Dave McKenna: My Private Collection of the Master

 

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Dave McKenna called himself a saloon pianist, but nobody else did. The genius Art Tatum heard in Dave a sort of successor. Miles Davis’s great collaborator Bill Evans found in Dave McKenna the only pianist who could teach him anything. Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker magazine called Dave the hardest swinger among all the jazz piano giants. George Shearing called Dave simply the best.

In everything Dave played, you heard a song line, then a left-hand bass line that might be singing, or dancing, or thundering on its own. And then in the criss-crossing of what sounded like 40 fingers you could think you were hearing an ensemble like the Basie or Ellington band. You also heard a complete master of the American songbook in the hands of a man – rather like Frank Sinatra – who respected the songs as written and at the same time made them his own.

In the golden age of Dave McKenna, he played six nights a week in under the grand arched and painted ceiling of the giant Oak Bar of the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. And everybody came to listen: the New York Philharmonic conductor Kurt Masur always stopped in when he was guest conducting the Boston Symphony. Dave’s friend and mine, the great WGBH deejay Ron Della Chiesa, told me today that Maestro Mazur had asked Dave to play “Rhapsody in Blue” with the New York Phil; Dave must have worried that he’d play the piano part differently each performance, and he demurred. Tip O’Neill used to catch Dave at the Copley when he was Speaker of the House in the Reagan years. There were usually a few gangsters, and cops, in the audience, too, and the actress Faye Dunaway and stray jazz stars like Zoot Sims and Ruby Braff. Dave played to the clink of drinks, but then a hush would descend as he strung tunes together — blues, or whole band arrangements, or his signature medleys of songs with the word “lucky,” or “dancing” in the title, or colors, or seasons, or girls’ names. One night I took our teenage middle daughter Amanda, a.k.a. Amy, in to hear Dave at the Copley, and even before we got to our seats Dave segued into Frank Loesser’s tune, made famous by Ray Bolger, “Once in love with Amy…”

I’m posting here, in belated tribute, a thank-you gathering-up of lost-and-found McKenna sounds: from one of many house parties he played on my Grotrian grand piano; from a radio conversation we did on the piano bench; and from an extraordinary session in the early Nineties when I asked Dave to record Leonard Bernstein’s “Lucky to be Me” as theme music for a new series of television conversations we were starting. He gave us, as it turned out, six distinctive takes on the tune. Listening to them now feels like watching Matisse or Picasso toss off six drawings of the same alluring model. Prodigious and guileless, Dave McKenna shared his life and his gift with abandon. It feels like a great privilege to fall under his spell again. Thank you, Dave McKenna.


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25 thoughts on “Dave McKenna: My Private Collection of the Master

  1. This hour plus with pianist Dave McKenna, playing at a lovely piano in a private house with friends and fans gathered round, reacting, talking, laughing, suggesting tunes, Dave playing beautifully, with warmth and style, all captured miraculously years ago–what a pleasure to hear!! Music, music, music!! Music can be so beautiful in its sounds, harmonies, melodies, and rhythms, but its true beauty is how it opens us up, encourages us to enjoy the moment and each other’s company. I almost feel like saying, “I wish I had been there,” but listening to Chris’ recording, I was there!! Thank you!!

  2. Hearing Dave Mckenna’s version of “Some Other Time” reminded me that in the Confessions St. Augustine says that we are displeased when theater fails to deliver sufferings that we would never actually want to expereice in real life. The great joy of my musical life is to hear the version that breaks the heart most, though I would much prefer my heart unbroken.

    The version from the original soundtrack of “On the Town,” while the corniest, is by far more poignant than the other versions I knew until tonight: those of Blossom Dearie and Bill Evans. I was very interested in Bill Evans remark that Dave McKenna was the one pianist he could learn from. “Some Other Time” does bear out that on this tune, at the least, there was something he could learn.

    When I first heard the Bernstein version i was deeply, deeply in love with a woman who could not return it, and when I heard the line:

    “Haven’t had time to wake up

    Seeing you there without your make up”

    it cut me in two, for I knew that time would never come. It never did. Blossom Dearie omitted the verse that contained the line, and Evans, opting for tranqulity over regret, missed the point. Dave McKenna knew all about it, I learned tonight.

    In Japanese there’s a saying: “When I bird dies its song is sad; when a man dies, his words are good.” It was moving to hear 90 minutes of beauty upon beauty in the fading light of a good man’s mortality.

  3. There are some fortunate things in life for which you don’t know how fortunate you really are, until they’re gone. Dave McKenna is one.

