CD Reviews

MusicWeb International

Webmaster: Len Mullenger

Reviewers: Tony Augarde, Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, James Poore, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Bert Thompson, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf

[ Jazz index ] [Nostalgia index]  [ Classical MusicWeb ] [ Gerard Hoffnung ]

AmazonUK   AmazonUS

JOHN KIRBY and his Onyx Club Boys

The Biggest Little Band in the Land; his 28 finest, 1937-45





1 Undecided

2 Rehearsin’ For A Nervous Breakdown

3 Pastel Blue

4 From A Flat To C

Maxine Sullivan and “her Orchestra”:

5 Loch Lomond

John Kirby and his Onyx Club Boys:

6 Effervescent Blues

John Kirby and his Orchestra, with Nat Gonella:

7 Jeepers Creepers

John Kirby and his Onyx Club Boys:

8 Anitra’s Dance

9 Sweet Georgia Brown

10 Front And Center

11 Royal Garden Blues

12 Opus Five

13 Blue Skies

14 Rose Room

15 Jumpin’ In The Pump Room

16 Blues Petite

17 Chloe

18 Can’t We Be Friends?

19 Sextette

20 Beethoven Riffs On

21 Close Shave

22 It’s Only A Paper Moon

23 My Ideal (With Maxine Sullivan)

24 No Blues At All

25 St. Louis Blues

John Kirby and his Orchestra:

26 Nine-Twenty Special

27 At The Crossroads

28 Mop, Mop!

John Kirby and orchestras

Recorded 1947-45


With a front line of Charlie Shavers, Buster Bailey and Russell Procope it would be hard not to enjoy the tight, integrated well-arranged chamber jazz of John Kirby and his Onyx Club Boys. Its tag-line, The Biggest Little Band in the Land was, for once, no idle ad man’s boast.

Much of the sheer vitality of the band was engineered by the boys in the back room – Kirby himself on bass, pianist Billy Kyle, much later to join Louis Armstrong, and O’Neil Spencer, whose unostentatious but immaculate drumming ensured something of a dream rhythm section. In immaculate white jackets, this was not just a recording outfit but a working band, which set it apart from almost all other ensembles of its type. The repertoire it chose ranged from standards to ballads and to that somewhat bizarre vogue for Jazzing-the-Classics. Whatever they played, the sextet always turned out top-of-the-range performances for a variety of labels – they don’t seem to have been exclusive to any company, coming or going on a yearly basis, so you’ll find Deccas, Columbias, Vocalions, Okehs as well as a 1943 V-Disc.

Many of these tracks are so well-known as to defy renewed description, such as the perfect arrangement of Undecided, the sophisticated Pastel Blue, the jump classic From A Flat To C, and the kicking brio of Effervescent Blues (yes, indeed). The classical numbers began in May 1939 with Grieg’s Anitra’s Dance and continued with Donizetti and Beethoven – somewhat cruelly titled Beethoven Riffs On. The riffing, by the way, is on the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony. Incidentally one can hear the genesis of some Bop themes along the way; try the anticipations of the Salt Peanuts riff in Sweet Georgia Brown, for instance, or tune in to Charlie Shavers’ quite advanced Opus Five. The classic routine of the Jump Band is almost codified in Jumpin’ in the Pump Room.

Maxine Sullivan sang with the band. Therefore, Loch Lomond is here, but with a different personnel where Bailey, Kirby and Spencer are retained but the others replaced – mind you, the replacements were Frankie Newton, Pete Brown, Babe Russin and Claude Thornhill. She also sings My Ideal with that appealing tone of hers intact and here the backing is the regular band. The other interloper is visiting British trumpeter Nat Gonella who made a series of sides with the band. Here we have Jeepers Creepers, a track that is also on Retrospective’s Gonella disc. It’s not the most inventive example of Gonella’s trumpet playing in the session but it is buoyant. Gonella could certainly have enjoyed a place on the 52nd Street scene had he remained in New York. The V-Disc is from 1943 and shows a changed personnel, though the recording of Lecuona’s At the Crossroads shows Kirby hadn’t lost his thirst for (lighter) Classical offerings. Finally, shortly before the demise of the band, we hear Mop, Mop. Only the bass player now remains. The War was coming to an end and time was being called on the band and indeed on Kirby, who died in 1952 at only 43.

The notes are good, though not perhaps as exhaustive as usual when Digby Fairweather pens them, and the transfers smooth and efficient. This is a good selection from a great band.

Jonathan Woolf

Return to Index