Bassist Bill Crow’s column “The Band Room” is an event New York musicians look forward to each month. It appears in Allegro, the newspaper of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. As readers of Bill’s books know, he is a superb anecdotist who tells stories about jazz artists and, often, musicians in other disciplines. In the current issue, he remembers a pianist whose artistic scope, adaptability, swing and idiosyncratic personality made him a favorite of a wide variety of musicians and listeners. With Bill’s permission, here is the column.
The Band Room
by Bill Crow
Dave McKenna (1930-2008) was a one-of-a-kind piano player. He often denied that he was a jazz player, even though he was steeped in the music. “I’m a song player,” he would say, and he certainly played all the wonderful songs in the American songbook. He liked to group songs in a set by themes. Sometimes a medley would be all songs about rain, sometimes about happiness, sometimes about a color, or once in a while just songs by the same composer. He would explore each tune harmonically, wandering from stride to bebop to romanticism, and usually making everything swing like mad.
I got to know Dave playing jam sessions with Zoot Sims, and then playing with him at Eddie Condon’s club. Eddie’s manager had talked him into only hiring a bass player with his sextet on weekends, so Dave was always glad to see me every Friday. He played the bass lines himself on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and got to be very good at it. He incorporated walking bass lines into his solo piano style in a very original way.
Dave was a great admirer of food and drink, and when the liquor outbalanced the food, he could be a belligerent companion. He was broad shouldered and strong, and nobody to mess with when in his cups. We lived near each other in Chelsea for a while, and I remember running into him on the street one morning and saying to him, “You were in pretty rough shape last night at the Half Note.” “I don’t want to hear about it!” he growled. Toward the end of his life, physical problems began to interfere with his playing, but he plowed ahead, playing gorgeously even when in pain. He once said to me, “I suppose if I do what the doctor tells me and cut down on the rich food and the booze, I’ll live a little longer. But how will I know for sure?”
I always keep one of Dave’s solo records in my car to keep me company while driving to gigs. He sure knew how to cheer a guy up.
Here’s proof. Dick Gibson introduces McKenna at one of Gibson’s celebrated Colorado jazz parties in the early 1980s.
Bill Crow’s current “Band Room” column includes a story about the actor Paul Newman coming to the rescue of an embattled group of musicians hired to play an outdoor wedding gig. To read it and the rest of Bill’s July column, go here.