    Firstly I would like to comment on how his love of music inspires me, with an odd example. The fact that for years, like many talented jazz musicians, he made his living playing live in lounges and bars, is seldom mentioned in a tribute. Of course he played the top lounges, but none the less he was often relegated to background music. The amazing part is, he didn’t mind. He had such an incredible love for music that he played it with joy at all times. Sometimes they were listening sometimes they were not, but he was always making beautiful music. Birds sing, McKenna swings. Most amazingly, you can always hear the man in the music, the quality of the man’s characters. That to me is the most inspirational. It was a genuine love of music, in his heart, and of course it shows through in the music. No matter what you do in this world, do what you love and love it while you do it, and maybe your soul can shine through too.

    I would also like to comment on what he means to me personally. I was fortunate to have grown up listening to McKenna play on records. My father was a friend of Dave and produced several recordings with him, and although not much became of these recordings, years after my father gave up on the music business, we had acetates (master disks) of these recordings in our home while I was growing up. And I would listen to them, I had my own private McKenna record collection, but I didn’t even know it was a private collection. I remember being amazed that it was one man playing the piano by himself, it sounded like 4 pianos to me. I remember the wonder of listening to it. I’m told that I met him, I remember my mother talking about him visiting for cocktails and such, but I just can’t conger up these memories, to me my mental image of Dave McKenna is that of a record spinning and the image in my ears is of a beautiful blur of notes that makes perfect sense to a 5 year old, his music is still in my head, I can’t call up whole songs, but I can listen to passages. More than anything I was captivated by the piano, and I went on to pay the piano. I play nothing like Dave McKenna, but I’m proud to call him an inspiration.

  4. This is why the Internet can still be a special place. I found this on my iPhone this afternoon at work, cleaning and washing floors, and it took me to a warm place despite the falling snow and cold wind. I was thinking about gin and reading all the books I haven’t made time for, I was thinking about how much I love Jazz and how little I know of it. But I’m young, just closing in on twenty seven next month so I haven’t wasted much time. I’m sharp and ready to find it.

    Thank you Chris, for sharing this and for making it such a personal gift. I did not know about Dave Mckenna before and I’m richer for knowing of him now.

  5. I’ve been too busy to do anything but lurk recently but Dave McKenna? How could I resist?

    I first met Dave at the Copley Plaza in 1977 when he was booked for a 2 week stint (this was before he was the fixture in The Merry-Go-Round Lounge he later became.) He was very approachable and upon learning that I was a pianist, he asked me to play something for him, (I believe I chose Here’s that Rainy Day) and after he kindly invited me to play during his breaks while he enjoyed his coffee (he no longer drank) and I did, playing standards and a couple of my pieces. He said he liked the harmonic structure of some my original compositions and accepted a few of my scores to peruse but later when I asked him as to whether he’d play them, he said they were a little too jazzy and modern for his tastes and he was still exploring Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Howard Arlen and the Great American Songbook.

    At the time I was between gigs, so I dropped in often during his tenure and one evening I got to play with Lew Soloff who happened by, produced a pocket trumpet, and wowed everyone when he played with Dave. (I played during the break with him, and it was big fun.)

    I saw Dave non-solo for the first time when he toured Europe in the spring of 1978 in a pizza palace in London’s West End with Bob Wilber and Pug Horton and later with the same band at Sandy’s in Beverly MA. When I asked about playing in a band rather than solo, Dave allowed that he was more comfortable playing solo Saloon Piano than in an ensemble but it sounded great to me.

    (Ensemble jazz playing constrains the individual players to a loose construct more or less and unless prearranged, shifts in key or tempo and other spontaneous liberties as was Dave’s instinctive wont, the results are usually less than ideal.) Later in his career he made several recordings with small to medium sized combos with Concord Record recording artists such as my friend tenorman Scott Hamilton and Cornetists Warren Vache and his good friend and fellow Cape Codder, Ruby Braff.

    I continued to see Dave whenever possible although family life made forays into Copley Square few and far between but he always seemed glad to see me and offered me the piano between sets which due to rusty chops I declined. (I didn’t want cost the Plaza business by having anyone walk in and hear me, thinking it was Dave and then walk out.)

    The last time I saw Dave was in 1994 or 5 when he played a duo gig with the great local trombonist Phil Wilson at the Annisquam Village Church in Gloucester, I spoke with him he said he’d had some health issues but continued to gig locally and inquired as to my musical status. I told him I was a listener anymore due to having settled down with a family and he said that family was the most important thing in life.

