as “Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra.”

From 1938 to 1941, John Kirby remained prolific and popular among swing and jazz enthusiasts. Kirby and his group enjoyed national exposure on their own 30-minute weekly radio program called “Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm” which ran on the CBS Radio Network from April of 1940 to January 1941. The program also featured Maxine Sullivan and the Golden Gate Quartet. Unfortunately, America’s entrance into World War II took away musicians Kyle and Procope, and poor health eliminated Spencer, who passed away from tuberculosis in 1944. In spite of these setbacks in personnel, Kirby continued leading groups in clubs and in the studio, at times attracting such talented giants as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Ben Webster and Budd Johnson.

As the war dragged on, more and more musicians were called up for active duty, and the ability to consistently staff bands became increasingly difficult. As an indirect consequence, Kirby’s career declined, his marriage to Maxine Sullivan collapsed, and Kirby began to drink heavily and suffered from diabetes. After the war, Kirby pulled the surviving sextet members back together, and hired 21 year old Sarah Vaughan as the group’s vocalist. Unfortunately, the reunion did not last.

Invited to perform a concert at the famed Carnegie Hall in December 1950, the event should have represented Kirby’s pinnacle of success (as it was for Benny Goodman who played at the same venue 12 years earlier). Regretfully, the performance only attracted only a small audience, which crushed Kirby’s spirit and badly damaged what little was left of his career. Soon after, Kirby moved to Hollywood, California, where he died in 1952 just prior to another planned comeback. John Kirby was just 43 years old.

The music of the John Kirby Sextet has enjoyed occasional short-lived revivals during the decades since his passing, but unfortunately his place in swing and jazz history has largely been overlooked. Better that the name ‘Kirby’ and his group be recalled as being the “birth of the cool” than one fine if not expensive vacuum cleaner.

John Kirby and Maxine Sullivan have been cited as the first black artists to host a jazz-oriented network radio show. In 1993 Kirby was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

The music of John Kirby is regularly featured on Swing Street Radio.

Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Guy Lombardo’s Chauffeur.