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Remembering Jazz Pianist Dave McKenna

Dave McKenna, the hard-swinging jazz keyboardist who died in October, was a particular favorite of Fresh Air dating back to the show's early local broadcasts. Our Thanksgiving Day broadcast is devoted to his memory — with excerpts from an interview and in-studio performance from 1988, plus remembrances from his sister, singer Jean McKenna O'Donnell.



Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
'Fresh Air' Remembers Jazz Pianist Dave McKenna


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, and I hope you're enjoying your Thanksgiving day. We have some great music for you today as we pay tribute to the pianist Dave McKenna. He was described by the New Yorker's late jazz critic Whitney Balliet as the hardest-swinging jazz pianist of all time. Dan Morgenstern, the Director of the Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies, said McKenna's singular artistry covers the whole vocabulary of piano from stride to bop. Dave McKenna died in October at the age of 78. He has a special place on Fresh Air. We have often played his recordings, and we were delighted when he accepted our invitation to come to our studios for a performance and interview during our second year as a national program. We've set aside our show today to listen back to that broadcast and to an interview I just recorded with his sister, Jean McKenna O'Donnell. And we'll hear a demo recording from 1965 in which she sings accompanied by her brother. Let's start with Dave McKenna at the piano recorded in our studio in 1988.

(Soundbite of "Fresh Air" from 1988)

GROSS: Dave McKenna, welcome to Fresh Air. It's our complete pleasure to have you here.

Mr. DAVE MCKENNA (Pianist): Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: And I'd like to ask you to introduce the first song you'd love to play.

Mr. MCKENNA: OK. This is a tune by Dietz Schwartz called "By Myself."

(Soundbite of song "By Myself")

GROSS: That's beautiful. You know, I especially like hearing you perform solo. And I think the reason is that your sense of rhythm is so strong. It's like you're accompanying yourself. And I'd just as soon not hear anybody with you, so I can hear completely what it is you're doing. And I was wondering if you especially like playing solo.

Mr. MCKENNA: Well, of course, it's the way I make my living now. But it's fun to play with a band. I don't - the base piano duo thing or the piano trio thing doesn't work with me, because it's that in between thing. I don't think I ever got that down. But I really love playing with base and drums and a horn or two, you know, trumpet and saxophone and a guitar too, I love that. But I play it the different way. And it's just - it really is fun. But anything less than four pieces, I'd rather be alone with that. Because I can change tempo, I'd have to work with the base play for years and just change or change tunes, you know. When you play solo, it's just - lot of it is just killing time, killing the clock.

GROSS: You think so?

Mr. MCKENNA: Yeah.

GROSS: Would you play another song for us?

Mr. MCKENNA: Sure.

(Soundbite of song "Yours is My Heart Alone")

GROSS: That was "Yours is My Heart Alone" performed live by pianist Dave McKenna. When you're playing a song, do you usually know the lyrics to it?

Mr. MCKENNA: Well, I didn't used to know. I don't think I know the words to one song all the way through. But, you know, I do like to listen to singers, and bits and pieces of the words come back to me. It's nice when you know a few. I think...

GROSS: Does it help with the interpretation?

Mr. MCKENNA: I think so. I think it helps you to play the melody. But yeah, I do remember a few words now, never used to.

GROSS: Do you like to learn a song from just hearing it or from sheet music?

Mr. MCKENNA: Let me say - I must say, yeah, I'm a bad sight reader. I'd just rather hear it, yeah, from somebody. The trouble is now that, well, to hear a song - I don't learn many new songs, to tell you the truth, because there are all lot of good rock songs and a few top 40 things. But they need guitars, singers or something. There are not many tunes that really sound good on the piano that are being written now. But I supposed there are a few, and once in a while somebody ask me to learn something. So, I get the sheet music and - but even that, I'd rather hear somebody play it with the singer before I play it.

GROSS: And we ask you to play another song. You want to do "Sweet Lorraine?"

Mr. MCKENNA: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song "Sweet Lorraine")

GROSS: "Sweet Lorraine" performed for us live by Dave McKenna. You know I saw you perform once at a club in Cape Cod, and the room was filled. You were staring off into space not - intentionally, I thought, not making eye contact with anybody, just focused on nothing in particular, but obviously very focused, but really avoiding people's eyes.

Mr. MCKENNA: Was that at the (unintelligible) house?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCKENNA: Well, that was a fun - that's a nice place. And for years a family, great friends of mine, they're wonderful people, the Loehmanns(ph) that ran it. But that gig - people did listen a lot there.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. And oh, it was quiet.

