Andrew Dewey Kirk was born on May 28, 1898 in Newport, Kentucky but grew up in Denver, Colorado and was tutored by Paul Whiteman’s father, Wilberforce. He started his musical career playing with George Morrison’s band, but then went on to join Terence Holder’s Dark Clouds of Joy. In 1929 he was elected leader after Holder departed, renamed the band Clouds of Joy and also relocated the band from Dallas, Texas, to Kansas City, Kansas.
Also known as the Twelve Clouds of Joy for the number of musicians, they set up in the Pla-Mor Ballroom on the junction of 32nd and Main. They made their first recording for Brunswick Records that same year. Mary Lou Williams came in as a last moment pianist and so impressed the label’s Dave Kapp that she became a regular member and arranger of the band.
With the move they grew highly popular as they epitomized the Kansas City jazz sound and in mid-1936 Andy signed with Decca and made scores of popular records for the next decade. In 1938, he and band held the top spot of the Billboard chart for 12 weeks with “I Won’t Tell a Soul (I Love You)”, written by Hughie Charles and Ross Parker and featured Pha Terrell on vocals. In 1942 leading His Clouds of Joy, they recorded “Take It and Git”, which on October 24, 1942, became the first single to hit number one on the Harlem Hit Parade, the predecessor to the Billboard R&B chart. In 1943, with June Richmond on vocals, he had a number 4 hit with “Hey Lawdy Mama”.
Over time the band had Buddy Tate, Claude Williams, John Williams, bill coleman, Don Byas, Shorty Baker, Howard McGhee, Jimmy Forrest, Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker, Ben Thigpen,, Hank Jones, Joe Williams and Reuben Phillips among others.
In 1948, Kirk disbanded the Clouds of Joy and continued to work as a musician, but eventually switched to hotel management and real estate, but kept his hand in music serving as an official in the Musicians’ Union.[
Although the leader of the band, saxophonist and tubist Andy Kirk seldom was a soloist, utilizing the talent in his band for the spotlight. His genius lay in realizing how best to make use of his band members’ skills. On December 11, 1992 at the age of 94, he passed away in New York City.
Archie Shepp was born on May 24, 1937 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida but was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He studied piano, clarinet and alto saxophone before focusing on the tenor saxophone. He studied drama at Goddard College from 1955-59, eventually turning professional.
Shepp played in a Latin jazz band for a short time before joining the band of avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor. His debut recording as a leader was under his own name, Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet on the Savoy label. The 1962 session included an Ornette Coleman composition was the initial link to the formation of the New York Contemporary Five, which included Don Cherry. Two years later with the admiration of Coltrane he recorded Four For Trane on Impulse Records with trombonist Roswell Rudd, bassist Reggie Workman and alto John Tchicai.
Archie participated in the sessions for Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in late 1964, but none of the takes were included on the final release but has since been made available on a 2002 reissue. He would cut Ascension with Coltrane in 1965, and his place alongside Coltrane at the forefront of the avant-garde jazz scene was epitomized when the pair split the record New Thing At Newport, the first side a Coltrane set, the second a Shepp set.
During the decade he would develop his political consciousness and Afrocentric orientation, recording albums that reflected. His albums Fire Music and The Magic of Ju-Ju put him at the forefront of the free-form avant-garde movement along with Pharoah Sanders. He continued to experiment into the new decade, at various times with harmonica players and even spoken word poets. Never far from political and social commentary Archie released Attica Blues for the prison riots and The Cry Of My People that spoke to civil rights. He also wrote for theater including The Communist and Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy.
In 1971, Shepp was recruited to the University of Massachusetts Amherst that began a thirty-year career as a professor teaching Revolutionary Concepts in African-American Music and Black Musician in the Theater, also teaching African-American Studies at SUNY in Buffalo, New York.
In the late 1970s and beyond Archie would record blues, ballads, spirituals, tributes to traditional jazz musicians, as well as R&B. He would perform with Sun Ra’s Arkestra, French trumpeter Eric Le Lann, with Michel Herr creating the original score for the film Just Friends. He also appeared on the Red, Hot Organization’s tribute to Fela Kuti titled Red, Hot and Riot.
He has been featured in two documentary films, 1981’s Imagine The Sound, in which he discusses and performs his music and poetry, and Mystery Mr. Ra in which he discusses and performs his music and poetry. Shepp also appears in Mystery, Mr. Ra, a 1984 French documentary about Sun Ra.
