Sy Oliver - trumpet, arranger, leader; Clifford Smalls - piano; Bob Bushnell - bass; Charli Persip - drums; Maxine Sullivan - vocals; (unidentified alto sax and clarinet players)
In 1974, Newport Jazz Festival impresario George Wein, in association with Carnegie Hall, formed the New York Jazz Repertory Company, a precursor of the Jazz at Lincoln Center repertory program headed up by Wynton Marsalis. With four musical directors - arrangers Sy Oliver and Gil Evans, and pianists Billy Taylor and Stanley Cowell - and a pool of 100 players, the NYJRC undertook an ambitious 15-concert series spread out over five months in its first year. One of those was this John Kirby Sextet tribute concert, led by trumpeter-arranger Sy Oliver, as part of a program called "52nd Street Revisited." Back in the day, Kirby's Sextet played at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street with a lineup that included Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Buster Baily on clarinet, Russel Procope on alto sax, Billy Kyle on piano, O'Neil Spencer on drums and Kirby on bass.
Sy Oliver and his crew kick it off with an effervescent reading of Charlie Shavers' "Undecided," the Swing-era staple that was covered by everyone from Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, Roy Eldridge, Art Tatum and Red Norvo to Django Reinhardt, Erroll Garner and Guy Lombardo. Next they jazz up the classics on a swinging rendition of Edvard Greig's Peer Gynt Suite before heading into the hard driving swinger "Opus 5," which features bristling solo turns from everyone in the group. Special guest vocalist Maxine Sullivan, who was married to Kirby from 1938 to 1941, appears on a string of hits associated with her from yesteryear, including the loping "Molly Malone," the shuffling ditty "If I Had a Ribbon to Tie My Hair" and her signature song, "Loch Lomond," a swinging midtempo take on the old Scottish folk melody that scored a big hit for Sullivan in 1939. Oliver and his musical colleagues then close the concert with a syncopated rendition of a contemporary number, Jule Styne's "People," a hit song that was introduced by Barbra Streisand in the 1964 Broadway musical Funny Girl.
Bassist-bandleader Kirby played in the bands of Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson and Lucky Millinder before assembling a small group to take Stuff Smith's place at the Onyx Club in 1937. With big band veteran Charlie Shavers providing hip arrangements on popular songs and light classics, Kirby's aggregation scored with jazz fans on 52nd Street. They remained popular up until the advent of World War II, when the draft depleted the ranks of the group. Kirby continued to lead bands with different personnel until his career declined by 1950, following a Carnegie Hall concert that drew a disappointingly small turnout. He died on June 14, 1952 at age 43.
-Written by Bill Milkowski