December 12, 2008

Old Meets New

Click on the above title, Old Meets New, to see pictures of Oriskany native Sam Kininger returning home and visiting the Hamilton jazz archive for the first time with his old high school jazz mentor, Monk. The pictures show a clinic Sam conducted on December 7 with Monk's new crop of Hamilton students, and the subsequent jam session.

December 6, 2008

It's Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup

This month marks the second anniversary of the abrupt passing of Kenny Davern, at age 72 at home of a heart attack. Kenny had only returned to his home in New Mexico two months prior, after attending his annual trek to Hamilton for our Fallcoming concert.

From before the jazz archive even existed, archive benefactor Milt Fillius hand-picked musicians to come to Hamilton for a special concert for the Hamilton community. Kenny always came, usually as leader, but in addition, Milt chose the best of the best. We were treated to the finest free jazz concerts, and Milt brought them to us! They always were, and still are, remarkable annual events. Kenny played the clarinet, and he maintained his amazing chops right until the end. Once Monk made an offhand comment to Kenny saying “I’ve read you’re considered one of best clarinetists alive,” to which Kenny directly replied, “Who’s the best?” I loved Kenny. It wasn’t just about his “sweet” jazz playing, though there was that. He was a realist and never sugar coated things, at least not with us. He also had the most caustic wit, on the bandstand and off, and said exactly what was on his mind. One time a Hamilton trustee rose to leave the event mid-set. Kenny addressed him by saying “got to go to bed? Got to go watch ‘The Tonight Show’?” The trustee returned to his seat. Kenny had no idea that the elderly person was a Hamilton VIP. Of course Kenny knew Milt and Monk and I, but for him, his yearly treks to Clinton, (via a minimum getting on three planes to make the connections) were simply a great gig.

I once told Kenny that the musicians Milt picked were Milt’s absolute favorites and Milt got such a kick out of choosing all the musicians he wanted to hear play together, never-minding the dynamics of what such combinations meant to the musicians. It was amazing to see Milt, year after year, sitting plumb in the front row of in the building known as the Fillius Events Barn and grinning ear to ear, watching his friends perform. He used the college as the venue, and he would have probably done it from his home in San Diego if he could have, but Milt liked to share his passion with others. When I told this to Kenny, that Milt was hand-selecting his own band and footing the entire bill for the weekend, it seemed to make more sense to Kenny. Of course Milt never consulted the musicians about who they would like to play with. Milt assumed that the musicians would happily come together as professionals do.

There are two videos of Kenny at Hamilton. Part 2 is a sit down he did at the college with Monk in 2001. We have found that many times interviewees either don’t watch the videos, or squirrel them away somewhere and never share them with their families. Bereaved families, however, are usually thrilled to discover them after the musician passes.

During interviews, very few musicians spoke their mind on tape as clearly as Kenny did. Usually once the camera went on there was a huge reluctance to say anything negative about anybody, especially fellow musicians. It’s after the lights are turned off and the camera is shut down that the musician’s true feelings are revealed. The musicians are usually uptight on camera for about the first 15 minutes of any interview. They are nervous, being that this is being conducted by a college, that they will be intimidated by professorial questions. Monk speaks as a bachelor’s-level-educated musician first, and as an improviser and composer. It only takes a short time before the interviewee warms up. The interviews themselves are directed by the conversation, not by a list of prepared questions Monk researches beforehand. In preparation for interviews, Monk buys recent CD’s of interviewees’ recent work and often consults
The New Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz tomes before the session, so he sits down fully prepared about personal style and past relationships.

From the first moment Kenny sat down with his friend Monk, the wit was revealed and the stories are all there. We are sad that Part 2 was only an hour in length.