Mr. MCKENNA: And it was like a concert, and I mean at times…

GROSS: But it seems to me you just didn't want to see anybody that you didn't want to make eye contact.

Mr. MCKENNA: Well, yeah. When you play under those circumstances and everybody's listening, well, you say, you're saying, I say, oh gee. How am I going to fill up an hour if these people are listening intently? So when I'm looking off into space, I'm thinking of medleys to play, things that'll wind the clock down, you know.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MCKENNA: Getting things together to play.

GROSS: Dave McKenna recorded in our studio in 1988. We'll hear more of his concert and interview later. Coming up, an interview with his sister Jean as we continue our tribute to the late pianist. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're paying tribute to the great pianist Dave McKenna. He died in October at the age of 78. To find out more about him, we called his sister, Jean McKenna O'Donnell, a retired English teacher. She sings, but when she was younger she decided not to perform professionally. But 43 years ago, she made a demo tape with her brother accompanying her. Fortunately, she still has the tape. Here's an excerpt.

(Soundbite of song "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads")

Ms. JEAN MCKENNA O'DONNELL (Mr. Dave McKenna's Sister): (Singing)

GROSS: That's Jean McKenna O'Donnell with her brother, the late Dave McKenna, at the piano. Last year at the age of 70, Jean made her first album called "Full Circle." She's also been performing at different clubs in Rhode Island. Jean lives in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in the home she and Dave grew up in. Jean McKenna O'Donnell, welcome to Fresh Air. I want to start by saying I'm very sorry for your loss. Did you and your parents, when your brother was young, comprehend the depth of his talent?

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: I think my mother did. I don't think the rest of us were totally aware of it. But my mother always knew just how wonderful, how really good he was. And I think that showed up even when he was six or seven. I think she knew even then that he was really going to be something great.

GROSS: Few of us get to hear a person as talented as your brother develop over the years from childhood on. Can you describe a little bit what it was like to come of age watching your brother Dave McKenna get better and better?

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: It's a little difficult. He left, actually, to start playing with the big bands when he was about 18. And before that, most of his playing was done outside. I think that his style when he was a young kid was be-bop, and he just went all over the piano. So my father didn't appreciate it at all. He thought, where's the tune? Where's the song? The melody, you know. So I think for that reason he didn't really practice and play an awful lot in our hearing.

My real recollection of his playing at home would be in later years when he was on the road and sometimes end up in Rhode Island because he played there with Gene Krupa and Buddy Hackett and several other bands every now and then. And then, he would come home. And since he was used to late hours after everybody else was in bed he would sit down at the piano and play softly and play these beautiful things. You know Ravel and Poulenc and Debussy and, you know, the short pieces by these composers. And I would hear him and come down and sit on the stairs and just really take it in. It was really so beautiful, and that's the place where I heard "Sleeping Bee" for the first time. And I think that's the first time I acknowledged to him that I ever did that, get up to hear him play, because I had to ask him, what was that song you were playing last night?

GROSS: Your brother knew so many songs. And I understand when he was a teenager, he had a regular spot on a name that tune feature on a local radio show, is that right?

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: Yes, it is. And since he did keep late hours and then this was on about 11 o'clock in the morning, I can remember my mother going up and waking him up and his having to dash down to the radio station. We didn't have a car, so he must have been running. And he'd be thinking just on the way what he was going to be playing because he never had that prepared before. And I can remember one time when somebody called into the station irate because he evidently had forgotten something of the release of the tune and improvised a little bit. So they said, how can we recognize the tune? It was a contest you know.

Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Your brother Dave McKenna played with a lot of bands, ensembles and big bands, recorded a lot of records under his own name. But he also spent many years playing solo piano at the Copley Hotel. Was it the Copley Plaza Hotel?

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: The Copley Plaza, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. In Boston. And I've been there. I mean, I don't know if they still have their piano bar or not, but it could be a really noisy room. How did he feel about playing, knowing that it, you know, was so different from a concert setting and that there'd always, I'm sure, be people there who came to hear him. But there'd be a lot of other people who were just looking to have a drink at the hotel bar, and there was a pianist there, and they didn't know who he was and probably didn't even care, you know, because they weren't there for the music, and they didn't know anything about music.

