He was probably the only bassist during the Swing era to lead a successful band. John Kirby was not a major soloist on the level of Jimmie Blanton but he had a concept. He envisioned a cool-toned three-horn sextet that could perform complex arrangements with ease, often paying tribute to classical music while being quite capable of playing uptempo blues and swing standards, but in their own way. His dream came true, at least for a few years.
John Kirby (originally named John Kirk) was born December 31, 1908, in Baltimore, Maryland. His mother gave him up for adoption as an infant and he was raised by a reverend and his wife. He took up the trombone in 1917, taking lessons for several years and becoming classically trained. In 1927 he met trombonist Jimmy Harrison who persuaded Kirby to switch to the tuba.Moving to New York Kirby became the tuba player with Bill Brown and his Brownies, making his recording debut on two titles (“Zonky” and “What Kind Of Rhythm Is This”) in 1929. In 1930 he entered the big time, joining Fletcher Henderson on tuba. Since the string bass was rapidly replacing the tuba, Kirby took bass lessons from two of the very best of the time: Pops Foster and Wellman Braud. By 1932, he was strictly a bassist.Kirby made numerous recordings with Fletcher Henderson during 1930-33. He drove the ensembles as the band looks towards the swi