I will never forget the first conversation I had with Kenny, it was a personal coup. Kenny was on a break at the Hamilton concert, and went outside to smoke. This was around 1997. I asked Kenny about set list decisions, the implication being because all six musicians didn’t ordinarily play together, and finding common ground seemed so effortless. He said there was usually some kind of sit down where they’d decide before the set. I said to him “Oh so on stage, you don’t just get up there and call ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ in E, right?” He stared at me for a minute, then turned to Monk and said “I like this girl.” Once I had heard Monk mention that he was afraid because he was backing up Joe Williams for a few tunes on piano when he was at the college, and he was apprehensive because Joe was nonchalant about telling Monk in advance what tunes he wanted to sing and in which keys. Monk said to me “I’m afraid he’s going to say ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ in E.” Thus I filed away Monk’s comment, then later used the same comment with Kenny, and from that moment on Kenny and I had a warm relationship.

Kenny always invited Monk to come to the stage for one song at every Fallcoming, and Monk got to choose the tune. Once Monk said “how about ‘Summertime’” and Kenny said “no way, I own that tune.” That was Kenny’s signature song and he didn’t want to share it. So Monk decided instead on “Wabash Blues,” from a recent album Kenny had released. Nearing the end of the first set Kenny would point to Monk in the audience with his clarinet and say “get your horn out, boy,” and Monk would pull out his old Conn silver soprano sax and saunter to the stage. Monk never had to fumble with opening his case, putting his horn together or preparing his reed. To me, it looked like he belonged with the group. I always took pictures, as did the college.

Monk, Kenny, and James Chirillo on guitar, Fallcoming 2005

Chuck Riggs, the drummer on Kenny’s last gig at Hamilton, called after he passed and wanted Monk to know that he thought we had videotaped the last concert Kenny ever played. We aren’t sure if this is true or not, but when he returned home to New Mexico, Kenny did call and I could hear Monk on the phone talking to him about the final performance. Kenny seemed unhappy about his own performance, after receiving the videotape in the mail, and I heard Monk saying that the micing process wasn’t all that great as it was done from a camera in the balcony of the Fillius Events Barn. Kenny and Monk reviewed the concert song by song. I think Kenny was his own worst critic. He never failed to amaze me with his facility and how strongly he was able to maintain it and not compromise his playing due to his age as so many musicians do who develop physical problems. Kenny told Monk that he was unhappy with the final note Monk played on, “Wabash Blues,” and how he kept wanting Monk to get off that note. Monk told me after he hung up the phone that he knew at the time that the note he should have been on was a physical impossibility on the soprano sax, and that Monk knew at the time it was wrong, but Kenny called it to his attention later on. Jeez, these musicians sure can be picayune about things, can’t they? It’s doubtful anyone in the audience noticed it, but Kenny and Monk both did, enough so that it was a topic for later conversational dissection.

When Kenny did a clinic at the college at that same last visit in October, 2006, Monk went to the small class with him so that he could accompany Kenny on piano. Monk considers himself an adequate pianist, not a top-flight soloist. When he came home he beamed as he told me that Kenny had given him the supreme compliment after the clinic, that he really knew what he was doing in the art of accompaniment (presumably not playing too much or too little but just right). Since piano isn’t Monk’s first instrument, it really meant a lot, coming from Kenny.

We went out to a restaurant for lunch before the concert that day of Fallcoming, just the three of us. I was unable to attend that final concert, as one of my daughters needed me to be in Rochester for that weekend. Anyway, I was looking at the menu and Monk and I brought up something we have often discussed between us. Pasta is usually described as “al dente,” but what’s the opposite of that? It isn’t like when you order your steak rare or well done. So we posed the question to Kenny, what is the opposite of al dente? Without missing a beat, Kenny said “it’s Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup.” We both cracked up at the instantaneousness of his response, thus forever putting this question to bed for both Monk and myself.

I’m not sure if Kenny ever knew what an unlikely place Hamilton is for the jazz archive to be located. Hamilton is a northeastern liberal arts college with a small music department. Milt Fillius, ’44, being the huge swing era supporter that he was, provided the initiative for the creation of the jazz archive starting around 1992. This project went around and around for three years, much to Milt’s dismay, before Mary Kopcza from the Communications & Development department at college finally called Monk in 1995 and asked if he’d be interested in coordinating the project. At that time Monk was reluctant to get involved because although he was an adjunct instructor on saxophone, he was Artistic Director for the Arts in Education Institute at the Stanley Center for the Arts. Monk agreed to stick his big toe in the water in 1995 to see what this would all be about. Monk was not interested in “coordinating” the project (providing all the research, questions and contacts for someone else to use to conduct the actual interviews). In March of 1995, Milt Fillius attended the first interview trip to Scottsdale, AZ, and he said he wanted Monk to become the Director of the Jazz Archive. So since nearly the beginning, it’s been Monk who conducted the interviews.