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: Right. I think, as a matter of fact, he liked that better. He really didn't like the concert setting. So I think as time went on, he got a little bit better at recognizing that people really, really wanted to hear him play, you know, in concert situations. But when it was in a nightclub or something like the Copley, he was happy to have murmuring and things going on. That's really what he preferred, I think. And I can remember a couple of times when he was with a band that was on television like the Ed Sullivan Show or Johnny Carson or something like that, and if they would bring the microphone over to him, I can remember one time specifically, and he just pointed at his throat and sorted of mouthed, laryngitis, can't speak, can't talk.

GROSS: Jean McKenna O'Donnell talking about her brother, the pianist Dave McKenna. He died in October at the age of 78. We'll hear more of her interview in the second half of the show when we continue our tribute to Dave McKenna. And you can listen to more of the demo she recorded with her brother and two songs from her new CD on our website, I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of piano music)

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're celebrating the life and music of the pianist Dave McKenna. He died last month at the age of 78. He had a special place on our show. We've played his records a lot over the years, and in 1988 we featured a live interview and performance with him and recorded him playing several songs. Here's one of those recordings.

(Soundbite of song "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most")

GROSS: Dave McKenna playing "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," recorded in 1988, in the Fresh Air studio. At that time, he was the house pianist at the Copley Plaza Hotel bar in Boston. Let's get back to our interview with him.

(Soundbite of "Fresh Air" interview with Dave McKenna from 1988)

GROSS: You know I want to ask you, I know that for the past nine years or so you have been in the Copley, a very elegant bar there. A lot of times when people go into a bar they've pleased that there's music, but they don't necessarily know the first thing about music or the first thing about they're hearing - about what they're hearing, and they might talk while the musician is playing. How do you - how does that affect you, when people are talking when you're playing?

Mr. MCKENNA: That's cool. It's such a comfortable situation. At the Copley, most people coming in the room aren't coming to hear me, because a lot of them are convention people or from the hotel, and they're just in for a drink and nice surrounding. So, it's not a concert, and I don't expect - in many cases, it's easier playing because I can, you know, I just play lightly and fiddle around and play, just thinking what I'm going to play next. There's no pressure. I play - I could play quietly a good part of the night. And I usually come up a little bit in volume at the end of a set, to let them know I'm there and that I've been working.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCKENNA: And some nights people listen and a lot of times they don't. But essentially it's a background music gig, really, and I'm happy with it. I mean, I've been happy with it. And hey, I had nine years or so. I liked staying in Boston. It was nice staying at the hotel. It's walking distance from about anything in town including the ballpark and, well, everything is handy in that city, you know.

GROSS: Well, why don't we get back to the concert? Let's see, I think next you're going to play "C Jam Blues."

Ms. MCKENNA: Uh huh.

(Soundbite of song "C Jam Blues")

GROSS: Oh great. Do you plan out what you're going to play at all before you play it? The tempo you're going to play at, what your basic concept for a song or a piece is going to be?

Mr. MCKENNA: Well, really kind of vaguely, because I didn't really know what tempo I was going to play that. But that change of key, I did that on a record, the change in the keys, because I thought maybe - a feeble attempt to be clever, if it's "C-jam" it means the key. And so I changed it to E flat for one - 12 bars, of course. And one to G-flat or F-sharp, whatever that is, and one in A. Up in minor thirds and ending back in C. So that was a little - so I do use that whenever I play that little change of key at the end.

GROSS: You know, sitting right next to you at the piano, I'm really watching your hands carefully, and you have such a strong left hand when I hear your records. And your left hand is almost gently approaching the keyboard. I mean, your - it doesn't seem - you don't seemed to be exerting yourself with your left hand at all. It's - you have a very gentle touch.

Mr. MCKENNA: When I try to (unintelligible) I do, I try to work hard. I'm not really a stride - I can play - if I play it with some strength, but then it gets kind of sloppy. I came to stride piano late. I only use it for a few bars at a time, but that's a real work. I stand in awe of those guys that play it all the time, you know, Ralph Sutton, Dick Wilson.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. MCKENNA: They really play it hard and accurately, you know.

GROSS: Is accurate hard when you're playing stride?

Mr. MCKENNA: Yeah. I think so, because they've been playing a long time. You know, some guys made a specialty of it. Their whole career was based on that. You know, the older guys, Fats and James P., those are the guys who invented it, I guess. But as far as the working base, sort of just playing the base note, that just seen to come naturally to me. It's not much exertion required there.

