John Kirby (December 31, 1908 – June 14, 1952), was a jazz double-bassist who also played trombone and tuba. In addition to sideman work (prominently with Benny Goodman), Kirby is remembered for leading a successful chamber jazz sextet in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which scored several hit songs including "Loch Lomond" and the debut recording of "Undecided", a jazz standard.
John Kirby was born John Kirk in Winchester, Virginia on 31 December 1908. His mother, Dolly Kirk (died October 1925) gave him up for adoption and he was raised at 442 North Kent Street by Reverend Washington Johnson and his wife, Nancy. Kirby was a student at the Winchester Colored School (renamed Douglass School in 1916) and started trombone lessons around 1917 under the guidance of Professor Powell Gibson (principal, math, drama and music teacher). Kirby (after success in New York), stated that Bach's work fascinated him as a kid and that he learned to play music just as it was written.
Kirby's formal education ended around 1923. That same year, he met Mary Moten of Airmont, Virginia, and they married on 25 August 1925. On 14 December 1925, Mary gave birth to Yvonne Constance Kirk. Based on known affiliations (Yvonne, Powell Gibson, Mary Moten and former schoolmate, Anna Bertha), Kirby's father lived in Baltimore and was a frequent visitor to the Winchester area. By 1936, Kirby was a successful sideman on the New York City jazz scene, and his eleven-year-old daughter, Yvonne (a student at Douglass) heard stories about her successful father from Powell Gibson.
In 1927, Kirby arrived in Baltimore, where he met trombonist Jimmy Harrison, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and composer Duke Ellington. Harrison persuaded Kirby to switch from trombone to tuba. Shortly after his arrival in New York, Kirby played tuba with Bill Brown and His Brownies at the Star Ballroom on Forty-Second Street. Later, he performed with pianist Charlie Sheets at the Bedford Ballroom in Brooklyn and then with John C. Smith's Society Band at Harlem's Alhambra Ballroom.
Kirby joined Fletcher Henderson's orchestra as a tuba player in 1929. In the early 1930s, he performed some complicated tuba work on a number of Henderson's recordings, but switched to double-bass when tuba fell out of favor. In the early 1930s, Kirby took bass lessons from Pops Foster and Wellman Braud (bassist with Duke Ellington). About 1933 Kirby left Henderson to play two stints with drummer Chick Webb, before returning to Henderson, and then join Lucky Millinder; he briefly led a quartet in 1935, but was usually employed as bassist in others' groups.
Jazz enthusiast John Hammond assembled what he felt was the greatest jazz band ever to record with Billie Holiday and pianist Teddy Wilson. This band included Roy Eldridge (trumpet), Ben Webster (tenor sax), John Truehart (guitar), Cozy Cole (drums) and Kirby on bass. Hammond said, "He is by far the best bass player around. It had to be Kirby on the first Teddy Wilson-Billie Holiday recording date."
Securing a gig at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street in 1937 confirmed Kirby's status as a bandleader, although in the first Onyx Club lineup, it was singer-drummer Leo Watson who got featured billing. Kirby's sextet was soon known as the Onyx Club Boys, and took the shape it would basically hold until World War II, usually with Charlie Shavers (trumpet), Buster Bailey (clarinet), Russell Procope (alto saxophone), Billy Kyle (piano), O'Neill Spencer (drums). "The Biggest Little Band in the Land," as it was called it began recording in August 1937 with a swing version of "Loch Lomond." The group's name would vary with time and depending on who was credited as session leader: John Kirby and His Onyx Club Boys, John Kirby and His Orchestra, Buster Bailey and His Rhythm Busters, Buster Bailey and His Sextet. The band would become one of the more significant "small groups" in the Big Band era and was also notable for making the first recording of Shavers's song "Undecided". Vocals were often performed by Maxine Sullivan, who became Kirby's second wife in 1938 (divorced 1941). In 1938 four members of the group (Shavers, Bailey, Kyle and Kirby) participated in two recording sessions for Vocalion Records (11 May and 23 June) accompanying singer Billie Holiday as Billie Holiday and her Orchestra.
Kirby tended toward a lighter, classically influenced style of jazz, often referred to as chamber jazz, which has both strong defenders and ardent critics. He was prolific and popular from 1938-1941, but World War II took away Kyle and Procope; bad health claimed Spencer, who died from tuberculosis in 1944. Nevertheless, Kirby kept trying to lead a group in clubs and in the studio, occasionally managing to attract such talents as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Clyde Hart, Budd Johnson, and Zutty Singleton.
As Kirby's career declined, he drank heavily and was beset by diabetes. After the war, Kirby got the surviving sextet members back together, with Sarah Vaughan as vocalist, but the reunion did not last. A concert at Carnegie Hall in December 1950, with Bailey plus drummer Sid Catlett, attracted only a small audience, which "crushed Kirby's spirit and badly damaged what little was left of his career. Kirby moved to Hollywood, California, where he died just before a planned comeback.
In 1961, saxophonist Dave Pell recorded the tribute album I Remember John Kirby. Featuring the same instrumental lineup as Kirby's classic groups, Pell recording songs associated with Kirby -- sometimes in note-for-note transcriptions.
Clarinetist Don Byron recorded the album Bug Music in 1996, a tribute to Kirby and several other musicians of the same era.
In 1993 Kirby was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. Unlike other then-popular "novelty" jazz groups (like Raymond Scott), the Kirby sextet is not well remembered today, although in New York the Wayne Roberts Sextet (formerly the Onyx Club Sextet) pays tribute, while in France the sextet is commemorated by the band Kirby Memory, with vocals by Flora Sicot. In the UK, trumpeter Enrico Tomasso played John Kirby arrangements with his Swing Six at the Naturist Foundation Jazz Festival in 2010, following success at a concert at the Cadogan Hall, London, with a group led by Richard Pite.
Kirby and his orchestra had a 30-minute radio program, Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm (also known as The John Kirby Show) on CBS April 7, 1940 - January 12, 1941. The program also featured Sullivan and the Golden Gate Quartet. Kirby and Sullivan have been cited as "the first black artists to host a jazz-oriented series."
With Benny Goodman