Celluloid Improvisations logo Jazz on Film Mark Cantor

John Kirby Sextet “unidentified title”

SEPIA CINDERELLA is one of the finer independent black cast films produced during the late 1940s, and in terms of quality it is no better or worse than some of the films produced in Hollywood by Monogram or PRC. The music is just a very strong extra, and the presence of the John Kirby Sextet is a very special bonus.

The John Kirby Sextet had been in existence since the latter part of the 1930s, and with relatively little change in personnel over the decade, the group was able to achieve a subtle, tight-knit blend unheard in other small groups of the period. The combination of muted trumpet, clarinet and alto sax produced an intimate sound that some have cited as a precursor to the “cool jazz” of the 1950s. While there is not a lot in common where the sound or arrangements are concerned, certainly the low-key “emotional quality” of the two musical styles compare well.

By December 1947, when the feature was produced, there had been some changes in the band. Charlie Shavers, trumpet, Buster Bailey, clarinet, Billy Kyle, piano, and leader John Kirby had been on board since the beginning. Also sax Russell Procope had moved on, although his replacement, Charlie Holmes, played in a similar smooth and flowing style. The big change was in the drummer. The original drummer, O’Nneil Spencer, was a fine musician, but his replacement, Big Sid Catlett, was one of the finest drummers in all of jazz.

Catlett was a brilliant musician whose drive and technique enlivened the music in any band in which he played. He had gotten his start with the big bands, and over the years played with Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. As a small group drummer, there were few who could touch him, and his precision and propulsive energy is heard in traditional jazz groups, Swing outfits, and bebop combos. Catlett’s death in 1951, at the age of 41, was a major loss to the music.

In our clip we share a typical late Swing composition, name and arranger unknown … although Charlie Shavers would be a good guess as composer and arranger. Everyone has the chance to solo, although it is Catlett who astounds the most.

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