10.21.2008

Fingers

I was caught off guard when I opened the Globe site today and saw a big color picture of pianist Dave McKenna front and center. It's sad that my immediate reaction to seeing a jazz musician in the media is to assume the worst, but with most papers here dying is the only way for a jazz guy to get any press. My heart sank when I saw the byline - Dave had passed away Saturday at the age of 78. I felt like I'd lost an old friend, even though we'd never met. For someone I never saw perform in person, Dave McKenna had an immeasurable impact on me, and I'd go so far as to say his music is the reason I play jazz today.

As far as awkward teenagers go, I was possibly the grand champion. My parents had recently divorced and I was trying to live in two houses at once, forgetting school books and homework and generally doing a fantastic job of not holding things together at all. My uninspired search for direction and/or purpose had led me to take electric bass lessons, but after a year or so I had lost interest and my bass sat lonely in the corner of my room at whichever house I wasn't currently staying at. I did manage a rather intense fascination with the music of the Beatles, but more as a way to associate with the slightly cooler kids who wore tye-dye shirts, but without actually smoking all the pot and getting myself in more trouble than I already was. Reasons aside, I enjoyed listening to music passively and not really being too interested in what was happening behind the scenes. 

My dad, as some of you know, works at a power plant in Boston, and has been commuting from New Hampshire for as long as I can remember. 99 percent of the time he drives from his house (Point A) to work (Tab B) and never really does anything involving all the little folds, lines, and slots in the city. For whatever reason one day he was forced to do something he loathes as much as riding the bus, which was take a cab from Mystic station to somewhere downtown. He hailed his ride, got in, and was surprised to be greeted by some of the most interesting music he'd heard in a while. The driver was more than happy to spread his love of the album, going so far as to offer my father the CD as a gift when he arrived at his destination. The disc in question? Dave McKenna at Maybeck Recital Hall.

A few days later I was driving around with Dad when he put in the CD and my ears perked up. The first track was oddly familiar, and after a moment of deciphering piano, bass, and guitar I recognized it as a song from one of my Beatles' albums, "The Sheik of Araby". My dad, as dads often do, turned up the volume, grinned and said "Now pay attention". I strained and did my best to figure out what else could possibly be going on when it hit me - there was no bass player, only the piano player's left hand! I wasn't quite sure of what he was really doing, but I knew it was damn impressive. I would try to get past the first few tracks and listen to the whole album, but it was impossible. For at least the next month it was "The Sheik of Araby" and not much else. The simple intro, the way the piano and guitar traded back and forth, thinking I was hearing not only a melodic lines and walking bass but even -chords-. Dave McKenna played like a man with three hand and 50 fingers. His time rushed a little, but in a way that conveys a sort of excitement to get where he was going, a kind of bounce. I learned later it was called "swing". It was all too much and I was hooked. I had heard jazz for the first time, and knew that this was a sound I somehow wanted to make.

I picked up a few more Dave McKenna albums and was always struck by the self-deprecating words in the liner notes, putting down the music before you've had a chance to listen. For a man with such an obvious gift, it was clear there was no ego here and that Dave considered himself but a simple piano player. I was particularly struck when I picked up a copy of a quartet album with Zoot Sims on tenor sax - the entire back of the record was dedicated to the story of how the album was put together. Everyone just happened to be in town for a day, and it was decided they should record. The musicians all gathered at a studio in New York - Dave was late due to watching the Patriots lose by one point to Buffalo. The songs were chosen as the session progressed, including one that everyone knew but couldn't remember the name of until the next day when the tapes were on the way to the company. Jokes and friendly insults were tossed around, breaks were taken for a few beers, and the end of the session arrived when everyone wanted Mexican food. This, to me, was a revelation. As far as I had ever known performing music was something to be nervous about, an anxious experience at a recital or school event, just hoping you wouldn't make a mistake and humiliate yourself in front of everyone who was surely watching and waiting for the smallest misstep. Grades and scores were supposed to be involved, and enjoying yourself was something that came when you'd stepped offstage and the shaking had subsided. I simply couldn't wrap my head around the idea that such amazing music could be created in this way and that it could be so -fun-. My mental image of the perfect musical experience was formed at this very moment, and hasn't really changed much in the last decade. 

Much has been written about Dave's love of the Red Sox, and I'm always amused when I meet fellow musicians who are baseball fans. Maybe it's a New England thing, maybe it's a side effect of gigs in bars, or perhaps there's some deep-rooted connection between the analytical nature of jazz and the endless ways of looking at baseball statistics. I can't pretend to know the answer, but I know that Dave McKenna has provided the measuring stick for how seriously I'm dedicated to a game. It was mentioned in the Globe today that McKenna would often leave a radio with the game on low volume when he was playing hotel gigs downtown, which may seem a sin to those who'd sit quietly and want to appreciate his music. I've heard from a few sources, however, that during the '86 world series he actually set a portable black and white television on the piano and managed to watch the game while performing. I often use this story to make my fellow musicians feel better when I'm trying to catch a glance of the TV while on a gig, usually with limited success. 

My one great regret is that I really got in to jazz just a little too late to see Dave McKenna perform. I actually have a ticket stub and poster for one of his concerts - he was slated to play a free show in Concord when I was a junior in high school. I went with a few friends and we didn't find out until the beginning of the concert that Dave had taken ill and was unable to make it. We had a great time watching Bucky Pizzarelli and Scott Hamilton, and I was able to make a great friend in the group's bassist, Marshall Wood. A few weeks afterwards, though, we learned the sad truth - faced with some serious medical issues, Dave had made the decision to retire, and he'd been on the fence until about a day before the concert as to whether he'd try to play in what would have been his last appearance. I'm saddened I just barely missed out on the chance to see him, but devastated by the thought of such a man unable to create and release the ideas piling up inside. 

As I sit here tonight exhausted from work, trying to get to my Japanese classwork, and generally frayed around the edges, Dave's music shows me again why I want to play in the first place. I know it sounds like something from a fortune cookie, but music has always had a way of finding me when I need it most. If not for a generous cab driver and the music of Dave McKenna, who knows where I'd be today. I wish I'd had the chance to meet Dave, to thank him for inspiring me and bringing me so much joy. All I can do is keep listening, playing, and hoping that I can take even a sliver of the joy and magic he brought to his music. Thanks, Dave.

2 comments:

Hillary said...

Nice post Hogan. Well written, and a wonderful tribute. I know Mozart is supposed to make kids smarter, but Hunter is on a strict diet of jazz, Debussy and Satie. I'll make sure to squeeze in some Dave McKenna soon!

Kelly said...

Hogues, I love that you wrote this. Dave McKenna was one of the first jazz pianists I heard. He was a big influence on my playing as well. God bless him!