Swing and Swing Redux…”Dawn on the Desert”


“Dawn on the Desert”

Composed and arranged by Charlie Shavers

Recorded by the John Kirby Sextet for Vocalion on January 9, 1939 in New York.

John Kirby, bass, directing: Charlie Shavers, trumpet; William “Buster” Bailey, clarinet; Russell Procope, alto saxophone; Billy Kyle, piano; William “O’Neill” Spencer, drums.

The story:

kirby-7One of the most interesting small bands of the swing era was the John Kirby Sextet. The band presented here had evolved over the previous couple of years. Finally, in October of 1937, after a shouting match between Kirby and his trumpeter Frankie Newton at the Onyx Club on Manhattan’s Fabled 52nd Street, after which Newton immediately left, the band’s drummer, Sidney Catlett, who witnessed this incident, also left the club, but soon returned with another trumpeter, 20 year-old Charlie Shavers. In addition to being a virtuoso performer on trumpet, Shavers was a competent arranger and budding composer. Over the next several years, Shavers would prove to be the most versatile member of the Kirby band.

John Kirby (1908-1952) (shown at left with clarinetist Buster Bailey to his left) came up in the music business from the very bottom, arriving in Harlem in 1926shavers-and-kirby-3-001 from Baltimore, his hometown, with a trombone and a sack tied around his neck which contained $6.00. After he fell asleep in an abandoned Harlem distillery, someone stole the trombone. He then began doing odd jobs around Harlem so he could survive. Eventually, he had saved enough money to buy a tuba, which he reckoned would be harder to steal than a trombone. For the next couple of years, he gradually began to make connections with other musicians in Harlem, and slowly developed his skill playing tuba. One of the musicians he made friends with was Duke Ellington’s tuba/bassist, Wellman Braud. Kirby lived with Braud and his wife for quite a while, during which time Braud taught Kirby how to play the string bass.Tuba players of the late 1920s were aware of the fact that the string bass would soon supplant the tuba as the instrument providing the harmonic foundation notes for bands of all sizes. (Trumpeter Charlie Shavers is shown at right with Kirby.)

After a failed attempt at playing string bass (and tuba) with Fletcher Henderson’s highly professional band in the late 1920s, Kirby was tutored by pioneering jazz bassist Pops Foster. Eventually, his skills on both bass instruments and his ability to read music were such that he was able to return to the Henderson band, and fulfill his duties there capably. It was in the Henderson band that me met and worked with a succession of the top Afro-American musicians in New York, kirby-band-6a-001including Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey, and Russell Procope. These last two would become key members of the John Kirby Sextet. Kirby also developed a reputation as one of the best bassists in New York during his time with Henderson (1930-1934).

After the breakup of the Henderson band in 1934, Kirby did a lot of free-lance recording in New York with black artists, and also worked in the big bands of Chick Webb and Lucky Millinder. By 1937, he was a leader of his own small group.

By the time the classic Kirby Sextet heard here began recording in late 1938, they had developed a light but bright and swinging style which employed the three horns, with Shavers using a cup mute on his trumpet, voiced tightly, played atop the supple yet propulsive rhythm provided by the piano, bass and drums. (The classic John Kirby Sextet is pictured above at left. L-R: O’Neill Spencer,Charlie Shavers,Kirby,Buster Bailey,Russell Procope and Billy Kyle.)

The music:

“Dawn on the Desert,” an original composition/arrangement by Charlie Shavers, has an exotic sound, in the same veinkirby-15 as Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” which was a hit for his employer, Duke Ellington, in 1937. The “snake-charmer” clarinet on the main theme is played masterfully by Buster Bailey, against a solid rhythmic foundation provided by Kirby on bass, Billy Kyle’s sensitive piano and O’Neill Spencer’s tom-toms and cymbals. Shavers’s improvised trumpet solo maintains the exoticism, as does Billy Kyle’s agile piano.

After this recording was made, Shavers took a demo of it to bandleader Tommy Dorsey, hoping to get TD to have an arrangement of it made for his big band to play. That happened, and Dorsey also recorded “Dawn on the Desert,” (5-1-1939 for Victor), in an arrangement (really an adaptation done by Deane Kincaide) of the Shavers arrangement that follows the Shavers chart for the Kirby band closely. It spots Tommy on cup-muted trombone in the role originated by clarinetist Buster Bailey. TD also made a mental note of the fact that Charles Shavers was a marvelous trumpeter. More, much more, would come of that a few years later.

This recording was sonically restored and digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.


“Dawn on the Desert”

Composed and arranged by Charlie Shavers*

Recorded by the Howard Alden-Dan Barrett Quintet for Concord Records in September 1986 at Master Sound Studios, Astoria,Queens, New York City.

Howard Alden, guitar; Dan Barrett, trombone; Chuck Wilson, clarinet; Frank Tate, bass; Jackie Williams, drums.(*) The original arrangement written by Charlie Shavers for the John Kirby Sextet on “Dawn on the Desert” was adapted for the Alden-Barrett Quintet by Dan Barrett.

Guitarist Howard Alden (b. 1958) and trombonist/cornetist Dan Barrett (b. 1955), have been leaders of what I call thealden-barrett-1-001 neo-swing movement among jazz musicians for more than 30 years. Both men are well-trained musicians who have enjoyed successful careers that go back to the late 1970s. I first heard and met Howard and Dan at one of the late impresario Joe Boughton’s Conneaut Lake Jazz Festivals in the mid-1980s. From that time, I have been most favorably impressed by their sterling musicianship, and their acute sense of jazz history.

The first time I heard “Dawn on the Desert” was when Howard and Dan played it at Conneaut Lake, with these same musicians. That event may have happened in 1986 shortly before this recording was made. It obviously made a deep impression on me alden-2because here I am, thirty years later, writing about it and enjoying it as much as ever.

In the ABQ arrangement, which is patterned closely on the Charlie Shavers original, Chuck Wilson plays Buster Bailey’s clarinet part superbly, and Dan Barrett (shown below left) plays the Shavers ensemble trumpet part on cup-muted trombone. Howard Alden (at right) plays Russell Procope’s ensemble alto sax part on guitar.The ostinato isbarrett-1 played in unison (at first) by Howard’s guitar, Frank Tate’s bass, while the delicately tapped tom-toms and later the whispering cymbals are played by Jackie Williams. Barrett and Alden each then play brief but tasty solos. After these solos, an original second theme appears, followed by a reprise of the opening clarinet solo.This is a magnificently reimagined and performed “Dawn on the Desert,” and is conclusive proof that music in the swing idiom can be wonderfully timeless when performed by virtuoso musicians who really know their jazz history, and feel the music.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi, Mike–

    I was very pleasantly surprised to hear from you; it’s been a while! I was also very pleased to read your perceptive (and admittedly flattering) comments about the ABQ.
    Thanks very much for such an honorable mention.
    I’m still “out here,” playing with various groups around southern California, and staying busy arranging for various groups, large and small, for local clients and several in Europe.
    Good luck with your great new blog!
    All the best,
    –Dan Barrett

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