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.
AAJ: This was in Philadelphia. What neighborhood did you grow up in?
LM: I grew up in the Olney section of the city. The teacher lived in Mayfair.
AAJ: And when did you get interested in attending live performances?
LM: The first one I went to was "Jazz at the Philharmonic." Every September, that show would come to the Academy of Music. Those concerts were a big deal at the time, and I was too young to get into clubs, so when a concert came to town, I got excited. I saw Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Barney Kessel, Bill Harris, Dizzy Gillespie, and all those people. Later on, after I'd been playing for a while, I'd listen to the radio show of a DJ in Camden named Tommy Roberts, who later on became a famous horse racing announcer in Florida. He had an afternoon show from WKDN in Camden, and he'd play jazz.
Roberts also started a jazz clinic and concert series at a place at Broad and Master, near Temple University, called the Heritage House. He arranged to have all the big name musicians on a Friday afternoonthe guys who were playing at the clubs like Peps, the Showboat, and the Blue Notethey would come and play for young people who couldn't get into the clubs. I heard guys like Max Roach and Clifford Brown as well as the famous group that had Richie Powell and Harold Land. Also, George Morrow, Buddy de Franco, Chet Baker were there. Then us kids would come up with our horns, and they would critique you. They'd give you advice. Lee Morgan was one of those kids, and he really stood out. You knew he was gonna be someone special.
AAJ: Did you get up and play? Who critiqued you?
LM: Well, I could tell you one story. One time, I didn't take my horn, and someone offered to lend me his horn. So, here I get up to play and the horn was leaking all over the place, and the best I could get out was some squeaks! It was terribly embarrassing. Afterwards, Harold Land came up to me and said, "I'll give you some advice. Don't ever borrow someone else's horn without trying it out." So I said, "But he played it fine." Land warned me, "Yeah, when your own horn goes out, you adjust to it. But somebody else might not be able to play it." So the moral of the story is obviousdon't borrow someone else's horn without being sure you can play it! Test it out first.
AAJ: Pat Martino told me about a time when the bassist's axe actually exploded at a recording session, from a change in the air temperature! The guy found a bass with a broken string in the studio, and did a serviceable job with a missing string! The instrument is crucialwe don't think about that.
The Early Philadelphia Scene
AAJ: Now, you were a teenager at the time. At some point you went to the Granoff School of Music. That school must have been really special, because guys like Martino, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, so many of the best, they all went to that school.
LM: I went there in 1956, a few years after Coltrane. It was a non-accredited school, but they had a bunch of great teachers there. When I attended, Adolph Sandole taught there, and some highly respected classical guys like Frank Caruso and Joe Rocco. A lot of the students had been in the army and went under the G.I. Bill. They had good instrumental and theory teachers. I went for only six months to learn some specific things after going on the road with a band. Later, after I'd been with Woody Herman, I studied arranging with Adolph's brother, Dennis. He showed me about writing musicvery helpful. Later, I played as featured soloist with Adoph's big band.
AAJ: So, you started playing on your owna "natural," as you say. Then you had a sax teacher who taught you improvising and chord changes. And you started going to the Heritage House for the clinics.
LM: They called it the Tommy Roberts Jazz Workshop. Around the same time, they had sessions at Music City on Chestnut Street. Ellis Toland and Bill Welsh owned Music City, a music store, where they had sessions at night. I heard Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, and some other guys there. They would take their horns out and play. They'd warm up with a medium tempo blues, but one time Stan Getz came out and warmed up with "Strike Up the Band" at a very up tempo. And just blew ten choruses of flawless playing. I was very impressed. By the way, Music City was where Clifford Brown made his last recording. It was before he was killed in that car accident.
AAJ: Was that the gig where there's a debate about when it happened? LM: Yeah, some people say that he played there the very night he was killed in the car crash, but other people said it was a few weeks before that fateful event. But the recording did come out a few years later. Local guys often played there, like Billy Root, the tenor player, and another named Ziggy Vines.
Carl Schultz: I wanted to ask you about him. He's kind of a legend.
LM: Well, there's a lot of stories about Ziggy Vines. Herb Geller was a very good saxophonist who eventually moved to Europe. He was a West Coast guy who had Ziggy on tenor for some recordings. So it's not true that Ziggy was never recorded, as is sometimes rumored. I heard Ziggy, but not at his best. He was felt to be one of the great players, but he had a lot of mental problems. Bird was a big fan of Ziggy's and would always ask for him. There's a story that Ziggy was listening to Bird at a nightclub, came up to him and said, "You know what, you're not BirdI'm Bird!" Then he turned around and walked away! Bird thought it was hilarious. Ziggy just disappeared back in the 1960s. That was it, and I don't know what ever happened to him. Very sad story.
I do remember when Ziggy showed up at Music City after getting out of prison. He showed up with a cheap silver horn. He played real good, but the people said, "You should have heard him before he went to prison." After jail, he was never the same and went downhill. They say that at one time he had a brilliant mind as well as being a great musician.
AAJ: So, there came a time when you went on your first road trip with a band?
LM: It was a five piece band with Vince Montana, the vibes player. It was a commercial lounge group. We covered parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York State. There was one trip to Savannah, Georgia. You would play one club for a week or two then. The musicians were good, but we had to play a lot of commercial stuff. I'd played a bit around Philly with guys like Mike Natale, but my first ongoing gig was with Vince. That was when I was eighteen years old.
The Days with Woody Herman
AAJ: How did your involvement with the Woody Herman band come about?
LM: I was about twenty-one at the time. My friend Jimmy Amadie, a pianist and teacher, was in New York. He was walking down the street, and heard this big band playing in a rehearsal hall. He went inside, and it was Woody Herman's band rehearsing and auditioning at the same time. Nat Pearce, one of Woody's arrangers and pianist, was hiring for a pianist and a tenor saxophonist. So, Jimmy comes back to Philly, calls me, and says, "Let's go up to New York and audition for Woody's band." We took a chance, went up, and auditioned. We read charts and played solos. About two days later, the road manager called and asked me to come with the band. Jimmy also got hired. The following Sunday we were in Jackson, Mississippi with the band.
AAJ: Woody's band went through different incarnations, different "Herds," didn't they?
LM: Yes. There were the first, second, and third Herds. People would come up and say, "Hey Woody, what Herd is this?" He'd say, "Well, this is the Swingin' Herd. No more numbers, from now on we'll give it names." So we made an LP around 1960 in Chicago, and he called it the Swingin' Herd. Truthfully, each one of the early Herds had a distinctly different style. The first had all the swing players like Flip Phillips, Bill Harris, and those guys. The second Herd was a bebop band which featured the "Four Brothers" soundStan Getz, Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff and all those cats. And then the third Herd was more or less an extension of the second.
AAJ: You recently made an album called 4 Brothers 7, with Frank Tiberi. Was Frank in the Herd you played with?
LM: No, he came in ten years after me, around 1969.
AAJ: So how did you get the idea for the 4 Brothers 7 album? LM: Well, I've known Frank as a Philadelphia musician for over forty years. He wound up becoming the leader of the current Woody Herman band. A few years ago Frank, and Mike Brignola, the baritone saxophonist and road manager, put together a small band with three tenor saxophones and a baritone sax with a rhythm section.
They had some arrangements that Al Cohn had written, and then Mike and Frank each wrote some, and they asked me to write a couple of arrangements. So we went up to New York with this group and recorded ten or eleven tunes in one day. Frank held onto the recording, and then, more recently, Frank thought we might release it. So it went out on the Jazzed Media label about a year ago. We did a release party at Chris' Jazz Café in Philly a while back. The saxophones on the recording were Frank Tiberi, