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John Kirby Sextet - Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy

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Published on Jul 26, 2010

John Kirby (December 31, 1908 -- June 14, 1952), was a jazz double-bassist who also played trombone and tuba.

Kirby was born in Winchester, Virginia. In 1926, he moved to Baltimore, Maryland, a town he is still linked to by some. He played with Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson. In the early 1930s, he performed some amazingly complicated tuba work on a number of Henderson's recordings. In an unusual move, Kirby picked up on the double-bass at the time when tuba was falling out a favor as the orchestra's primary bass instrument (few tuba players continued their role in the orchestra by switching to double-bass).

Kirby started his own band in 1937. The John Kirby Sextet, known as "The Onyx Club Boys" (usually including Kirby on bass, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Buster Bailey on clarinet, Russell Procope on alto saxophone, Billy Kyle on piano and O'Neill Spencer on drums) would become one of the more significant "small groups" in a Big band era and had the first recording of Shavers' song "Undecided". Vocals were often performed by Maxine Sullivan, who also became Kirby's wife in 1938 (divorced 1941). .

Kirby tended toward a lighter, classically-influenced style of jazz, which has both strong defenders and ardent critics. He was very prolific and popular from 1938-1941. After World War II his career declined and he died in Hollywood, California, just before a planned comeback. In 1993 he 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 particularly well remembered today, although in New York, the Wayne Roberts Sextet (formerly the 'Onyx Club Sextet') pays tribute, and in France it is commemorated by the band 'Kirby Memory', with vocals by Flora Sicot. His small group light jazz style is a great example of how swing can also be elegant.

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