Larry McKenna: Keeping the Legacy Alive
Each of these recordings are masterpieces that show what magic moments still reside in the standards songbook. In addition, McKenna has served as a sideman on countless recordings. Practically every phrase that comes out of his horn could provide a working model for both students and his peers. His tone, articulation, and improvisational skills are exemplary, and he embodies many of the best elements in the rich legacy of jazz saxophone.
McKenna is a self-effacing gentleman, an almost mystical figure among musicians. So, in order to find out more about him, I felt that an All About Jazz interview with him was long overdue. I invited him downtown to my office along with Carl Schultz, a jazz saxophonist and graduate student at the University of the Arts who is doing an internship with me. Here is the fascinating result of that meeting. It is filled with interesting reminiscences, insights into music and musicians, and, above all, McKenna's inspiring devotion to making the music sound the way it was intended.
All About Jazz: First, Larry, I'd like to welcome you to All About Jazz. You have a mind-boggling list of achievements as a saxophonist and also as a recording artist, arranger, and band leader. Your credentials are on your website, but perhaps the best way to sum it all up is that you're a "musician's musician." You've done it all. You're highly respected among musicians, and greatly admired in terms of your musical finesse and ability on the instrument. So we're happy to have you on board today to talk about various aspects of your career, your development, your life, and where you're at now.
Larry McKenna: I'm happy to be here. Thanks, Vic.
AAJ: So, for the usual warm-up, which recordings would you take with you to that proverbial desert island?
LM: I would probably go back to things that were recorded in the 1940s through the 1960s, for example, Charlie Parker, especially his rendition of "Repetition," and some of the classic Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings with Lester Young, Flip Phillips, and Illinois Jacquet. Those were my first inspirations. It might seem nostalgic, but that's part of my taste. Yeah, any of the old bebop stuff. Things by Stan Getz, and some of Horace Silver, especially his compositions in the 1950s. Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell would be included.
AAJ: Any more recent?
LM: It's not to say that I don't like any of the new guysI like a lot of them. But for the desert island I'd reach for the earlier influences. My association with jazz goes back to that period of time.
AAJ: Yes, those first impressions are among the ones that last the longest and have the greatest impact. Do you recall whom you first listened to?
LM: Actually, I started out taking guitar lessons around age eleven. There was a TV show, The Johnny Desmond Show. Desmond was a famous big band singer who sang with Glenn Miller. On his show, he had the Johnny Guarneri Trio, with Tony Mottola on guitar. That caught my attentionI wanted to play the guitar like he did. Mottola would take a solo. I followed the improvisation and started to take guitar lessons. I dropped the guitar because the lessons didn't grab me. A couple of years later, my brother brought home some records of Jazz at the Philharmonic. Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips were the tenor players. Hank Jones on piano, Ray Brown on bass. I think J.C. Heard was the drummer.
As soon as I heard that, I started playing them over and over again. That was itthat really sealed it. I bought some singles by Jacquet and Phillips. They became my heroes. I started to play the clarinet in the school band because they didn't have any more saxophones. Eventually my parents bought me a saxophone. During that time I found out about other players such as Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, and Gene Ammons. Charlie Ventura was another one of my favorites.
AAJ: He was from Philly.
LM: He was a really good player. But then I started really getting into Stan Getz. And Sonny Stitt. And a few other players: James Moody and, of course, Bird on alto, but a lot of what he was playing influenced me on tenor.
AAJ: Did you have a saxophone teacher at the time?
LM: I didn't then, I more or less taught myself. But then I transferred to another school, and there was a kid in the band who sent me to his teacher, which was a really good turn of events for me.
AAJ: What was the teacher's name?
LM: His name was Tony Bennett.
AAJ: Not the Tony Bennett, the singer?
LM: [Laughter] No, no. This was a guy who played sax, accordion, and guitar. And so when I went to him for lessons, he said, "Well, you have to learn chords." There weren't many saxophone teachers in those days who taught that. Most of them didn't teach you about chord changes and so on, but he taught me about chords, and producing a sound. He also said, "You have to learn tunes." And he'd show me in a very simplified way how to utilize the chords on a tune. I was already improvisingI was kind of a natural, but I didn't really know what I was doing. When I would run into complicated changes, I was lost, and then he instructed me how to put them together and overcome a lot of stumbling blocks.