C Jam Blues and Sunset And The Mockingbird

Dave McKenna

A tribute to the great swing pianist

Pianist Dave McKenna was born on May 30, 1930 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

McKenna developed early as a pianist and, by the time he was 12, he was already performing in public.

After working steadily in a variety of settings in the Boston area, McKenna was with Charlie Ventura’s group in 1949 (making his recording debut) and was a member of Woody Herman’s Third Herd during 1950-51.

Following a period serving in the Army, McKenna worked again with Ventura during 1953-54, was a member of the Gene Krupa Quartet during 1956-57 and then mostly freelanced, recording in the 1950s with Urbie Green, Max Bennett, Chuck Wayne, Al Cohn, Phil Woods, Ruby Braff, Dick Johnson, Bobby Hackett, Max Kaminsky and Teddy Charles among others.

While McKenna made his first album as a leader in 1955 and in the 1960s worked and recorded with Buck Clayton, Bob Wilber, Buddy Rich, Zoot Sims, Yank Lawson and extensively with Bobby Hackett, he was mostly a local legend, known better to swing-oriented musicians than to most of the jazz audience.

That situation changed in the 1970s when McKenna started recording often as a leader, at first for Chiaroscuro (including a duet album with Joe Venuti) and Famous Door before starting a long association with the Concord label in 1979.

At his best on rollicking medium-tempo pieces (often obscure standards) where his powerful bass line made the addition of a string bass unnecessary, McKenna recorded many solo albums, exciting encounters with tenor-saxophonist Scott Hamilton, and with all-star groups for the Concord label over a nearly 20-year period.

Dave McKenna, who was a major force in the comeback of small-group swing, concluded his career with some final albums for the Arbors label, passing away on Oct. 18, 2008 at the age of 78.

On this rare film clip from the 1990s, McKenna plays solo piano versions of “C Jam Blues” and Duke Ellington’s “Sunset and the Mockingbird,” showing that he was much a one-man swing orchestra.

-Scott Yanow

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