Interview with Dave McKenna (May 30, 1930-October 18, 2008)

Via Larry Appelbaum’s  birthday notifications on Facebook comes word that today is the mutual birthday of Benny Goodman and the singular pianist Dave McKenna. One of the great originals, McKenna, a basically self-taught pianist out of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, went on the road at 17 and never looked back…

In 1999, I had an opportunity to interview McKenna for the publicity bio for a trio recording on Concord with clarinet legend Buddy DeFranco and guitarist Joe Cohn called Do Nothing Til You Hear From Us, following a duo from three years before entitled It Might As Well Be Swing. Throughout both dates, the masters played with unfettered effervescence, impeccable craft and a fiery edge that would be the envy of musicians young enough to be their grandchildren.

Their felicitous chemistry wouldn’t make sense if you looked at their careers superficially.  DeFranco is supposed to be a cold, cerebral player locked into the tropes of jazz modernism, while McKenna was the contemporary embodiment of old-style, two-handed pianism — the ultimate “saloon piano player.”  But they shared a profound common denominator.  Both came up in the top-shelf dance bands that incubated so many personal improvisers during the decade spanning World War Two and the Korean War when bebop entered common jazz parlance.

McKenna emerged from a strong regional New England jazz culture that produced such generational contemporaries as—among others—Phil Woods, Sal Salvador, and Joe Morello, Horace Silver, Gigi Gryce and Paul Motian. As he stated below, Nat Cole was his pianistic model, and he developed a rollicking-yet-subtle orchestral approach that he applied to every tune. The distinguished piano critic Robert Doerschuk described his unique style as follows in the liner notes to another of McKenna’s numerous Concord recitals, entitled Easy Street. “The best I can describe it, Dave McKenna plays like he has three hands.  Where most pianists tend to devote their left hand entirely to chords or bass lines, using the right exclusively for melodies, McKenna seems to split each hand in half.  The bottom two fingers of his left hand dance through bass lines Ray Brown would be happy to conceive, the top two fingers on the right hand explore variations on the theme of the tune, both thumbs and second fingers play chords in between, and the middle fingers jump in wherever they’re most needed.”

McKenna was tremendously consistent; almost any of his more than three dozen recordings are worth looking for.

Dave McKenna (Ted Panken) – (1-27-99):

TP:    It said in the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz that both your parents were musicians.  Is that right?

McKENNA:  Yes.  Well, my father was just a part-time musician.  He played the snare drum in military type concert bands, like small towns used to have.  He played very well, and he was a good snare drummer.  He played a little dance music.  That’s where he met my mother.  And my mother was a good classical violinist and a good piano player.

TP:    Did she give you your first musical education?

McKENNA:  No, she didn’t.  She didn’t think she was a good enough teacher.  But I used to hear her play.  She played classical; she didn’t play jazz on the violin.  But at home I heard her  play the standards of the late 1930s and 1940s, like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “Stormy Weather,” and she played them very good, all the nice changes, nothing elaborate.  Plus I heard radio jingles, the early jingles, and I went to the piano and picked out tunes.  My mother sent me to the nuns at parochial school.  They were nice old ladies, but I hated the study of music.  I really did.

TP:    You liked playing and not studying.

McKENNA:  Yeah, right.  Later I took a few lessons from a guy in Boston, Sandy Sandiford.  But he more or less left me alone.  He gave me a few assignments that I played, to work out some variations on this or that.  He wanted me to play scales, too, but I didn’t.  He saw that right away and he laughed, and he said, “Well, you’re not going to do it,” which was obvious.  But he said, “You’re playing very nicely and continue to do what you do.”  The lessons were kind of casual.  I’d stop them if I felt bad or I had a cold or something.  But I’d go up there, take a train to Boston.

TP:    Did your technique and piano conception develop organically?

McKENNA:  Yeah, I think so.  Just playing at home.  My early gigs were three-piece bands, piano, saxophone and drums.  I think I did my first one at 12 or 13.   It’s a French-Canadian town, and there were a lot of wedding jobs.  The first few were non-union.  They even had bands for pre-wedding showers.  French-Canadians were very big for that.

