Appreciating Dave McKenna — Tom Reney

January 9th 2009 04:22 pm

Copyright © 2009 Tom Reney

Dave McKenna, a New England jazz legend, died on Saturday, October 18, 2008, at the age of 78. His sister Jean McKenna O’Donnell noted that he’d enjoyed the Red Sox spectacular Game 5 victory over Tampa Bay on Thursday night. Dave, who grew up in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, had two great passions: jazz piano and the Boston Red Sox. Indeed, during his playing years, he was notorious for his habit of listening to Sox games on a concealed transistor radio while he played piano at the Copley Plaza and other Southern New England saloons. Among the handful of tunes he composed, two were dedicated to Ted Williams, “Theodore the Thumper” and “Splendid Splinter.”

The New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett was a regular at Dave’s gigs on Cape Cod and at Bradley’s in Greenwich Village. One of Balliett’s most affectionate pieces was his 1979 profile of McKenna entitled “Super Chops.” It begins, “Dave McKenna’s life pivots on paradox.” Here’s one that comes to mind for me: When I began seeing McKenna as a teenager, I was amazed at how little attention nightclub patrons paid to his playing, and dismayed at how difficult it often was to hear his powerful attack over the din of conversation. (This was before Bradley Cunningham began insisting on silence for the performers at his legendary nightclub on University Place.) But when Terri Gross interviewed Dave on Fresh Air 20 years ago, she mentioned this same annoying phenomenon, and asked if it bothered him. “Not really,” he replied. “When they’re quiet, I get nervous.”

I used to see Dave on a regular basis on the Cape, at the Copley Plaza in Boston, with Ruby Braff at the Regattabar, and at Bradley’s, where I’d hang till the last note was struck and often get a lift down to Spring Street from Dave and his driver. Especially memorable were the times when Zoot Sims would arrive at Bradley’s around 2 a.m., mount a barstool, and play duets with Dave. I also ran into him a few times at Fenway Park. And most memorably, when I was visiting Paris in January 1991, I ran into Dave and his wife Frankie on the street where I was staying; he’d played some holiday gigs in Germany and then come to Paris for sightseeing.

The last time I saw Dave was on his 70th birthday, May 30, 2000, at a church in Belchertown, Massachusetts, where he played a Sunday afternoon concert. His playing was as brilliant as ever, but he was in no mood for celebration. When the emcee proposed that we sing “Happy Birthday” to welcome Dave back for his second set, he shot us a ray that said, “Don’t dare!” And no one did. Afterwards he attended a reception at the producer’s home, and was unusually garrulous as he talked about the BoSox. That was the last time I saw him, and I believe it was one of his last performances anywhere.

I first heard Dave at The Columns on Rt. 28 in West Dennis around 1970. I was a 17-year-old passing for 21, already fanatical for Duke Ellington, hard bop, Chicago blues, and the jam sessions I’d catch every week at the Kitty Kat Lounge in my hometown of Worcester. But seeing Dave, Dick Johnson, Lou Colombo, even Bobby Hackett at these Cape Cod roadhouses was a revelation. To discover music of this caliber played with such beauty and passion by master musicians working far from the limelight gave me a whole new insight into the workaday nature of the jazz life. Speaking of which, I once asked Dave to confirm that he was playing a regular Thursday night gig at the opulent Chatham Bars Inn on the Cape. “Oh yeah,” he replied, “That’s my corned beef.” Back in the early 70’s, Dave and his colleagues impressed in me an understanding that the ritual of music making was itself the highest reward, and that riches and fame were of secondary importance. In many ways, the relative obscurity of these players was one of the things that fueled my desire to pursue a career in which I might bring a little exposure to their great work. Now, with all due respect, I can tell you that it’s been an honor to play Dave McKenna’s music on the radio for the past 30 years.

Tom Reney
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