Born: May 30, 1930 | Died: October 18, 2008 Primary Instrument: Piano
Dave McKenna is simply one of the legends of the jazz piano. He, of course, would probably disagree. I don't know if I qualify as a bona-fide jazz guy, he says. I play saloon piano. I like to stay close to the melody. His humility and laid-back personal style seem a contrast to the vibrant vitality of his masterful piano style. His range is truly extraordinary. One minute he is caressing a lovely ballad, the next he is thundering and rumbling through a high-powered rendition of I Found a New Baby.
Dave was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, into a musical family. His father William McKenna, a postman, played the drums part-time, and two sisters are singers. His mother, Catherine Reilly McKenna, was Dave's first piano teacher. In additions to being a good piano player, she was a fine violinist as a young woman. He also took lessons from Preston Sandy Sandiford in Boston, a fine piano teacher Dave liked very much. He explains that he developed his trademark left-handed bass style because I wanted to hear something like what I heard on the records.
Dave began his career with Boots Mussulli Band, then left home to play with the Charlie Ventura band, followed by a stint with Woody Herman. After two years in the army, he returned to Charlie Ventura's band, then worked with Gene Krupa, Stan Getz, and Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. He often worked with Bobby Hackett, including some gigs at Eddie Condon's in Manhattan, playing what Hackett called Whiskeyland Jazz. Among Dave's biggest influences was Nat King Cole, who remains one of his favorites to this day.
While working with Bobby Hackett, Dave discovered the pleasures of Cape Cod. He and his wife Frankie moved to the Cape in 1966 with their sons Stephen and Douglas. The move changed his career as well as his address - he worked less frequently with bands and more often as a solo pianist, but he still spent a great deal of time on the road.
Dave's musical magic found a wider audience through recordings, from his first solo recording on ABC records in 1955 to his wonderful work in the 70s for Chiaroscuro Records and then for Concord Jazz. In the 1980s, Dave's many fans could enjoy his magnificent medleys 6 nights a week at the Plaza Bar at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, where he was pianist-in-residence.
Dave has traveled all over the world to play festivals, cruises and concerts, and Boston-area fans always considered it a rare treat when he did perform close to home, either solo or with noted jazz artists including Dick Johnson, Gray Sargent, Marshall Wood, and Donna Byrne. Although he is no longer performing, he appreciates the support and kind words he has received over the years from his many fans all over the world.
McKenna excels in his art. What is it that makes Dave so unique? His uncanny sense of time? His ability to sound like the entire Basie band? His penchant for resurrecting obscure but lovely ballads that deserve to be heard again? Or maybe it's the famous McKenna medleys that can go on for entire set without repetition. The man, indeed, deserves his reputation as quite simply the best at what he does. Ron Della Cheisa - WGBH Radio, Boston
Joy is the word that would come first to mind if Dave McKenna showed up on a free-association test. My own joy in listening to him but also that joyful authority with which he swings, shapes melodies, and changes colors inside those melodies. Nat Hentoff, The Nation
The McKenna piano style - like the great and often neglected songs he makes it his business to play - is built to last: rugged, durable, handsome, with no fins or frills. He has the knack of bringing out the best in a tune, highlighting its virtues and beauties, setting it off like a master jeweler. He can do it with such conviction because he does it with love and understanding.Fred Bouchard - jazz writer
The McKenna technique is awesome, comprised of lyrically romantic right-hand swing and left-hand drive so powerful, so perfectly and wholly conceived, that it roars directly into the listeners imagination, conjuring contrabass, drums, at times an entire orchestra. Charlie Drago, East Side - West Side, Providence RI
I think Dave McKenna is the best pianist playing right now. His lines flow like mad, he doesn't suffer from playing solo, and he's the most complete. George Shearing, jazz pianist
New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett called Dave McKenna 'the hardest swinging jazz pianist of all time.' Newsweek said he's 'the world's best ballroom piano player.' Me, I can't begin to describe what he does with his awesome two-handed style, except to say that his left hand suggests a rumbling volcano (a very musical mountain, however) and his right hand does things that are impossible. McKenna and those huge paws ought to be enshrined in the Smithsonian. Les Line, Compuserve Music/Arts Forum
...The two hands together produce hammered gold...The total impact is the stuff of legend. Don Asher, San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle
Without pyrotechnics, McKenna does what he does best, clearing away the clutter, bringing out the beauty of the melody and its relationship to chord changes, and, if the mood suits him, improvising his own ideas into the structure. Larry Kelp, jazz writer
(McKenna) now stretches out a song by playing it in a variety of ways - for the sheer pleasure of the melody, then rumbling into a dark, swaggering but emphatically swinging attack that may burst into joyful stride piano before settling back to a gentle melodic caress. John S. Wilson, New York Times
He sounds like he has 49 fingers and they never run out of breath. Ballads, swingers, boppers, funkers - he plays 'em all, and his left hand darts like a snake at a mouse. Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle
He needs no rhythm or a bass man. He needs no one! He is his own band...actually, it seems sometimes that McKenna is equipped with two heads...one for the left hand, one for the right hand. And then he suddenly uses two heads in his music. Goren Norstrom, Gefle Dagblad (Sweden)
The rhythmic impetus he developed summoned up high-balling freights. He built his massive rhythms ingeniously...but the slow numbers were just as hypnotic, for they offered listeners the chance to see how he does it in slow motion. Whitney Balliett, The New Yorker
...Dave McKenna...is something special even in New York's glittering piano scene. He puts it all together in such a seamless, beautifully articulated flow that the final result is like nothing that has been heard before. John Wilson, The New York Times
McKenna is a complete pianist who uses the entire keyboard much like an orchestra. His left hand is such a pile-driving rhythm-keeper that in a small group setting like this, a bass player would be sent to the showers early. Ken Franckling, United Press International
McKenna...got down to work, spinning out a melodic line, supporting it with his signature rumbling bass. In his combination of power and delicacy, he makes you imagine a linebacker who's also a microsurgeon...When you're in McKenna's superbly capable hands, the world goes away and you can dream, forget your troubles and just get happy. Cyra McFadden, jazz writer
The best I can describe it, Dave McKenna plays like he has three hands. ...It sounds complicated. It is complicated. But like all great artists, McKenna makes what he does sound simple. When he blows through a song it sounds like that's the way the song is supposed to be played. He respects the material even while making it his own. And, not incidentally, he swings harder than any piano player I've ever heard. Robert L. Doerschuk, Senior Associate Editor, Keyboard Magazine