Dave McKenna (1930-2008) was a one-of-a-kind piano player. He often denied that he was a jazz player, even though he was steeped in the music. “I’m a song player,” he would say, and he certainly played all the wonderful songs in the American songbook. He liked to group songs in a set by themes. Sometimes a medley would be all songs about rain, sometimes about happiness, sometimes about a color, or once in a while just songs by the same composer. He would explore each tune harmonically, wandering from stride to bebop to romanticism, and usually making everything swing like mad.
I got to know Dave playing jam sessions with Zoot Sims, and then playing with him at Eddie Condon’s club. Eddie’s manager had talked him into only hiring a bass player with his sextet on weekends, so Dave was always glad to see me every Friday. He played the bass lines himself on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and got to be very good at it. He incorporated walking bass lines into his solo piano style in a very original way.
Dave was a great admirer of food and drink, and when the liquor outbalanced the food, he could be a belligerent companion. He was broad shouldered and strong, and nobody to mess with when in his cups. We lived near each other in Chelsea for a while, and I remember running into him on the street one morning and saying to him, “You were in pretty rough shape last night at the Half Note.” “I don’t want to hear about it!” he growled. Toward the end of his life, physical problems began to interfere with his playing, but he plowed ahead, playing gorgeously even when in pain. He once said to me, “I suppose if I do what the doctor tells me and cut down on the rich food and the booze, I’ll live a little longer. But how will I know for sure?”
I always keep one of Dave’s solo records in my car to keep me company while driving to gigs. He sure knew how to cheer a guy up.
Another story from William Zinn: The actress Jane Seymour called an agency to supply music for an outdoor wedding in Connecticut. The agency convinced her that a string quartet would provide a sophisticated touch as the guests arrived. She opted for a trio, to save a little on the price, and Zinn got the call.
There was no provision for an electrical outlet, so the trio played unamplified. Since it was a hot day, they set up in the shade of a tree near the tent. Seymour came out of the tent and angrily complained that she couldn’t hear the music. She told them to play louder. Zinn explained that without amplification, a string trio couldn’t play louder. She stormed back into the tent.
Then a man came out of the tent and walked over toward the trio. As he got closer, they recognized him as Paul Newman. Zinn greeted him and asked where the trio could get a drink on such a hot day. Newman said, “I’ll take care of it,” and headed back into the tent. In a short while he reemerged, carrying a large tray with sandwiches, soda, wine and beer, plus cake, cookies and a tray of ice. As the trio gave him copious thanks, Newman said, “Call me if you need anything else,” and returned to the tent. He made three lifetime fans that day.
Fred Griffen sent me a couple of stories about the late Joe Shepley. Joe, in the Army, was stationed in Korea during the conflict there. He had managed to take his trumpet with him, but the base commander kept it under lock and key, only letting him take it out during Saturday inspections. As the entire unit stood at attention, in a war zone, the tune the commander allowed Joe to play was “Tenderly.”
Another time, at a brass conference where Joe was being honored, Fred and Glen Drewes were talking about Joe. Fred liked Glen’s comment: “Joe never lost the little boy.” When Fred told Joe about it , he said, “Yeah, that’s nice, but sometimes I lose the old man!”
A friend of Bill Wurtzel’s sat in with a band in Florida. After the gig, the leader said, “Hey man, you play good, do you want to go to an after-hours gig?”
When Bill’s friend said he would like to, the leader replied, “We have to hurry up. They end at 11.”
Bill Morrison read an item I wrote in a recent column about the “Southie” accent in Boston. He told me about a NPR show that ran on WGBH for years hosted by Ray Smith, who spoke with a Boston accent. Bill said he never could tell, when Smith talked about Roy Eldridge’s “hot attack,” whether he was referring to Roy’s chops or to his cardiovascular system.
Kirby Tassos once played a tour of “Annie.” On one show, after a long bus ride, Kirby’s stand partner nodded off and slept through the entire first act. At intermission, the conductor asked Kirby why he hadn’t waked the guy up. Kirby replied, “Well, the band sounded so good…”