Tuesday, October 21, 2008

R.I.P. Dave McKenna

He was one of the most popular jazz piano players of his generation. A low-keyed kind of man who loved to string medleys of songs with the same word in the title, always surprising and delightful to hear his imagination at work.

A small series of Sunday afternoon solo piano concerts were held in a Providence hotel ballroom in the 1980's. Buck and I took My Mother The Jazz Fan (80-years old at the time) to hear Dave. Choice seats, mere inches away from Dave's right hand. She was in heaven. The following Sunday we again attended the series which that afternoon featured a pianist renowned for his flawless technique and remarkable agility. We managed to secure the same seats. I watched my mother's genuine amazement and appreciation of this exceptional musician. On the way home, she casually offered this comment: "I liked [...] very much, but I think Dave McKenna swings more."

Here in Boston, he played regularly in the Oak Bar of the Copley Plaza hotel. It was a sizeable room filled with comfortable furniture strewn about the place in an effort to create a feeling of warmth and coziness. In this endeavor, it succeeded with customary Copley Plaza elegance, patrons settling into the cocktail hour or the night-cap after dinner and the theatre, and mostly focused on their libations and sparkling companions. At times, the gentle hum of conversation seemed to overwhelm the artistry of the pianist on the small stage in the corner. This atmosphere suited Dave perfectly. He knew which patrons had dropped in expressly to hear him, for they were loyalty personified and always made certain they were seated as close to him as possible.

I especially recall with great fondness his habit of placing a tiny Sony transistor radio (remember them?) into his jacket pocket, trailing a thin wire attached to an earplug firmly planted in his left ear. Since his right hand was toward the house, no one ever seemed to notice. But you could get an accurate pitch count if you asked politely and extended him the courtesy of waiting until he'd finished playing the tune.

I met Dave in New York shortly after I arrived there myself in the early 1960's. We found ourselves featured players on various concert stages throughout the years, and I once recorded with him, but only once, at a performance recorded for the Concord Jazz Label. A concert held in the ballroom of the Cape Cod Plaza Hotel on May 3, 1992, featured Dave, Scott Hamilton on tenor, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and Chuck Riggs on drums. The cd is available at Amazon and probably at other outlets. It's "Concord All-Stars on Cape Cod", CCD 4530. I managed to call the wrong key for the song "Time After Time" but of course, that was no problem for Dave. He could play in any key. Unfortunately, I wound up sounding like a cross between Elaine Stritch and Billy Ecksine.

Dave and I didn't see much of each other in these last years since he became rather reclusive living on the Cape. However, I know he faithfully followed every movement of the Boston Red Sox. He held season tickets to games at Fenway Park for many years, and once graciously gave the precious seats to me and my husband because Dave was going to be out of town on game day. Third base line, just slightly off to the left of the visiting dugout. Wish I could remember who the Sox beat that day.

There is an extensive obit in today's Boston Globe which mentions a tribute concert to be held at some future date. Watch this Blog for specifics.







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