So I worked that way, and then I joined the union.  When I joined the union I had to play with a band that played Polish polkas half the night.  I didn’t stay very long with it.  So I worked around home, and then Boots Mussulli came back from Stan Kenton’s band around 1947.

TP:    I assume you were listening to jazz pianists and digging them.

McKENNA:  No, not so much.  First of all, I liked songs, and I think I had a very brief time with liking the cowboy singers, Gene Autry and people like that.  Then I heard a Bing Crosby record.  I liked him okay, but he did a couple of things with a Dixieland band, either Bob Crosby or John Scott Trotter, and I liked that. Around that time, I got interested in Harry James’ band, and then Benny Goodman’s band — and I was hooked from then on.  I used to try to play like Benny rather than Teddy, although I had the utmost respect for Teddy.  (Nat Cole has been my favorite piano player for years; I loved his trio when I heard it. ) But most of that time I listened more to horn players.  Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw.  Also  Count Basie’s band, but I didn’t even know who those guys were at first, like Lester and Count himself. I love Basie.  Duke Ellington was an early favorite, too.  And later on, Bobby Hackett was one of my favorites.  By that time I was listening to Bird and Diz, too.  So I always listened to horn players more than piano players.

TP:    You mentioned in another one of these liner notes that you were inspired by trumpet players, like Dizzy Gillespie  — that you played a little trumpet as well.

McKENNA:  Yeah, although not particularly with Diz.  Some of the swing trumpet players.  I loved Cootie and Rex Stewart, I loved Billy Butterfield and I loved Bobby Hackett.  Buck Clayton, oh, he knocked me out.  And then Dizzy, too.  Dizzy and Bird and Miles, early Miles — I liked all that.  But even when I was listening to Bird, I loved Johnny Hodges; he was one of my favorites.  I loved Duke’s band.  I loved even Duke’s piano playing.

TP:    Why do you say “even Duke’s piano playing”?

McKENNA:  Because most people give him short shrift on that.  They  don’t pay enough attention to him.  I love Count Basie’s piano playing, too.  But as far as all the other piano players, I respect them very much and I like them a lot, but they weren’t the ones that inspired me the most.  It was horn players most of the time.

TP:    It sounds like  in developing your style, you just were playing music by your mind’s ear.

McKENNA:   Right, absolutely.

TP:    Were you very involved in bebop?

McKENNA:  When I was 19 or so, I went with Charlie Ventura.  I loved those guys.  I loved Bird and I loved Diz, but  I also loved the players who were on that band. Boots was a fine player, to — he went back on the road with Charlie and played baritone, whereas he was an alto player with Stan Kenton.  But Conte Candoli was on the band; I loved his playing.  Bennie Green, the trombone player.  He was wonderful.

TP:    You recorded one of his pieces on an Epic date, called “Expense Account.”

McKENNA:  Yeah, that was Bennie’s tune.

TP:    Let’s  get  back to your chronology, though.

McKENNA:  I worked with Boots, and he went back and got me with Charlie Ventura.  That was the small band.  It was the one originally that Roy Kral and Jackie Cain were with.  Boots asked me if I wanted to come on that, but maybe I was too scared or something — I was  18 or 19.  So another piano player went out for a while, then I went out. I named those guys already.  Charlie was the leader, Conte Candoli, Bennie Green, Boots Mussulli. Betty Bennett was the singer.  She later married Andre Previn.  Fine singer.  But no guy singer.  Red Mitchell was the bass player, and Ed Shaughnessy played drums.  Red left, Kenny O’Brien came back on.  Red left to join Woody.  Woody broke up that Second Herd and took a small band to Cuba with Milt Jackson, Bill Harris and Red Mitchell.

Then Charlie broke up that band.  I went home for a couple of months.  Then Red Mitchell called me.  He said, “Woody’s reorganizing a big band.  You want to come on?”  So I did.  Then I stayed in Woody’s band until I was drafted in the Korean War.  I spent almost two years as a cook mostly in the Army, and never got in a band.  I got out in something like September, and Boots was back home.  I worked a little with Boots Mussulli again around Worcester and Milford, where he was from. Then Charlie called again, and I went back to that quartet with Charlie, with Sonny Igoe and Bob Carter on bass and me on piano, then later we added Mary Ann McCall.  Then we did a few interesting gigs.  We were on a Stan Kenton Festival of Jazz which predated all those Newport jazz things.  It was in 1955 or so, and it had Stan’s band and the Shorty Rogers-Shelly Manne All Stars with Jimmy Giuffre and Pete Jolly and Curtis Counce, the Art Tatum was on it.  We rode the buses.  And Johnny Smith, who had a big hit, “Moonlight In Vermont,” on all the jazz stations…

TP:    So you got to meet Tatum.