GROSS: Were you self-taught, or was there a pianist who you really studied carefully with?

Mr. MCKENNA: No. I had lessons. I had lessons from - the first, my first teacher was a nun - parochial. I went to - my mother is a real good musician, though. She played piano and violin, but she didn't want to teach, so she sent me to the nuns. I didn't really like to practice. But I could always pick tunes out that I heard on the radio, and always played by ears since I was about seven years old. So, I had a couple of good teachers, a guy in Boston, Sandy Sandovl(ph) who was a jazz musician of sorts. I mean, he was a good jazz player, but he made his living writing showbiz shots for the singers around Boston. But he didn't - I was 16, so by the time I went to him, and he didn't really fool with the way I played. He just made a few suggestions into how to organize it and he said, why don't you make a little arrangement of this? And the lessons were kind of spotty because I was still living in my parent's house, and I didn't get up there often, but he had some nice suggestions anyway.

GROSS: Dave McKenna recorded in our studio in 1988. We'll hear more from that performance a little later. McKenna knew a million songs, at least it seemed that way. With a left hand that sounded like a full rhythm section, he was a great solo pianist. But he was also a very sympathetic accompanist for singers. We're going to hear McKenna with the late singer Teddi King. This was recorded in 1977 when she was making a brief comeback after developing Lupus. She died later that year.

(Soundbite of "Fun To Be Fooled")

GROSS: Teddi King with pianist Dave McKenna from their 1977 album, "This is New: Teddi King sings Ira Gershwin." We'll hear more from McKenna's sister Jean and more of McKenna's music when our tribute continues after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering the life and music of pianist Dave McKenna. He died last month at the age of 78. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with his sister Jean, a retired school teacher who made her first album last year at the age of 70 in which she sings standards. She lives in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in the home she grew up in with Dave, two other siblings and their parents. She told me a story about Dave as a teenager when he was living at home, hitching rides with friends to play on local clubs. Back then he didn't seem particularly ambitious about his music career.

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNEL: There was a point where, I think, Charlie Ventura was looking for a pianist, and he called our house, then my mother and I were sitting on a table, the dinner table, and said that there was an opening and for Dave to, you know, high tail it down, take a bus to New York and try out. And we heard Dave saying, oh, I don't have the money. I can't - I don't even have bus money. I can't really get down there. And then he'd hang up. My mother inquired as to what it was all about, and she says we'll get you the money. Of course, you have to go. She just knew, you know, that he really did have to do something like this. So, he did. He got the job, and from then on he just went from Charlie to Woody Herman. And then, of course, he was drafted for two years. And they didn't put him in an army band. They made him a cook. And he used to brag about that fact that he graduated 49th out of 50 in the cooking school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Not his calling.

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: But the thing of it was, he said afterwards, at least it kept his hands warm. He was in Korea and really up near the front lines. I think he was with a mash unit. And so we have pictures of him just with steaming cauldrons of water, I guess, maybe boiling potatoes or pasta or something. But he did say that at least it kept his hands warm, even though there was nothing for him to play. There was no instrument around. So for two years, he had absolutely nothing to do. When he came home, my mother really wanted him to use the G.I. Bill and go on to college. But he was itching to get back, and he did. I'm not sure if it was with Woody Herman he went back. But after that, he was with Gene Krupa and Eddie Condon and Buddy Hackett. And rarely, rarely was he home for any extended length of time.

GROSS: Now, your father was a drummer, but he had a day job at the post office.

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: Right. Absolutely.

GROSS: Did he think that Dave should do the same thing, that he should have a day job?

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: Did he ever. He would say to David, why don't you just quit that stuff you're playing. Because, as I said, he was playing the bebop type of thing at the time. My father couldn't understand it at all, and he would say, get a job in the post office and then you can play on the side. Which is really true. Which is - I mean, he could have done that. But obviously, his talent was too great to stay around here. But in later years Dave used to say sometimes, and especially during that fallow period when rock was really taking over, that he wished he had gone into the post office and taken a steady job, so to speak.

GROSS: Now, the singer Carol Sloane, who knew your brother, tells a story about how sometimes - he was such a big Red Sox fan, and sometime when the game was on he put a little transistor radio in his pocket and then have a little ear piece attached by a wire, and it would be kind of hidden from the audience, but he'd be able to listen to the game as he was playing. Did you know that? You saw him do that?

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: Oh yes. It was even at a concert that he was playing at where he was able to do that as well and nobody knew it. And I don't know how he kept those things going, because he certainly played very well even though he's distracted.