    The last McKenna CD I purchased was An Intimate Evening with Dave McKenna and it is classic Dave subtly weaving in an out of the melodies and swinging as hard as ever. Dave’s left hand is the key to the driving swing that emanates from his playing. Whether he’s walking the bass or comping quarter note chords a la Errol Garner, Dave always forcefully accents the 2 and 4 beats which results in a slight anticipation of the 3 and 1 and creates an infectious swing that is irresistible. Art Tatum couldn’t get enough of that kid when he watched him in New York between his own sets and neither could I.

    Thanks Chris, for releasing the unreleased beauty (I burned it to CD) and giving me one more set with my old friend Dave.

    Peace to ALL,

    Jazzman

  6. The first impression I had as I listened to this music was of intimacy. There is unhurriedness in Dave’s sound, sprinkled with gaiety – even the somber songs like Danny Boy. I’m sure part of what I’m hearing in these recordings is a reflection of his friendship with Chris, but mostly it must be the music of the man, cultivated from those glamorous saloons where he honed his craft.

    When asked about his next gig in NYC, Dave described it as “A good barroom, an honest barroom, the kind of place I like.” When I heard Dave utter these words, I knew all I needed to know about the man.

    A friend of mine who is an accomplished New England folk singer has played the same old wooden tavern every Thursday and Sunday night for 25 years. I asked him once the same question Chris asks Dave about people talking during his set. He told me that he looks at every night as a challenge to make them stop talking and listen. And I thought, what a fulfilling feeling it must be for him – and Dave – to hold court on those special nights. A disparate smattering of private confabs huddled over tiny cocktail lined tables transforms almost hypnotically into a gleeful communal submission.

    Last night I sat on a barstool in the old divey Cantab Lounge in Cambridge MA. It was way past midnight and the Tuesday night bluegrass band were still putting their hearts into their fiddles – or maybe they were pulling the fiddles out of their hearts – but now it was the end of the night and the guys on stage outnumbered the crowd. For the last song one guy took the lead and sang as soulful a sad country song as I’ve ever heard in my presence. At one point I thought why is he giving so much when there is only a few of us listening. And then I thought maybe it’s precisely because there is a few of us listening.

    And then I thought of Dave McKenna – a man I never had the pleasure to see – and all those intimate evenings he must of presided over throughout the years, recorded by nothing but the few appreciative souls in attendance.

    I have no doubt that Dave McKenna was a good jazzman, an honest jazzman, the kind of jazzman I like.

  7. I wish I had Dave on while I tried to remember my password!

    I am here!

    McKenna makes the very difficult to play very easy to hear and enjoy.

    Can anyone listen to his music and not get lost in it?

    I can only imagine a bar full of Bobbleheads; all bouncing in unison with the beat of the magic slipping off his fingers.

  8. It’s the first Monday in March and I’m happily snowbound in Holyoke listening to this Dave McKenna retrospective. Dave was one of the most compelling pianists I ever heard, and I could rarely limit myself to just one tune by him. Give me a medley, an album side, or an extravaganza like this complete with music and conversation. You might say I’m lucky to be me!

    The house party at Chez Lydon has been in circulation for awhile, and I’ve often gone back to it to hear Dave’s rendition of “Blue Skies,” a tune I heard him play often, but rarely with the interpolation of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” that he offers here. Man, that knocked me out the first time I heard it! And it underscores something about Dave’s background that gave his approach to the popular songbook, to the gigs with traditionalists like Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, and Ruby Braff, and to the countless nights he spent playing solo piano in saloons of every description a fresh and unique flair: Dave’s background was in bebop. Surely Nat Cole and Tatum and Teddy Wilson were formative, but so were Bird and Bud, Dizzy and Miles, and it’s terrific to hear Dave calling their names along with Red Garland and Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock in the conversation with Chris.

    I recall Whitney Balliett describing Dave as a “time warp of a pianist,” playing bebop in his right hand and stride in his left. He also began his affectionate New Yorker profile of the pianist by writing that “Dave McKenna’s life pivots on paradox.” Here’s one that comes to mind for me: When I began seeing Dave in my teens, 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 well before Bradley Cunningham began insisting on silence for the performances at his legendary 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.” Indeed, one need only compare performances like these to Dave’s countless studio recordings to appreciate the fact that he preferred the soft lighting of a nightclub to the intense glare of the studio and concert hall.

