Dave McKenna, Medley Master

Nov 22, 2018

The grandest joy I've experienced since the Red Sox won the World Series last month was opening a mailer this week from Arbors Records and discovering a new Dave McKenna album. Dave McKenna in Madison was recorded in 1991, and it sounds as good as anything I've ever heard by the pianist, which is to say it's consistent with the brilliance of everything I ever heard him play. 

Here's Dave playing a medley of "You're Driving Me Crazy" and "Moten Swing." Walter Donaldson composed the former in 1930, the year it was introduced in the Broadway musical comedy, Smiles, which starred Estelle and Fred Astaire. The song's chord sequence formed the basis of the Kansas City swing tune named for bandleaded Benny Moten. It's been a jazz standard ever since.

Beginning in 1971 when I was 18, I saw McKenna many times. The pianist was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in 1930, and after a period in New York in the late 1940s and '50s in which he toured with Charlie Ventura, Woody Herman, and Bobby Hackett, he spent most of his adult life living on Cape Cod and playing regional venues. It didn't take more than an afternoon or two at The Columns in West Dennis to realize that Dave was a shy and diffident performer who eschewed the limelight. But it wasn't until I read the liner notes for the Madison performance that I learned that this self-described "saloon" pianist's legendary penchant for playing medleys of songs united either by song title or composer was driven by his aversion to applause. And all of a sudden, a solid 50 years into a life of concert and club-going, I've gained a new appreciation for how tiresome it must be for performers to have to put on a happy face everytime there's the sound of two hands clapping. Which is not to say that Dave was ungracious, just a little shy...

Here's a birds-eye view of Dave managing to go for 35 minutes without looking up as he plays a dozen tunes by Harry Warren. Happy Thanksgiving!