Dave McKenna, one of the more distinctive pianists heard on the Boston scene in the 1980s, was born on May 30, 1930 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
Dave McKenna was an integral part of the Boston jazz scene for only about eight years, which constitutes less than a quarter of his active professional time in New England. Still, the listeners who heard him when McKenna was the resident pianist in the Plaza Bar in the Copley Plaza Hotel cherish the memory. Everybody liked Dave. Even people whose taste in creative music went in different directions liked Dave because he was a one-of-a-kind and very, very good at what he did.
What he did in the Plaza Bar, of course, was play solo piano, from 1981 to 1989, for about eight months a year, six night a week, four hours a night. He was self-effacing: “I play a lot of melody. I’d call myself a saloon player.”
Dave McKenna loved the Great American Songbook, and he knew countless good songs from it, where he defined a “good song” as one with a memorable melody. His crowd-pleasing habit, at the Plaza Bar and elsewhere, was to assemble medleys based on the work of one composer, or on word associations: songs about rain, dreams, streets, the seasons, a color. I heard a medley of songs having “Don’t” in the title. And I heard a baby medley—”My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” “Melancholy Baby,” “I Found a New Baby.” He could, and did, do this all night.
What set McKenna apart was his sense of rhythmic swing and the rhythmic power of his left hand. He’d play single-note walking bass lines, or as the tempo picked up, he’d switch to strumming chords, comping on the beat like a rhythm guitarist, creating an effect that became almost hypnotic. McKenna developed his technique on his own, out of necessity, because there weren’t any bass players in Woonsocket. He learned how to be his own rhythm section.
The Plaza Bar wasn’t the first place where McKenna worked a long residence. The McKenna family moved from New York City to Cape Cod in 1966, and in 1970 he began playing at the Columns, a restaurant in Dennis run by Warren Maddows. McKenna was there from 1970 to 1977, sometimes as a solo, sometimes accompanying a singer like Teddi King, sometimes with a larger group that might include Bobby Hackett or Zoot Sims. In 1977, Maddows procured a second piano and McKenna played duets with Teddy Wilson. Unlike the Copley Plaza, the Columns was a year-round endeavor, and Cape jazz fans remember it as fondly as Bostonians remember the Plaza Bar.
The nightly McKenna gig at the Copley Plaza ended in spring 1989, and for the next decade he resided on the Cape and had the freedom to pick and choose the work he wanted. McKenna stopped playing in about 2004 because of health issues—carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, worsening diabetes, and finally lung cancer, the cause of his death in 2008.
Here is Dave McKenna playing Harry Warren’s “42nd Street,” an over-the-keyboard view that allows us to watch his hands. It’s all here. His left hand starts with the single-note bass line, and as the tempo picks up he starts strumming those chords. It’s rocking in rhythm indeed.