David Owen Mackay, a jazz pianist, singer, and songwriter of eclectic taste, died on July 29, 2020 in Van Nuys, Calif., at the age of 88. In 1954, Mackay, who suffered from retinitis pigmentosa, became the first blind student to graduate from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He later studied music with Margaret Chaloff, Bill Evans, and Lennie Tristano. In the ’60s Mackay worked with Don Ellis in two groups, the Hindustani Jazz Sextet and Ellis’ own groundbreaking orchestra; in the ’80s he formed Interplay with flutist Lori Bell and guitarist Ron Satterfield, garnering four Grammy nominations for their debut album. Among the many other artists Mackay collaborated with over his career were Sonny Stitt, Chet Baker, Jim Hall, Bill Henderson, and Tierney Sutton.
In this online-only tribute, two longtime colleagues of Mackay’s, Bell and pianist Tamir Hendelman, pay their respects.
Lori Bell: Some 30 years ago the stars aligned in such a way that by sheer chance a meeting, and a miracle, occurred in San Diego. It was my good fortune to have met pianist Dave Mackay and, by introduction, to receive bountiful blessings from a seemingly inexhaustible source, my newfound friend and musical mentor. Dave was someone I was simply happy to learn from and study with, yet he insisted on a more significant and fulfilling collaboration: to work with me on a recording project with Albert Marx of Discovery Records. Since that chance meeting we played hundreds of concerts in the U.S. and abroad, recorded six CDs with various groups, including our Interplay Trio featuring guitarist/vocalist Ron Satterfield, and remained close friends in almost daily conversation.
Although Dave was blind, his playing revealed a palette of colors unlike anything in jazz. It was like watching a painter create a canvas out of the lyrics of a song. His accompaniments were intricately and exquisitely orchestrated—he described to me that in his mind’s eye each of his fingers played a different instrument—and coupled with a swinging time feel, a deep emotionality for every note he touched, acute listening, and utmost sensitivity and generosity to his musical partners, this resulted in performances that were unforgettable. Dave was all about letting other players cause him to react. Our performances were very conversational in nature; he even responded when I would take a breath!
Dave was a warm and nurturing person with a soft-spoken voice and relaxed vibe. I never heard him complain about being blind—it was what it was and he accepted that. His musicianship was stunning, full of joy, color, passion and swing. I have been beyond blessed to have had the honor and privilege to work with such a giant. He was the most ethereal pianist on the planet.
Tamir Hendelman: How did Dave Mackay touch the piano? As a painter does, with a musical smile and empathy—in his own way. When we spoke of music, he pictured his fingers as little animals, conversing with the keyboard. His heart and soul and fingers were always communicating, quietly and with fire, with the piano. It was so tactile it made you smile.
After first hearing him play a duo with vocalist Stephanie Haynes in an L.A. spot where we often played duos with vocalists like Cathy Segal-Garcia and Tierney Sutton, we got together at the piano in his home, and I got a better sense of his poetic, inquisitive, and joyful play.
Dave could turn a Porter tune into the deepest blues or joyously groove on one of his odd-meter, optimistic originals in Interplay, his group with Ron Satterfield and Lori Bell. In ballads he’d whisper shades of Art: Monet, but also Tatum, and Bill Evans’ impressionistic inspiration was never far from his heart. And for his musical heart we are grateful.