    I used to see 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 sometimes 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 memorably, when I was visiting Paris in January 1991, I ran into Dave 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 talked about the ever-promising Red Sox. (It was heartening to learn from Dave’s sister Jean that he enjoyed the BoSox historic come-from-behind victory over Tampa Bay in Game 5, two days before he died.)

    I 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 Ellington, Mingus, 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 a grand reward in itself, 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 McKenna’s music on the radio for the past 30 years.

    Tom Reney

    “Jazz à la Mode”

    WFCR

    NPR News and Music for Western New England

    Amherst, Mass.

    http://www.wfcr.org

  9. Chris,

    I would love to download this to my computer or iPod, but iTunes will only allow me to get programs done since March 2009. Any way around this? I would love to have this souveneir of Dave.

    Thanks very much,

    Scott Hamilton

    Certaldo, italy

  10. For Scott Hamilton, Mr. Tenor Shoes:

    Very nice to hear from the man who played that ravishing “Skylark” with Dave.

    While I’m working on the iTunes issue, Scott, I can mail you a CD of the McKenna treasures if you’ll send me a good address.

    Very best wishes to a favorite musician!

    Chris Lydon

  11. Dear Mr Lydon,

    I am a retired physician, amateur piano player and longtime friend of Dave. Before I knew him, we used to host jazz parties at home in Huntington, Long Island, NY–with even older friend Ralph Sutton,along with Bob Wilber, Milt, Buzzy, others–players no doubt well known to you. In 1991, I was lucky to get Dave here for a Sun aft gathering of some very lucky folks. A DVD of this was taken, and though far from studio quality, captures the essence of Dave, and happily shows lot of closeups of the famous fingers at work( or was it play?)I sent a brief bit about this when contributing to his eulogies online.

    A friend sent me your posting on Dave which is wonderful. I loved the end with several versions of the great song “Lucky To Be Me”.

    If you haven’t guessed, I am hoping we might be able to pull off a win-win, by swapping a copy of your stuff (CD or DVD) for mine. I would hate to lose this if it became unavailable online.

    If this would interest you, and if possible, please let me know

    Many thanks,

    Tom Morley

  12. Met Dave several times in London and Brecon… a very friendly and courteous man . Used to order cassettes and CDs via Frankie from his home address. For me he was the best… and still is… Buck Clayton was right about him.

  13. In 1884 we went to Hanratty’s in NYC with Bob Wilber for the last set. Bob told Dave that Dill Jones had died and both were deeply moved. Thereafter, Dave finished the evening in a moving tribute to Dill with Wilber on clarinet for two tunes. Some 10 years later on one of Hank O’Neal’s Jazz Cruises, Dave attended a private mass, offered by our priest-friend from home. That communion with Dave clinched our relationship. It was a privilege to know and to ‘experience’ his playing. Sadly, Dave was too sick to perform and record for us one last time aboard the QEII. Andrew Sordoni for chiaroscuro records

  14. Hi Chris and others, I can’t thank you enough for this podcast! I have turned many younger players on to Dave’s playing through this. I was wondering about two things: firstly, the song that Dave plays directly after ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’. Secondly, about additional live or rare recordings; if I can pay for them, or shipping, or if they’re somewhere online. Please let me know! Thanks. Jesse

  15. Thank you, Jesse. The song right after “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” also by Jerome Kern, is a classic my father sang to my mother — “Why Do I Love You?” with Oscar Hamerstein lyrics, from “Show Boat.” I don’t know of any bootleg Dave tapes out there anything like mine! He brings me close to tears, and he covers a range of his very best stuff here! Praise God for Dave McKenna — a bit of a genius and a giant generous guy!

  16. Chris:
    This is simply amazing. It is such a extraordinary gift to be able to listen to this, to hear Dad speak and play. This and the npr interview with Terry Gross are essential listening for any Dave McKenna fan.
    Thank you so much for sharing,
    Steve McKenna
    Pine Grove Mills, PA

  17. Steve McKenna — it’s another extraordinary gift to hear back from Dave’s son. I’m thrilled that you found us. I listen to this podcast over and over myself — and marvel at how present Dave feels in every note, in every free-spirited moment of our talk. I love specially his devotion to Nat Cole and then his appreciation of your grandmother as both player and teacher. Then, my favorite, when I mention Wynton Kelly and Dave just groaned with delight. “Oh, Wynton! What a piano player.” Your dad played many times at our house, on my piano. And every time we felt we were watching the heavy-weight champ at Madison Square Garden. I praise the Big Guy for Dave and all his amazing gifts — in friendship, in his love of food, in conversation and at those keys! Thanks for writing, and do it again! Love to all the McKennas from Chris Lydon

  18. Thank you so much, Chris Lydon, for posting this wonderful podcast. I found it via the Dave McKenna tribute group on Facebook. Doug, Dave’s son, posted the link. The richness of his playing just completely came back to me and those wonderful nights at the Copley Plaza listening to him play, chatting with Dave a bit and Dave checking the Red Sox score during his breaks. And that version of Tickletoe is just sublime! Thanks again.

