John Kenneth Davern’s embryonic days in the music world found him as a big band sideman in various sax sections, and then on to the classic jazz combos of Greenwich Village and New York’s uptown clubs as a clarinetist, to his soprano sax adventures in the Soprano Summit, and then back to the clarinet.
Davern was a native of Huntingdon, Long Island. As a young professional at the age of 16, he sat in with many of the legendary groups in New York City and the fast company gave him the background he needed to become a member of Jack Teagarden’s band and to record with Jack at age 19. The bands of Phil Napoleon and Pee Wee Erwin found Kenny in the front line alongside these giants from 1955 through 1965.
Stints with Billy Butterfield and Herman Autry in the late ’50s as well as Ruby Braff paved the way for his own group at Nick’s. Recognition was solidified with a year’s tour in 1963, with the Dukes of Dixieland, followed by engagements in New York and Canada with “Wild Bill” Davison, Bud Freeman, and Shorty Baker.
The Ferryboat in Brielle, N.J. and the Gaslight Club in New York occupied a lot of his time through 1968. The late ’60s and early ’70s found him working with Dick Wellstood in clubs such as Michael’s Pub in New York. Between club appearances, Kenny began to appear at some of the many festivals and jazz societies that were springing up all over the country.
Soprano Summit’s first recording was released in 1973, and the group officially formed in 1975. The great reed star, Bob Wilber, proved to be the ideal musical partner for Davern. Soprano Summit went on to become one of the most important groups in the classic jazz field.
Kenny appeared in the film classic The Hustler starring Paul Newman, as well as the Broadway show Marathon-33 and the Off-Broadway show One Mo’ Time.
The early ’80s found him forming the Blue Three with Dick Wellstood and Bobby Rosengarden. They made a highly successful recording and toured the US and abroad. Recordings with Ralph Sutton and Gus Johnson as well as Dick Wellstood and Art Hodes are still big sellers. His recording, The Very Thought of You in 1985, won the Music Trades Association Award as the Best Jazz Record of the Year in England, where a few years earlier he had been selected as the Number One Clarinetist in the World by the English Jazz Journal Reader’s Poll.
In the late 1980s, the New York Times hailed him as “the finest jazz clarinetist playing today.” After 1985, Kenny kept busy at many American festivals, European tours, clubs, and concerts. Sadly, on December 12, 2006, Kenny Davern died suddenly of a heart attack at his Sandia Park, New Mexico home.