Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Dave McKenna: The Big Man and His Big Fan

Mick Carlon explains his admiration for the late jazz pianist Dave McKenna

Ed Milk, my wife’s grandfather, was a unique man: a masterful teacher whose candlelit readings of Poe are still remembered by his now elderly students; a talented actor; a Broadway stage manager (under the name Ed Gordon); a fine pianist whose playing lit up many a Cape Cod occasion; a writer of witty parodies whose works are in the collection of the Hyannis Public Library; and a friend of notable theater folk from Thomas Mitchell to Shirley Booth to Joe E. Brown to John Barrymore to Roald Dahl.

Soon after I began dating his granddaughter, Mr. Milk wanted to discover if this funny-looking whippersnapper was really a jazz fan—or simply someone who owned a copy of Kind of Blue.

“Who was Buster Bailey?” he asked me one evening after dinner.

Luckily, I didn’t hesitate. “Oh, he was a very fine clarinetist who played with Louis Armstrong and he’s on several of my Billie Holiday/Teddy Wilson records.”

The old gentleman nodded, satisfied. “Who’s the world’s greatest pianist?” he asked.

I thought for a few moments. “Well, my favorites are Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Oscar Peterson, and Dave McKenna.”

Mr. Milk didn’t seem as satisfied with this answer. I was to find out why a few years later, after marrying his granddaughter. One afternoon I drove over to his apartment with a cassette I had made for him: Ben Webster and Art Tatum from 1956. After pouring me a glass of iced tea, Mr. Milk pressed play and we sat back to listen. Squirming in his seat for at least a minute, Mr. Milk finally said, “Could you turn that off?”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with Ben Webster—ever. But Tatum plays too many notes! He gets on my nerves!” A spry old gent, he hopped up, plugging another cassette into the machine. “Now…let’s listen to…perfection!

We sat back, sipped our iced tea, and listened to Dave McKenna’s My Friend the Piano album.

For Ed Milk, you see, there was only one pianist and one pianist only. Not long before he passed away, the old gent asked me over to his apartment and ceremoniously gave me all of his Dave McKenna albums (on tape). Knowing how much Dave and his music meant to Mr. Milk, I was honored.

Did Cape Codders appreciate the fact that we had one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists—Ed Milk would say, “Take out one of the“—living (and playing) in our midst? I certainly did, attending as many of his gigs—with groups including the likes of Ruby Braff, Scott Hamilton, Gray Sargent, Marshall Wood, and Jake Hanna, or solo at Hyannis’ Road House Café—as I possibly could. Put simply, for many years we Cape Codders were blessed.

And let’s not forget Dave’s talent for writing catchy, funky tunes. Two of my favorites are “Splendid Splinter” (written, naturally, for Ted Williams), and “No More Ouzo for Puzo.” This tune was written for Dave’s friend, Charlie Puzo, the younger brother of writer Mario, and the father of one of my all-time favorite students, Maria. At a parent-teacher night, I can still recall the annoyed looks on other parents’ faces as Charlie and I discussed all things McKenna.

I first met Dave McKenna at Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel, where for nine years lucky Bostonians and visitors from all corners of the globe flocked to hear him. The piano still echoing from his last notes, he turned, lit a cigarette, and stared up at the ornate ceiling. With his rumpled sports jacket, Dave looked like a dejected salesman after a disappointing day. The people in the bar applauded, then returned to their conversations.

“Go say hi to him,” said my wife.

“No.” I don’t like to bother people.

“Go on. If you don’t I will.”

Afraid of that possibility, I stood up and walked over. “Um, Mr. McKenna?”

“Yeah?” A scowling bear of a man, the pianist seemed more than content to be left alone.

“Great set.”


Fortunately, I thought of something semi-interesting to say: “My wife is over there, Mr. McKenna. Her grandfather, Ed Milk, is one of your biggest fans.”

Suddenly, eye contact was established, followed by a warm smile. “Ed Milk? Really? I love that old guy. Bring your wife over to say hi.”

And the ice was broken. Thanks to Ed Milk, we were in. During the dozens of times I saw and heard Dave after that, he wasn’t effusive—it simply wasn’t the man’s style—but a nod and a smile from McKenna could light up one’s evening.

Allow me to utilize the talents of writers far more talented than I to describe this marvelous musician:

Whitney Balliett: “…McKenna’s life pivots on paradox. He has been a jazz pianist since the late forties, but it is almost impossible to get him to talk about music beyond, for example, the random observation that there is no such thing as the pure improvisation he constantly practices. He moved to Cape Cod in 1967, but he has only been in the ocean once. In a society that deifies the automobile, he does not drive. He is one of the hardest-swinging jazz pianists of all time, but he lives a quiet, unswinging middle-class life…He has a massive eagle’s head, a logger’s forearms, and hotdog fingers. He is well over six feet, and, possibly for streamlining, he wears his brown hair flat and straight back.”

Nat Hentoff: “The confident, ringing clarity of {McKenna’s} sound conjures up Louis Armstrong. Although Mr. McKenna has absorbed much of jazz history, I also hear in his music echoes of the Harlem-based expansion of Eastern ragtime into the exuberant, two-handed, melodic liberation of the piano exemplified by Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington.”

Cyra McFadden: “…The self-described ‘barroom pianist’ takes a ballad…and somehow makes you hear the unsung lyrics. You’re full of highly enjoyable, late-night-in-a-bar regrets. You mentally revise your love life, and make it more interesting. Because McKenna knows the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, you understand it, too.”

Many nights at the Road House Café, I’d see Dave, after completing yet another stunning set, amble up to the bar, light a cigarette, and check out to see how his beloved Red Sox were doing. I once asked him for his favorite pianists. “Nat Cole,” he instantly replied, his eyes on the game. “Why did he swing at that pitch?” he mumbled as a waiter placed a heaping plate of pasta before him.

Born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in 1930, Dave’s mother played piano and his father, a drummer, drove a parcel-post truck. By the time he was nineteen, Dave was playing in Charlie Ventura’s band. Drafted into the Army during the Korean War, McKenna served as a cook, even attending cooking school in Japan. (Dave always had big eyes for food, especially Italian). The war over, back in New York, Dave played with Gene Krupa, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Bobby Hackett, and Ruby Braff. “New York was my headquarters,” he told Balliett, “even though I never had an apartment and lived in hotels.”

It was Jack Bradley who told me that Dave was back living in Rhode Island. Due to diabetes, he was unable to play. I sent regular postcards and, not wishing to intrude, only called him once. “I’m a little down,” he said. “Due to some health issues, I haven’t been able to play. But I just read a column that Nat Hentoff wrote about me and that cheered me up quite a bit.” He died on October 18, 2008.

As Ed Milk knew, listening to Dave McKenna play piano is one of life’s finer pleasures. The man himself—modest, keenly perceptive, quietly witty, thoroughly unique—is gone, but his music of course lives on in dozens and dozens of compact discs, many on either the Concord or Arbors labels. Buy one, crack open a cold bottle of something classy, and enjoy the music of Dave McKenna. Like the man himself, his playing is beyond category. Originally Published