GROSS: I read that after your brother died, one of the announcers for the Red Sox announced the death on one of their broadcasts during the game.

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: Right. I'm still hearing that from people who were away from the city, and they told me that that's how they found out. That's a wonderful, wonderful thing and I think he'd be pleased about that.

GROSS: What kind of health problems did he have toward the end?

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: Oh, the diabetes really, really played havoc with his system. He developed neuropathy not only in his hand but in his feet so that he was having difficulty walking and his, you know - the fact that he couldn't play anymore. I think it was probably in the year 2000 that he decided he didn't want to play anymore, because he just didn't have the same control over his finger. Now, we could hear him and thank, you know Dave, you could give up some of the runs. You could give up some of those really fast things that you did because the conception of the chords that you had, the way you played melodies and you could keep on doing that forever. But he didn't want to. He always said that a person should stop doing, you know, something like playing the piano or singing or whatever as soon as they couldn't do it to the same extent anymore. So he really did stop, just almost like that. And even in his apartment, even at home, we could barely get him to sit down and play happy birthday or something. He just gave it up, and we thought that was a shame but that's the way - at least we have all of the records and the CDs to remember him by and to listen to.

GROSS: Even though it was his decision to stop, do you think he missed it a lot when he did stop?

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: You know, he always said that he didn't, that he'd been playing ever since he was a child and doing it for his job ever since he was 18. But I think when he really missed it was when he heard his friends playing and, you know, if he went to Sands(ph) or something like that, and Scott Hamilton was there, and Grace Vodginton(ph), Dick Johnson, Luke Alummo(ph) and the people he like to play with, Jim Quinn, you could see his foot tapping and you could say to yourself, I think he really would like to be up there with them. That's when I think he missed it.

GROSS: How close where you and your brother?

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: Well, I think much closer as the years wore on, and a closeness developed between him and my sister Pat, as well, and brother Don. The fact that he retired, shall we say, to Providence and lived there since the year 2000 made it possible for us to know him better and see him frequently. That's when we did all the shopping, and we took care of things for him. And I think that's the first my sister got to know him very well, because she was 12 years younger than he. So it was good that we had that time together at the end.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: Well, I thank you, Terry. As I said, I really enjoy the fact that you appreciated Dave so much, and thank you for having me.

GROSS: We liked his music so much and continue to play it on our show a lot, so thank you for telling us more about him.

Ms. MCKENNA O'DONNELL: OK. Thanks a lot again.

GROSS: Jean McKenna talking about her late brother, Dave McKenna. She's a retired teacher and is now singing in clubs in Rhode Island. She made her first album last year at the age of 70. Coming up, we continue our tribute to Dave McKenna with one more studio performance. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of song)

GROSS: We've been remembering the life and music of pianist Dave McKenna. He died last month at the age of 78. We're going to conclude our tribute with one more song from the 1988 interview and performance he recorded in our studio.

(Soundbite of a"Fresh Air" 1998 interview)

GROSS: We're going to have time for one more song, and can I make a request?

Mr. MCKENNA: Yeah.

GROSS: Would you play "Thanks For the Memory?"

Mr. MCKENNA: Of course.

(Soundbite of song "Thanks For the Memory")

GROSS: That was a great. Do you have a good musical memory? Do you know lots and lots and lots of songs?

Mr. MCKENNA: I think I know quite a few. I'm not one of the champions though, guys like Jimmy Rollins - I don't know how many, men of a thousand tunes. But I know quite a few, and it doesn't seem, though, as if I've been adding to the repertoire lately. Like I said, I don't learn too many new songs but a lot of the tunes I've been playing I think I've known since I was 12 years old. That's not one of them. I never realized I liked the tune until, I don't know, I heard somebody do it and that's one I came upon fairly late. Although I'd heard of it, you know, being a Bob Hope theme and all.

GROSS: I want to thank you so very much for joining us for this concert. It's really been a pleasure to have you here. And I want to say, you've helped me hear a lot of songs in fresh ways through your interpretations of them. So thank you very much for all your playing and for doing the concert today.

Mr. MCKENNA: Thank you, Terry. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Dave McKenna, recorded in our studio in 1988. He died last month. A memorial tribute will be held December 7th in his hometown Woonsocket, Rhode Island. You can find video links to McKenna performances on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show. We'll continue to feature McKenna's records on our show as we've done for the past two decades.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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