And through this position, Monk travels to do presentations on jazz history — at SU, and Rutgers — and makes presentations before groups, such as the Society of American Archivists in New Orleans, and, before the International Association of Jazz Educators went down last year, Monk made biannual presentations or we wrote papers for IAJE conferences. He’s often invited to give presentations which include interview clips with commentary.

When Kenny passed Monk dedicated his next radio show to Kenny. He usually transfers these to CD, and he sent the CD to Kenny’s lovely widow, Elsa.
Monk did the same thing when Bob Rosengarden passed recently, and sent it to Bob’s widow, Sharon, a longtime friend of ours. Bob, or “Rosie” as he was nicknamed, was a longtime friend of Milt and was his Fallcoming drummer of choice. Bob let us know in no uncertain terms when we first met him that he preferred being referred to as Bob, not Bobby, as he was often identified on album covers. He came to the college many times. Bob used to be the music director of the “Dick Cavett Show,” and provided all the ta-ta-booms after the jokes Dick Cavett delivered. Bob was incapacitated by Alzheimer’s for the last several years of his life, and Sharon often called either myself or Monk to share stories about Bob and his use of the minimal drumset. Sharon attended Fallcoming with Bob when he attended his final public performance also, and at that time Sharon told Monk and I “this will be the last concert Bob ever plays in public,” as she saw Bob’s early Alzheimer symptoms. When Monk sent Sharon the CD of his radio show after Bob passed, she called us and said “it was lovely to hear Bob’s voice again, it had been so long since I heard his voice.” The “voice” of course, were the clips Monk had selected to augment the radio show.

It was fortunate that Milt Fillius and Monk had seven years of active interviewing gathering, enough time to get this archive to where it is, for which we are very proud. And in the process, the education that has come as a fortunate byproduct of doing the interviews, for Monk, has been an invaluable resource for Monk’s personal development.

Here’s one final funny story about Kenny which to mind as I recall his trips here. In 2005, Kenny had a new cell phone. He was never one for gadgets or computers or email. That year, one of Kenny’s flights was delayed. He called our home phone and got our answering machine and started ranting and raving about how he couldn’t figure out how to “work the phone” and swearing about the flight being delayed, and then finally leaving the message about when his flight would arrive in Syracuse. We got the message and Monk adjusted his schedule for the later pick-up. Monk too tends to be quite challenged when it comes to all things cellular, and when Kenny finally arrived at the Syracuse airport at 11 PM, the airport was dark and effectively “closed.” The two of them wandered around the airport apparently just missing each other, for about 45 minutes before they finally connected. Monk knew the flight had landed. Anyway, they couldn’t find each other. Apparently it never occurred to the two of them until the next day, well after the crisis was resolved, that they simply could have called each other on their cell phones to connect with each other. My daughters were laughing hysterically when they were told about the scenario, as us old fogies never seem to think of using technology first, to solve problems. Later Kenny profusely apologized to me for having heard his rant on our machine. He was sincere in his apology, but I thought it was the funniest message I ever heard on our telephone.
We miss Kenny and we mourn his passing at such a young age. We take solace in the fact that he maintained his finest form right up until the end. And he left such a remarkable body of work, including his album “My Inspiration,” Kenny’s personal favorite. Click on the link of the title of this article, “It’s Campbell’s Chicken Soup Noodles” and you will be transported to the Hamilton website where there is a clip of Kenny and Monk’s interview from 2001. Coincidentally on that site, just below Kenny’s clip is also one of Bob Rosengarden, so you will get double the fun.