McKENNA:  Oh yeah.  I rode the bus with him. He was a beautiful guy.

TP:    Say a few words about him.

McKENNA:  Well, he was just astounding. But his orientation, it was like hearing Franz Liszt or Rachmaninoff play.   I mean, he could swing like a son of a gun.  If you hear about eight bars of that “Elegy,” he played stride better than Fats maybe.  But he got impatient with that, and he was back to those tremendous classical runs and arpeggios.  It was beautiful.  But he made you sweat when you listened to him.  And he had a nice trio, although he was probably fettered by a trio.  He had Slam Stewart, a marvelous bass player, and Everett Barksdale on guitar.  So I think I only heard him play one solo.

TP:    You’ve said that you also feel fettered by a trio.

McKENNA:  Yeah, but not because I have any technique.  I like to play rubato, change tempos, change keys, and I’d have to rehearse with a bass and drums to get that going.  So I don’t like the piano format, no.  But I love working with a band, a little band either four pieces, or five.  I love a full rhythm section, too.  I love a guitar.  Then I can just plink-plank-pluck, you know.

TP:    Would you say your style was pretty fully formed by the time you went in the Army?

McKENNA:  Well, yeah, but I got more pianistic later.  When I played alone then, I played just a single line in the right hand and a single line in the left, and a few chords here and there.  Not when I played a ballad, but…

TP:    You play like an orchestra now.

McKENNA:  I didn’t consciously become a solo piano player using a bass line.  I just used it to fill up what I heard on records.  That’s the way I played at home.

TP:    Well, you were very distinctive among pianists who came up when you did because of the way you used the left hand.

McKENNA:  I don’t know about that.  And I’m sick of doing that, to tell you the truth — I mean, the bass line.  I’m very sloppy with stride; I came to it later in life. My favorite way to play solo is sort of rolling the chords, like four to the beat, sort of strumming them like a guitar.  Can’t do it too fast, though.  So I much prefer that to the single-note line.  You have to use a little more exertion for that.

TP:    So you were influenced by rhythm guitar players also?

McKENNA:  Yeah.  I think I was.  I loved Count Basie and Freddie Green’s rhythm.  Then later on,  I got to do a couple of record dates in New York with Barry Galbraith, who was the number-one studio rhythm guitar player.  He was in that famous Claude Thornhill rhythm section which they called “the sophisticated Count Basie.”  They swung in a gentler manner, but they swung, though.  It was Billy Exiner on drums, Claude, Joe Shulman on bass and Barry on guitar.  Those guys are all long gone now, of course.

After Korea, Charlie called again with that quartet.  I was with Charlie about three or four different times.  After that, Gene Krupa called, and I worked with his quartet for a while, and I went back with Gene at different times.  I had a short time with Stan Getz, very enjoyable.  But I got a little sick, had to go home for a while, and then I worked with  Zoot Sims and Al Cohn.  Then Gene Krupa again and Charlie again.

But in 1958 I joined Bobby Hackett, and I had a long association with Bobby.   I would leave and go back.  It was on and off until Bobby died around 1978 or ’77, whatever.  Then I worked in Eddie Condon’s in New York City for a while.

TP:    You lived in New York for a while.

