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Jazz pianist preferred show tunes

October 24, 2008|Jon Thurber | Thurber is a Times staff writer.

Dave McKenna, a master jazz pianist who embraced the music of the Great American Songbook in fashioning a strong career primarily as a solo artist, has died. He was 78.

McKenna died Saturday at his home in State College, Pa., and had been battling lung cancer and diabetes, according to his son Stephen. McKenna stopped playing six or seven years ago as the diabetes impaired his dexterity.

"I'm more of a song player than a jazz player," McKenna told the New York Times some years ago. "I'm a saloon player, a cocktail player. I like show tunes -- Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, Arlen, Porter. The guys I like have a big melodic thing."

His playlist while working solo would often be based on word association because, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, he never quite knew what to play. During a 1990 concert in Santa Monica he put together "Just Friends," "Can't We Be Friends" and "Beautiful Friendship" in a set.

Considered by many a "pianist's pianist," McKenna could swing with the best of them, but most critics appreciated the subtlety of his playing, particularly in his solo performances.

"What other pianists choose to say in a roar, McKenna expresses at something just above a whisper," Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich wrote some years ago. "And while other virtuosos revel in the brilliance of their technique, McKenna very nearly takes pains to disguise his. He is Chopin in a world that reveres Liszt, Mozart in an age that worships Mahler."

Born May 30, 1930, in Woonsocket, R.I., McKenna grew up in a musical home learning keyboards from his piano-playing mother. His father played drums in military bands, and his sisters sang.

A left-hander, he developed a strong rhythm-based style on the piano and, by the age of 15, had his card with the musicians union. As a boy, his favorite pianist was Nat King Cole, though Cole would be known better as a singer.

McKenna started out playing in the big bands of Charlie Ventura and Woody Herman in the early 1950s before serving in the Army. After his discharge he continued to add experience with some leading names in jazz, including Stan Getz, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Bobby Hackett. He found work as a staff musician at ABC in the early '60s in New York.

He moved with his family to Cape Cod in 1966, and his career took a different and decidedly quiet turn as he worked mainly as a solo pianist. In fact, his name was not particularly well-known until he signed with Concord Records, where he recorded some of his best albums, in the late 1970s.

His albums with saxophonist Scott Hamilton and drummer Jake Hanna for Concord, "No Bass Hit" and the follow-up "Major League," were recorded without a bass player because of McKenna's strong left-handed keyboard work. Some critics consider his "Live at Maybeck Recital Hall: Volume 2" and "An Intimate Evening With Dave McKenna" to be his finest solo work.

For much of the 1980s, he was the pianist at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. A devoted Red Sox fan, he was famous for listening to his favorite team on a transistor radio while playing in the hotel bar. He was never shy about sharing the score of the game with the audience.

In addition to his son Stephen, he is survived by another son, Douglas; his wife, Frances McKenna of North Carolina; two sisters; a brother; and a granddaughter, Caitlin.

Donations in his name may be made to the American Diabetes Assn.


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