The Music of the Night

The Jazz guitar player Kenny Poole, who died last week of cancer, was an awkward man. He was well over 6 feet tall, and his legs were as gangly as a stork's. He carried his own cushion, which he pl

The Jazz guitar player Kenny Poole, who died last week of cancer, was an awkward man. He was well over 6 feet tall, and his legs were as gangly as a stork's.

He carried his own cushion, which he placed on the chairs he sat in to play, strapped the Gibson hollow-body guitar he preferred around his neck and splayed his long legs comfortably before he began to play. He kept a cigarette burning in an ashtray on his amp, a cup of coffee within reach. He would bar a soft, exploratory chord or two, maybe run up and down the neck of his instrument or try a Latin rhythm with his right hand before settling down to work.

His bread-and-butter gigs were at high-end restaurants where listeners weren't always aware of who he was or what he was doing. But when Marjean Wisbe booked Herb Ellis, Gene Bertoncini, Cal Collins or George van Epps into the Blue Wisp, you could count on Kenny's showing up after whatever gig he was working. He'd take the guitar and the amp to the stage and just start playing. He was always welcome.

He was a master of nuance and tone. Rather than picking out single noted melodies, like Collins, he changed chords constantly.

He knew more inverted notes and variations than anyone I can think of, and he guarded them. I once asked him to show me an E-flat diminished, and he only half-jokingly threatened to charge me for it.

I met him at the old Blue Wisp, when it was still in O'Bryonville, and we became friends and colleagues when I began to sing the songs he liked to play. He claimed he couldn't read music, but he must have known 1,000 tunes: the Gershwin songbook, most of Rodgers and Hart, even a Chet Atkins number like "I'll See You in My Dreams."

My favorite guitar player at the time was Merle Travis, an eastern Kentucky three-finger style picker who wrote songs with clever lyrics and fast-moving changes in melodies Kenny appreciated. One of the first songs we ever did together was at the old Blue Wisp, Travis' "Divorce Me C.O.D."

When Kenny was in a upbeat mood, the good stuff flowed — the arpeggio, the aching intervals, the yearning poured out of him. If the night was flat, so was Kenny, and he took refuge in a brooding blackness that threatened to engulf the entire audience.

He was an artist, and most true artists are woefully inadequate at making a living. He loved to play, but he found long-term band gigs excruciating.

Despite his moodiness, he didn't have much trouble finding work. If the piano player was out, Kenny could play guitar so well you didn't need to worry. If it was a Dixieland gig, he knew "Royal Garden Blues" as well as the next guy. If it was Bebop, he was aware of all of Charlie Parker's and Dizzy Gillespie's "heads" and could play them note for note with the horn players. If the horn players weren't there, Kenny could play such lovely, soaring solos you really didn't miss them.

Still, by the end of his career he was playing mostly solo gigs. He was happier that way, he told me.

Collins once said when he was playing by himself he wrapped an imaginary balloon around himself. "Just pull the balloon down and shut it out, honey," he'd tell aspiring musicians. He called everybody "honey," whether they were male or female. It was Cal whom Kenny sought out to mentor him when he outgrew his first teacher.

"I'd have to go drag Cal out of bed," he said. Cal played 'til late at night, but Kenny was young and healthy and, as my friend Wayne would say, "He was ate up with guitar."

He wanted Cal to show him everything, to play all day and all night, so he'd run him to ground like a fox and trap him into lessons a couple of times a week. They played together frequently after Kenny was grown, and among my old pictures I have a black and white photo of them onstage at a Jazz guitar summit, both of them smoking, Kenny holding back as if to avoid the spotlight and Cal outgoing, stretched forward as lean as a Kentucky hound dog.

By the time I met Kenny, he was playing like a master and had settled into his own eccentric comfort level. People who knew him told me that he'd bought an entire shipment of earth shoes in the late '70s right before they went out of style. He played at restaurants and emptied the last of the coffee urns into his thermos at closing time. The next morning, he'd heat it up for breakfast.

Some of the other musicians called him the "Prince of Darkness." It was an apt moniker.

Kenny understood night as an entirely different acoustic texture. The soft notes which dropped from his guitar like raindrops were amplified by the darkness. The sparklers, the fireworks, the big finishes he used rarely, if at all.

Instead, his measured phrases melted into the air like purple shadows, yearning, sweet beyond belief.

CONTACT KATIE LAUR: letters(at) Her column appears here the first issue of each month.

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