In 2004 he founded his own record label, Archieball, together with Monette Berthomier in Paris. Tenor and soprano saxophonist, pianist, vocalist Archie Shepp continues to perform, collaborate and record.
Larance Marable was born on May 21, 1929 in Los Angeles, California and was related to Mississippi riverboat bandleader Fate Marable. He first had a strong career as a bop musician in the 1950s working with the likes of Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker among others.
In the 1960s Marable started to venture into the cool jazz idiom with musicians like Zoot Sims, George Shearing, Sonny Stitt and Chet Baker, working with the latter as early as 1956 on the album Chet Baker Sings.
In the Seventies he toured with Supersax and Bobby Hutcherson but recorded Tenorman as a leader with James Clay. He also played with Kenny Drew, Teddy Edwards, Stan Getz, Hampton Hawes, and Milt Jackson. Earlier in his career, he was known as Lawrence but the hard bop drummer Larance Marable, best known for his work as a regular member of Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, passed away on July 4, 2012 in his hometown of Los Angeles.
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Sonny Fortune was born on May 19, 1939 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After moving to New York City in 1967 he recorded and appeared live with drummer Elvin Jones’s group. In 1968 he was a member of Mongo Santamaria’s band. He subsequently performed with singer Leon Thomas and then with McCoy Tyner from 1971–1973.
In 1974 Sonny replaced Dave Liebman in Miles Davis’s ensemble and remained until spring 1975. He went on to join Nat Adderley after his brief tenure with Davis, and then formed his own group, recording two albums for A&M’s Horizon label. During the 1990s, he recorded several acclaimed albums for Blue Note.
Alto saxophonist and flautist Sonny Fortune also plays the soprano, tenor and baritone saxophone and clarinet. He has performed with Roy Brooks, Buddy Rich, George Benson, Rabih Abou Khalil, Roy Ayers, Oliver Nelson, Gary Bartz, Rashied Ali and Pharoah Sanders, and was a part of the live album The Atlantic Family Live at Montreux. He continues to perform, record and tour.
Jackie McLean was born John Lenwood McLean on May 17, 1931 in New York City. His father played the guitar in Tiny Bradshaw’s orchestra and started the young man’s musical education until he was eight when the senior John passed away. His godfather, his stepfather who owned a record store and several noted teachers continued his education. He received informal training by neighbors Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker.
In high school Jackie played in a band with Kenny Drew, Sonny Rollins and Andy Kirk Jr. By the time he was twenty he was playing alongside Rollins on Miles Davis’ Dig album and went on to record with Gene Ammons, Charles Mingus, George Wallington and to become one of Art Blakey’s Messengers, joining the group after reportedly being punched by Mingus and pulling a knife on the bassist. Fortunately for the jazz world no one was stabbed.
Throughout his early career he was addicted to heroin, which resulted in the loss of his New York City cabaret card. To make a living he undertook a large number of session dates that produced an extensive body of recorded work in the 1950s and 1960s. He recorded for Prestige, then Blue Note both as a leader and sideman. His early recordings as leader were in the hard bop school but later McLean became an exponent of modal jazz without abandoning his foundation in hard bop. His adaptation of modal jazz and free jazz innovations to his vision of hard bop made his recordings from 1962 on distinctive.
He worked with the greats of the time not limited to Donald Byrd, Sonny Clark, Lee Morgan, Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon, Freddie Redd, Billy Higgins, Freddie Hubbard, Grachan Moncur III, Bobby Hutcherson, Mal Waldron, Chalres Tolliver, Tony Williams, Michael Carvin, Carl Allen, Bill Hardman, Larry Wilis and Tina Brooks.
By 1967 he abandoned recording for touring and the following year started his teaching career at The Harrt School at the University of Hartford. He would establish the university’s African American Music Department that evolved into the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz) and its Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies program.
Along with his wife Dollie, they founded the Artists Collective, Inc. of Hartford, and his bands were drawn from his students including Steve Davis, his adopted son Rene and pianist Mark Berman. He received an American Jazz Masters fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, inducted into the DownBeat Hall of Fame, and a biography titled Sugar Free Saxophone, as well as numerous other national and international awards. McLean is the only American jazz musician to found a department of studies at a University and a community-based organization almost simultaneously and they each have existed for over three decades.
After a long illness, alto saxophonist, composer, educator and bandleader Jackie McLean passed away on March 31, 2006 in Hartford, Connecticut.