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Jazz Remembered


Dave McKenna


June Bastable and Duncan Ledsham suggest we taste the music of pianist Dave McKenna.

Dave McKenna was born in Rhode Island in 1930 and started playing piano early at the age of fifteen. By seventeen he was playingDave McKenna with Boots Mussulli (1947) and two years later with Charlie Ventura. He spent a year with Woody Herman before going into miltary service and then returned to Charlie Ventura's band.

He worked with a variety bands and musicians including Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Bob Wilbur, Eddie Condon, and Bobby Hackett but he became primarily a soloist after 1967. McKenna performed with Louis Armstrong at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival, and he was also known as an accompanist, recording with singers such as Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett.



Here is a video of Dave McKenna accompanying Tony Bennett at a special recording from the Copley Plaza Hotel in 1982 in a programme that also featured Count Basie.



During the 1970s, Dave McKenna chose to play in clubs and hotels in his local area rather than travel extensively. His ten years at Dave McKennaBoston's Copley Plaza Hotel ended in 1991 when the hotel was sold and the place turned into a cabaret venue.

Because of his fondness for staying close to the melody, McKenna often said, “I’m not really a bona fide jazz guy... I’m just a saloon piano player.” Regulars at the Copley Plaza Bar (now the Oak Room) rebuffed this modest remark by telling McKenna he was “just a saloon player” like Billie Holiday was “just a saloon singer”. He retired around the turn of the millennium due to increasing mobility problems brought on by his long battle with diabetes and he died from lung cancer in 2008.

Dave McKenna's style has been described as: 'relying on two key elements relating to his choices of tunes and set selection, and the method of playing that has come to be known as "three-handed swing". He liked to make thematic medleys, usually based around a key word that appeared in the titles, such as teach, love, women's names, dreams, night or day, street names, etc. He often combined ballads and up-tempo songs with standards, pop tunes, blues, and even TV themes or folk material.'


June Bastable recommends this album of Dave McKenna playing medleys of tunes by Harold Arlen and Fats Waller. You can hear the whole album if you here:




'McKenna's renditions usually began with a spare, open statement of the melody, or, on ballads, a freely played, richly harmonized one. He often stated the theme a second time, gradually bringing more harmony or a stronger pulse into play. The improvisation then began in earnest on three levels simultaneously: a walking bassline, midrange chords and an improvised melody. The bassline, for which McKenna frequently employed the rarely used lowest regions of the piano, was naturally played in the left hand, often non-legato, to simulate an actual double bassist's phrasing. The chords were played using the thumb and forefinger of the right hand or of both hands combined, if the bass was not too low to make the stretch unfeasible. Sometimes he also added a guide-tone line consisting of thirds and sevenths on top of the bass, played by the thumb of the left hand. With his right hand's remaining fingers, he then played the melody, weaving it into improvised lines featuring colorful chromaticism, blues licks, and mainstream-jazz ideas. The result was the sound of a three-piece band under one person's creative control.'


Here is the album Dave McKenna at the Jazz Corner.



Duncan Ledsham is the creator of the Dave McKenna Appreciation Society, an offshoot of Facebook (click here).
June Bastable's latest book of short stories, These People, is out now.

Alan Bond commented on this article. Alan says: 'One of my favourite pianists gets a look in - the late, great Dave McKenna. I first heard him with the Concord Jazz All Stars on a CD of a concert in Japan and I was hooked. He was the out and out jazz pianist, capable of producing glimpses of everything from James P Johnson to Bud Powell.'


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