In spite of its name, the big band era always had room for smaller outfits. Sometimes they’d be formed from the members of a bigger band and become part of the show, as was the case with Benny Goodman’s trio and quartet. But in other cases a smaller group would do just fine on its own, and that included the John Kirby Sextet, billed as the Biggest Little Band In The Land.
Kirby’s early years are a little fuzzy. Apparently he was born around 1908, possibly in Baltimore although that’s not for sure. He was orphaned and later adopted, but again the details are lost. In any case, he began showing up on the New York jazz scene while in his late teens, playing trombone and tuba. Eventually he was able to get a job with Fletcher Henderson’s band and it was also about then that he switched to playing bass, the instrument that would define him for the rest of his career.
Within a few years Kirby had established himself as a solid pro, and in the late 1930s he was able to get a steady gig leading a small group at the popular Onyx Club. Initially drummer Leo Watson was the biggest name in the group they called the Onyx Club Boys, but he moved, on and after a few other changes the group solidified with Kirby on bass, Charlie Shaver on trumpet, clarinetist Buster Bailey, Russell Procope on alto sax, pianist Billy Kyle, and O’Neil Spencer on drums.
Over the next few years the sextet would find a lot of success in clubs and in the recording studio. Sometimes billed as the John Kirby Sextet, other times as John Kirby and His Orchestra, and occasionally even Buster Bailey and His Rhythm Busters, the group was small, but the sound was amazingly full and complete. The sextet not only tackled the standard big band fare, but also specialized in jazz versions of classical music.
It was during this period that Kirby was married to vocalist Maxine Sullivan, and she gave the group added impetus with her hit version of “Loch Lomond” and other songs. Unfortunately things went downhill from there. During the war years Maxine divorced him, and various members of the sextet went their separate ways, some for health reasons. Kirby had health issues too, but he kept working as much as he could through the post-war years, even at one time leading a group that featured a young Sarah Vaughan, but he never regained his momentum. His health continued to deteriorate and he was just 43 when died in 1952.