  19. What DELIGHT! I just plugged “Dave McKenna”into Google and was led to this podcast. The first and only time a heard Dave in person was in a small gymnasium in Greeley, Colorado wmere he was a guest artist at the annual U. of Northern Colrado Jaza Festival and was doing a “workshop” on jazz piano..I was expecting the usual snippets of jazz with explanations of the background. Dave practically refused to speak and, instead, just played an amzing, impromptu mini concert. I’ve been an avid fan ever since and have recording of his that I could find.

  20. I spent scores of hours at the Copley plaza hotel in the 1980s listening to Dave. ” I’m Old Fashioned,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and a lovely rendition of “Just as Though You Were Here” were just three of my favorites. And what he could do with a Harry Warren melody! Dave could swing, he could lovingly approach a ballad, and was respectful of melody and harmonies. Most of all, he made you feel all was right with the world and that you should not and would want not be at any other place at that moment. He brought so much joy and still does. Thanks for this Chris.

  21. Originally from Worcester, Mass., came out to L.A. with a friend In May, 1966. We rented a room in the Dagmar Hotel, on Hope St., near the corner of 8th St. for $10 a week. We used to get on a truck every morning to do ‘day’ work. Minimum wage was 1,25 per hour. There was a large Methodist Church on the corner. I was a ‘devout ‘ Catholic, at the time. I had never been in a Methodist Church; I did not even know what they did in there. I was actually afraid to go in there, thinking that the LORD might “Strike me down”, if I went in there. But my need to get to a piano overcame my ‘fear’. And one night I sneaked up to the 3rd floor gymn, where there was a small upright. I tried to remain unnoticed. I didn’t want anyone in the Church to know I was there. One evening, a young Filipino woman came up from the office, and asked me to walk her to school. We have been together ever since! We got married at the end of the year. Moved to the South Bay area (Hawthorne, Torrance). We lived in that area for 10 years, before moving to Sunnymead, now called Moreno Valley. We bought our first home in 1978. I was an independent contractor delivery driver, doing a lot of work for the Studios; delivering scripts and film…etc. Our son Earle started high school 1980. Our daughter Lauren was born the same year. It was in the early 1980′s. I had to make a right turn off Sunset Bl. Echo Park area, near downtown L. A. I still remember the street name: Mohawk St. I had the radio on. All of a ‘sudden’, I hear this ‘swinging’ , solo piano version of “Limehouse Blues”! I had to stop the car and pull over to the side. It just “Blew me Away”! I went out to buy my first Dave McKenna record album: “Left Hand Compliment”. I played it at our new home, on our KLH Stereo Compact system. I think the first 2 selections were: “Mixed Emotions” and “Have you met Miss Jones?” My 15 year-old son asked me: am I hearing a “base?” That is actually the left hand of “Dave McKenna”! Our son Earle played football, made captain of the team. He challenged one of his friends to join the football squad. He agreed, as long as Earle agreed to join the Theater Arts, which he thought was for “sissies”. The LORD Blessed his voice; he went on to Biola University earnig a degree in voice, also meeting his wife Kristin. Earned a Master’s Degree from U.S.C. And has been with the New York Metropolitan Opera for the past 18 years. He sang with Luciano Pavarotti in 1998. He has sung in every major Opera House in the world. We sold our home in Sunnymead in1983. Moved back to L.A. for 5 years, before returning back to this place which is now called Moreno Valley, CA. We came back here in 1988. In 1989, I went down to Elario’s Jazz Club, To see Dave, who was playing with Scott Hamilton. I brought 2 of my album covers down to ask Dave to sign them for me. He was very gracious. I asked him about Marian McPartland. He said she was very kind to him. He gave me his mailing address, but I never wrote to him. I’m still having regrets about that. He was a very “Humble” person with a great ‘gift’, which he loved to share with everyone he could. I know that I have been ‘blessed’ to have heard his interpretations of the standards and to have met him in person. GOD Bless you Dave. I know you are playing for the LORD now. I will be seeing you shortly.
    Justin, Cessie, Lauren & Earle

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