Andy Kirk & His Twelve Clouds of Joy, featuring Mary Lou WilliamsAndrew Dewey Kirk (May 28, 1898 in Newport, Kentucky – December 11, 1992 in New York City) was an American jazz saxophonist and tubist, who was best known as the bandleader of the Twelve Clouds of Joy, a band based in Kansas City.

Kirk started our playing for George Morrison’s Band in Denver, and later played with Terrence Holden’s Dark Clouds of Joy in Dallas. When Holden departed in 1929, the remaining band elected Kirk as the new bandleader. They established themselves in Kansas City, playing regularly at the Pla-Mor Ballroom at the corner of 32nd Street and Main and renamed themselves the Twelve Clouds of Joy.

One of their early hit recordings was the 1936 “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”, and another success was the 1942 song “Hey Lawdy Mama.” Also in 1942, their tune “Take it & Git It” was the first single to hit number one on the Harlem Hit Parade, the predecessor to the Billboard R&B chart.

Pianist Mary Lou Williams rose to fame while playing with the Kirk band, although she acquired her spot while subbing for the original piano player, Marion Jackson. Williams also served as arranger for the Clouds of Joy, as well as picked up side work as composer arranger for other notable big bands, including those of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunceford, Glen Gray, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines & Tommy Dorsey.

In 1948, Kirk broke up the band which had played together for an admirable 20 years and which had recorded mostly for Decca records. Kirk went on to manage a hotel and other real estate ventures, and also served as an official in the Musician’s Union. He played a single reunion concert using most of his original charts, although unfortunately with none of his original sidemen.

It’s interesting to listen to the work of the Twelve Clouds of Joy along side that of the early Count Basie band. Kirk’s band preceded Basie’s chronologically, but both bands took their roots in the Kansas City jazz scene, and share a certain, essential rhythmic drive. Still, contrasting the music of the two bands, you’re sure to notice a mellower, softer and gentler touch to the Clouds of Joy.

Here’s a great album to check out, that with hardly a tune that won’t compel you to cut a rug:

Or read more about Andy Kirk in this book by biographer Amy Lee:

A Mellow Bit of Rhythm: Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy