[JPL] Dave McKenna's NYT obituary
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Mon Oct 20 12:29:07 EDT 2008
October 20, 2008
Dave McKenna, Pianist Known for Solo Jazz Work, Dies at 78
By PETER KEEPNEWS
Dave McKenna, a jazz pianist who began his career as a big-band sideman but became best known for his distinctive solo playing, with a powerful left hand that made a bass player seem unnecessary, died Saturday in State College, Pa. He was 78.
The cause was lung cancer, said his companion, Liz Muir of Brookline, Mass.
Widely admired by his fellow musicians, Mr. McKenna acquired a devoted following over the years even though he rarely left the East Coast. He spent most of the last four decades of his life in Massachusetts, after moving from New York City to Cape Cod in 1966. Most listeners in other parts of the world knew his work primarily from his recordings, of which there were many.
David McKenna was born on May 30, 1930, in Woonsocket, R.I. His father, William, was a postman who played drums as a hobby; his mother, Catherine, was a pianist who gave him his first lessons on the instrument.
He first performed with local groups in Boston as a teenager before moving on to the big bands of Charlie Ventura and Woody Herman.
After serving in the Army and rejoining Ventura for a while, he worked with small ensembles led by Stan Getz and others and began long associations with two mainstays of the traditional jazz scene, the cornetist Bobby Hackett and the clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Bob Wilber.
After his move to Cape Cod, Mr. McKenna worked mostly as a solo pianist, occasionally in New York but more often in New England. For much of the 1980s he was the pianist in residence at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston.
Mr. McKenna made a solo album for ABC Paramount in 1955 but otherwise rarely recorded until signing with Concord Records in the late 1970s. He recorded frequently after that, as bandleader, accompanist and, most notably, unaccompanied soloist.
It was in that role, in performance and on albums with titles like "My Friend the Piano" and "Left Handed Complement," that he gave full vent to his distinctive style. That style, rooted in the jazz piano tradition of an earlier era, was built around powerful bass lines, elegantly voiced chords and a loving approach to melodies, especially those of the Tin Pan Alley standards that were the foundation of his vast repertory. He liked to spin out long medleys united by a theme, like famous and obscure songs with "You," "Stars" or "Spring" in the title.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was more likely to ornament a tune with elegant embellishments than to use it as a springboard for elaborate improvisations that left the melody behind.
"I don't know if I qualify as a bona fide jazz guy," he once said. "I play saloon piano. I like to stay close to the melody."
Survivors also include his wife, Frances Wiggins McKenna, of Oak Island, N.C.; his sons Stephen, of State College, and Douglas, of Dennis, Mass.; a brother, Donald, of Woonsocket; two sisters, Jean O'Donnell of Woonsocket and Patricia Savard of Barrington, R.I.; and one granddaughter.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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