Kenny Davern, a clarinetist and soprano saxophonist who became an acclaimed torchbearer of traditional jazz and swing, died Tuesday at his home in Sandia Park, N.M., after a heart attack. He was 71.
Davern was regarded as a virtuosic musician. He was particularly renowned for his lyrical and expressive clarinet style: "a chilling upper register, a rounded, woody tone and a hint of Pee Wee Russell's rasp," jazz critic W. Royal Stokes wrote.
Emphasizing melody more than free-form improvisation, Davern spent five decades musically articulating the legacy of his heroes, including trumpeter Louis Armstrong and clarinetist Russell.
As melody-driven as he was, Davern enjoyed experimenting with avant-garde approaches. That led him, in 1978, to play baritone saxophone on the avant-garde jazz album "Unexpected" with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Paul Motian.
"If you ask 10 people what jazz music is, you might as well ask them what God looks like: You'll get 10 different answers," he once said. "There's no defining jazz. It's a meaningless term."
John Kenneth Davern was born Jan. 7, 1935, in Huntington, N.Y., and raised in Queens. He became entranced by jazz after hearing Artie Shaw's "Concerto for Clarinet" and Russell's solo on "Memphis Blues" with Muggsy Spanier's band.
He told jazz writer Will Friedwald last year: "I heard all these grunts and growls, sounds of spittle -- I had no idea even what horn he was playing, but I said to myself, 'This is what I wanna do with my life.' "
After early training with David Weber, who became principal clarinetist with the New York City Ballet orchestra, Davern formed a high school Dixieland band and at 16 earned his union card as a baritone saxophonist.
Davern began recording in 1954, when he joined Jack Teagarden's Dixieland group and freelanced with swing and Dixieland combos.
He worked with such masters as saxophonist Bud Freeman, cornetist Ruby Braff and trumpeters Pee Wee Erwin, Phil Napoleon and Wild Bill Davison.
His most enduring collaboration was with reed player Bob Wilber, whom he met in 1972 in the last moments of Dick Gibson's four-day jazz party in Colorado Springs. Gibson flung them together, and they performed Duke Ellington's "The Mooche" without preparation.
"We got a rhythm section together -- by a fluke, Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden and Milt Hinton were all there -- and we got up and did the number," he said in 1998. "We finished it off on two high notes in thirds and, to our amazement, people just rose up in applause -- 650 folks just screaming with delight -- and it was then that we realized that we had something different. And something that should be recorded."
With both men doubling on soprano sax and clarinet, he and Wilber formed the Soprano Summit, which toured and recorded during most of the 1970s with guest artists in the rhythm section. In the early 1990s, he and Wilber revived the group as Summit Reunion.
His marriage to Sylvia Davern ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 36 years, Elsa Green Davern; two stepchildren; and four grandchildren.