Dave Kannensohn was about to schedule a gig for May 4th when his musical partner, guitarist Peter Richardson, said, “Maybe you better leave that date open.” That’s because Richardson and drummer Drex Weaver had already made some plans to celebrate Kannensohn’s 92nd birthday. The festivities will be held at Saxx on Friday, May 4th, where you can hear some of the best jazz players in town as they honor their friend, Kannensohn, a fine clarinetist and a truly nice person.
Dave Kannensohn still has a lot of wind in his sails and reed. Catch him every Saturday at Hamiltons’.
Kannensohn started playing harmonica at 10, picked up the alto sax at 12, and, because he was a very good sight-reader, found himself quickly in demand. At the age of 16, he started playing professionally—it was 1931 and Kannensohn dropped out of high school in Youngstown, Ohio, to hit the road with Jimmy Dimmick’s Million Dollar Band.
In 1931, when many people were working for a dollar a day, musicians were making $20 to $50 a week playing dancehalls, says Kannensohn. He joined the musicians’ union. “Everybody lied about their age back then,” he says.
Kannensohn stayed on the road until he was 18 and then made the decision to finish high
school. He continued to play during high school and throughout college at Ohio State. Then, until 1957, he owned a children’s clothing shop in Jackson, Michigan. After that, he maintained an accounting firm in Sarasota, Florida, for 35 years. There was only a short stretch of his life during which he did not play music. He has photos on the walls of his house chronicling his musical career from 1931 through the 1970s, when he was playing in a Dixieland combo.
At age 78, he decided to retire. Dave’s wife of 31 years, Lois, “the best wife I ever had,” had a son and grandkids in Charlottesville, and the two of them came to Virginia to visit. Needless to say, they loved it. “This is an unbelievable town, and I have lived everywhere.”
When he moved here, Kannensohn began sitting in with local musicians, George Melvin among them. He also played the sax regularly, “until I heard Jeff Decker, and then I said the hell with it. I sold my sax a couple of weeks later.” But things really clicked when, on his 86th birthday, he showed up at one of Richardson’s gigs and sat in. The two of them are heading into their seventh year together, playing every Saturday night at Hamiltons’ Restaurant. You may also have seen Kannensohn with one of the excellent guitarists who occasionally fills in for Richardson. Kannensohn has only missed a handful of gigs in those seven years. “I have played with all the top jazz players: Royce Campbell, Mike Rosensky, George Turner, Joshua Walker, Sam Wilson, Humberto Sales. One of Hamiltons’ customers saw me with five different guitarists in five weeks.”
“I am doing exactly what I want to do, which is to improvise. I don’t play bop or rock. I play melodic jazz,” says Kannensohn. And as far as his birthday party is concerned, he says, “I am overwhelmed. I can’t believe that these guys, all in their 30s, are putting up with me. Music is probably the one thing that keeps me alive.”
If you have not heard Kannensohn play, he is modest. He has beautiful tone and phrasing, and when you listen to him, it is very apparent how much he loves music.
Together with Richardson and Weaver, the band Friday will include bassist Bob Bowen and the outstanding pianist, Hod O’Brien. Kannensohn will also perform at Bashir’s with O’Brien the following Friday. He says, “Bashir is such a great person. He does not have to offer music, but it is his thing. He always wants the best for the musicians.” Kannensohn also says that Bill and Kate Hamilton “are very supportive, and the staff there is incredible.”
Kannensohn says of the clarinet players that he has heard, “Eddie Daniels is the best. And Artie Shaw, who was a sideman, like I am. He played with Austin Wiley’s band. I got to play with Wiley’s band seven years later.” For songwriters, he likes Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer and the like. “Those guys wrote beautiful tunes,” he says. Speaking of records, he says, “Coleman Hawkins’ Body & Soul made jazz beautiful. It really made a difference in my life.”
When we had finished talking about music, Kannensohn and I talked about his kids, A-Rod and baseball, and red wine. “I think we ought to enjoy our time,” he says. It is hard to imagine anyone who is enjoying his time more.