Dave McKenna RIP

That grim parade that Bill Crow mentioned a couple of postings ago shows no sign of running out of marchers. The latest major jazz artist to go is Dave McKenna. The pianist died this morning at the age of 78. His family posted the announcement on his web site, which includes a good biography. YouTube has a slew of videos of McKenna playing. This medley of two of his favorite tunes, “Nobody Else But Me” and “I’m Old Fashioned,” is a good one to start with.


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  1. Ken Dryden says

    There is a recent release showcasing Dave McKenna peforming a solo set in 1981 at a private club in Ohio, entitled “Dave McKenna Private Recordings”, on the Jump label.
    Proceeds from sale of the CD were to benefit McKenna. Although it probably was not made with the intention of commercially issuing it, the sound is very good and the pianist is in top form.

  2. Jon Foley says

    One of the benefits of spending most of my life in New England was the opportunity to hear Dave play live quite a few times. Playing solo at the Copley Plaza in Boston; with Zoot Sims at a club on Cape Cod, a gig at which Dave and Zoot spent their break time sitting at our table, drinking and talking, making the day doubly enjoyable; with his “No Bass Hit” trio (Scott Hamilton and Jake Hanna) also on the Cape – I still have the LP I bought that day, signed by all three guys; and a solo piano gig at a lounge in New Bedford, MA, where Dave played an upright piano (decent sounding) and where all the local young musicians came down to hear him. I’ll never forget watching one of the better local players, a rather outside, Pharoah Sanders-type tenor player, watching Dave intently with the biggest smile on his face – just going to school on one of the great mainstream pianists.
    Dave often described himself as “just a saloon piano player.” If that’s so, that’s a saloon where I wouldn’t minding spending eternity. I hope it’s got a decent piano.

  3. says

    When I began seeing McKenna as a teenager, I was amazed at how little attention nightclub patrons paid to his playing and dismayed at how difficult it often was to hear his powerful attack over the din of conversation. (This was before Bradley Cunningham began insisting on silence for the performers at his storied nightclub on University Place.) But when Terri Gross interviewed Dave on Fresh Air years ago, she mentioned this same annoying phenomenon, and asked if it bothered him. “Not really,” he replied. “When they’re quiet, I get nervous.”
    Over the years, I saw Dave on a regular basis on the Cape, at the Copley Plaza in Boston, with Ruby Braff at the Regattabar, and at Bradley’s, where I’d hang till the last note was struck and often get a lift down to Spring Street from Dave and his driver. Especially memorable were the times when Zoot Sims would arrive at Bradley’s around 2 a.m., mount a barstool, and play duets with Dave. I also ran into him a few times at Fenway Park. And most surprisingly, when I was visiting Paris in January 1991, I ran into Dave and his wife Frankie on the street where I was staying; he’d played some holiday gigs in Germany and then come to Paris for sightseeing.
    The last time I saw Dave was on his 70th birthday, May 30, 2000, at a church in Belchertown, Massachusetts, where he played a Sunday afternoon concert. His playing was as brilliant as ever, but he was in no mood for celebration. When the emcee proposed that we sing “Happy Birthday” to welcome Dave back for his second set, he shot us a ray that said, “Don’t dare!” And no one did. Afterwards he attended a reception at the producer’s home, and was unusually garrulous. That was the last time I saw him, and I believe it was one of his last performances anywhere.
    I’d first heard Dave at The Columns on Rt. 28 in West Dennis around 1970. I was a 17-year-old passing for 21, already fanatical for Duke Ellington, Chicago Blues, and the jam sessions I’d catch every week at the Kitty Kat Lounge in my hometown of Worcester. But seeing Dave, Dick Johnson, Lou Colombo, even Bobby Hackett at these Cape Cod roadhouses was a revelation. To discover music of this caliber played with such beauty and passion by master musicians working far from the limelight gave me a whole new insight into the workaday nature of the jazz life. Speaking of which, I once asked Dave to confirm that he was playing a regular Thursday night gig at the opulent Chatham Bars Inn on the Cape. “Oh yeah,” he replied, “That’s my corned beef.”
    Back in the early 70’s, Dave and his colleagues impressed in me an understanding that the ritual of music making was itself the highest reward, and that riches and fame were of secondary importance. In many ways, the relative obscurity of these players was one of the things that fueled my desire to pursue a career in which I might bring a little exposure to their great work. Now, with all due respect, I can tell you that it’s been an honor to play Dave’s music on the radio for the past 30 years.
    Tom Reney
    “Jazz à la Mode”
    WFCR/88/5 FM
    NPR News and Music for Western New England
    Amherst, MA 01003