McKENNA:  Yes, I did, from 1960 to about ’66, something like that.  I worked at Eddie Condon’s first with Peanuts Hucko’s band, then it was Yank Lawson’s band.  The first band didn’t have a bass.  It was Peanuts, Cutty Cutshall, and Buck Clayton.  Oh, I loved Buck!  Then Buck left, and Nick Travis came on for a bit, and then Yank Lawson came on.  When Peanuts left, Yank became the leader.  Cutty was there all the time.  I worked with different drummers, but we had a bass player.  It was a tough job, but those guys were good players.  And I started to retrogress.  I started to get more interested in the older traditional jazz.  I still played basically the way I did, but I changed my outlook.  Even with Hackett, I started to play… I started using the minor 7th in front all the time.  I started to become a little more old-fashioned, and I think a little too much so that way. [LAUGHS] I’m sort of a mainstream player.  A guy like Bill Evans, who I admire tremendously, was my age, but he went on to pioneer a new piano style.  Maybe in the very early ’50s we played more or less alike… Maybe.  I’m not sure of that.  Maybe I was always a little bit more old-fashioned.

TP:    At least from that trio record, it sounds like your time is more in the older piano players, and Bill Evans has more of a Bud Powell type of left hand.

McKENNA:  I suppose so.

TP:    There’s a quote I read where he said he didn’t get records by piano players except the records he collected of you.

McKENNA:  I think I did see that.  There’s a another quote a long time ago in DownBeat that I’m kind of proud of.  It was a thing about Andre Previn, and toward the end of the interview he said, “What young piano players do you like?”  He said, “Well, I’m not certain how young they are, but I love Bill Evans and Dave McKenna,” something like that.

Then of course, in those days, with Zoot and Al… I had to take a gig with Gene Krupa, went back with Gene for a couple of weeks because it paid more money.  DownBeat  had a “Caught In The Act” which said it was Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, with maybe Knobby Totah on bass, Ray Mosca on drums, “and Bill Evans, subbing for Dave McKenna.” [LAUGHS] I said, “Whoa, man, I wish I could clip that out.”  Bill Evans subbing for Dave McKenna.

TP:    You must know 10,000 tunes.

McKENNA:  Oh, no, man!  Nobody does. In fact, there are guys that know more.  Hank Jones, Jimmy Rowles when he was living, Tommy Flanagan, they know many more tunes than I do.  They know the Bebop tunes, too, and I stopped learning them.  The Bebop tunes I knew go back to “Scrapple From the Apple” and “Yardbird Suite” and “Groovin’ High,” Dizzy’s early things, “Dizzy Atmosphere,” and then maybe up to “The Preacher,” Horace Silver and all that — then I stopped listening to it.  I didn’t stop liking it.  I just got into tunes and all that shit.

TP:    Are you a vocals man?  Do you know the lyrics to all the tunes?

McKENNA:  No.  I mean, I know a few verses and I like them, but Jimmy Rowles had me beat a mile. Well, there are piano players around, more like cocktail piano players; they know more tunes and more verses than I do.  I play them if I know them.

TP:    And when you’re improvising on them, are you thinking about lyrics?

McKENNA:  I never used to.  And you know, for a long while I didn’t even know who wrote what tune.  I mean, I knew the obvious, like Hoagy Carmichael wrote “Stardust” and I knew Cole Porter wrote “Night and Day,” and I knew George Gershwin wrote “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You.”  But later on a friend of mine who was a brilliant musician, an arranger who gave it up for… He said, “Do you realize how many tunes Harry Warren wrote?” and he told me what he wrote — and he got to be my favorite songwriter for a while.  He’s in that class of Rodgers & Hart and Gershwin and Porter, great Pop tunes.  He wrote some rinky-tinky tunes; I even like them.  But “The More I See You,” “I Wish I Knew”…

TP:    Talk about playing a duo and playing a trio and playing a solo, and the different ways you approach them.

McKENNA:  I have no analytical approach.  I just go in and do the best I can.  But  it’s tough  playing solo, and  even tougher playing with a duo.  You’re playing every minute.  At least the horn player gets to rest while you play a solo.

TP:    Duos and trios have been part of your working life for 40-50 years?

McKENNA:  Well, no, not the duos and things.  I did a couple of trio records with Scott Hamilton and Jake Hanna, and I did a few duo records with my old pal Dick Johnson, including one for Concord…

TP:    Well, when did you start being primarily a solo or duo pianist?

