March 2009

Dave McKenna

(5/30/1930 - 10/18/2008)

I first heard Dave in the summer of 1954. He was sitting in at the Hickory House in New York on a set of Edna Corbett’s, who was filling in for Marian McPartland. I remember being knocked out by his playing, but being the bebopper that I was then, I didn’t start following his career very closely until much later.

I heard him next a few years later playing solo at a jam session at Gene Smith’s famous loft at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York. I couldn’t believe my ears at what I was hearing. I listened in awe and wonder as his left hand pounded out groovy basslines equal to any of the best bass players on the scene, with such incredible resonance and smoothness (complete with “chick-a-booms” and “chickety-booms”) that it made one think that there was a bass player in the room. I’ve never heard anyone do the left-hand bass bit as convincingly as Dave. It was hypnotic. Yet I was still operating in different circles than he was, and didn’t really begin to latch onto his music until around 1980, when he began appearing regularly at Hanratty’s in New York.

I was blown away by what I heard. I felt he had the perfect approach to solo jazz piano playing. He had the uncanny ability to create the illusion of a small combo all by himself, with incredible swing, fluidity and smoothness.

As hard as he could swing, Dave could play with equal sensitivity on ballads. In his solo performances he would often spin out beautifully woven medleys based on some particular theme like moon songs, girls’ names or whatever, with exquisite transitions and segues between hard-driving renditions of uptempo tunes and soft sensitive, poignant ballads laced with marvelously voiced harmonies, often covering a span of several tunes in a period of 15 to 20 minutes or more.

I began to know him during the ’80s and ’90s, when I would catch him around New York at gigs at Hanratty’s or the Church of the Heavenly Rest or wherever. I’d become a huge fan of his by then and I’d try to talk with him during breaks on gigs or hang out with him at festivals at which we’d both happen to be appearing, and I’d often feel intimidated and awestruck in the presence of this great musician. I became obsessed with his playing over the years and spent a lot of time trying to learn to play like him. It’s hard enough to just play a bassline and melody line at the same time, but to fill in with all those juicy fills and comps the way Dave did and make it all sound so easy is remarkable. It is the key to all the richness and fullness of his sound. It’s been remarked at times that he sounded like he had three hands.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to know Dave until the last part of his life, when he was ill and not playing anymore. I visited him a couple of times during the early 2000s in Providence, then recently, twice during this last year in Pennsylvania. During each visit he exhibited great spirits and talked enthusiastically at length with me about his experiences in the music business and his current interests in Brazilian music and some avant-garde music of trombonist Hal Crook.

I wish more attention had been paid to his music during his lifetime. Dick Johnson, a longtime friend and colleague of Dave’s, wrote in some liner notes of a live album Dave recorded at Jordan Hall in Boston, about how Dave once played on a JATP tour with Charlie Ventura’s band, a tour which also featured Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and others. Art would stay in his dressing room most of the time, coming out only when Dave played because he “liked the way that boy played.” One of Dave’s fans I talked to a while ago told me that Oscar Peterson and George Shearing were both reported to have said that Dave was their favorite piano player.

When I left Dave after my last visit in July, I had the thought I probably would never see him again. I was saddened to hear of his passing while I was on tour in California during the last week of October. I played “Beautiful Friendship” several times during the tour, dedicating it to his memory and announcing each time that he was my favorite piano player. Goodbye, Dave. To paraphrase someone (Dick Johnson maybe?) who introduced you at a live performance of which I have a recording, you were “the greatest, bar none!”

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