McKENNA:  I made my first solo album in 1955, when I was 25, but I didn’t do much solo work in New York at all. I took solo gigs on the Cape during the summers in the early ’60s, and then when I moved back to the Cape after Condon’s I started playing solo extensively. I had done solo gigs and  solo records, but that’s when I started to make a living at it more or less.  I got into it in the ’70s, and it became most of my living — and still is, I guess.  But I’d like to change that. I’m having a little trouble with my hands now and I’d like to play in a little band, but can I make a living?  But I don’t think I’ll be able to make much of a living playing solo either, because my technique isn’t that good, and I’m slowing up and having trouble.  But my hands are feeling a little better in the last couple of weeks, so we’ll see.  I’m starting to play a little more at home on the piano and stuff.

TP:    One aspect of your technique, from what I read in one of these liner notes, the writer said you break up your hands into two parts, like you use the outer two fingers…

McKENNA:  That’s all technical.  I don’t even know what I’m doing.

TP:    So it’s all intuitive for you.  It’s the way you learned.

McKENNA:  Yes.  I am a by-ear piano player — no question.  I had a little classical training. As I said, I had one other teacher, Sandy Sandiford, who was a black guy in Boston who was  a very nice jazz piano player, but he also wrote for singers up there.  I heard about him through another lady piano player in Woonsocket and I went there.  He said, “listen to this and listen that.”  He tried to make me play scales, but I wouldn’t do it.  Then I had a classical teacher very briefly in Woonsocket, a guy who just died lately, who was a classical piano player who got into church music or something.  He tried to give me Chopin.  But he said, “Dave, what’s the use?  You don’t practice.”  I said, “Yeah, you’re right.”  He said, “Just continue what you’re doing.”

I read music to a certain extent, but not well.  So when I was in New York I couldn’t have made a good living as a studio piano player, because I wasn’t a good reader.  So that answers that question.

In the ’80s I was almost exclusively a solo piano player.  I had one long gig during that time at the Copley Plaza in Boston, for most of the decade; I worked there about nine months of the year.

TP:    Did you spend a lot of time in Boston when you were a kid?

McKENNA:  No.  That’s the funny part of it.  My mother is from Boston, and I grew up less than 40 miles away.  But when it came time to leave, I spend much more time in New York.  It wasn’t until later years I got to Boston.

TP:    So talking to you about the Boston scene in the ’40s and ’50s is kind of pointless.

McKENNA:  Yes, it is.  I was aware of it.  I used to go when I was between gigs.  When I’d leave Charlie or Gene, I’d go up and hear the guys.  They had that Jazz Workshop at the Stables and all; I’d go up and I met Herb Pomeroy, Charlie Mariano, and all the guys. But in those days I spent much more time on the road and in New York City.

TP:    But it seems you always knew you were going to be a musician.

McKENNA:  Well, the thing is, I drifted.  I thought maybe I’d go to college.  But there was no money to send me, and my marks weren’t that good in high school.  So rather than a job in a factory in Woonsocket, which was a mill town, and right after World War Two most of them went south… What else was there for me?  I should have gone into the Post Office like my father; I would have had a pension now.  I’m not kidding either.  But I just drifted into it.  That’s the way it was.  And I figured you don’t have to get up early in the morning, which was the way it used to be, more or less.

TP:    Well, you’d go to bed early in the morning.

McKENNA:  Yeah, right.  No more of that.  And sometimes you do have to get up ridiculously early in the morning when you’re on the road — to catch a plane.  But I never intended to be a professional musician.  I never did.

TP:    It just happened.

McKENNA:  Yes, I just drifted into it.

2 Comments

Filed under Dave McKenna, Interview, Piano

2 responses to “Interview with Dave McKenna (May 30, 1930-October 18, 2008)

  1. Jon Foley

    What a nice interview with Dave! Thank you for publishing this. I can’t say I knew him well, but I met him and shared a few drinks with him in the past. I didn’t realize until I read this that he was in the Charlie Ventura group that I heard on the Stan Kenton tour he refers to (it was actually in the Fall of ’54). He was a really nice guy and, it should go without saying, a helluva piano player. I’m happy to have spent the small amount of time that I did with him, and I have many of his CDs that I can go back to whenever I want. One of a kind!

  2. Ernie

    Thanks for posting this interview with my favorite piano player. He was modest but extraordinarily talented.

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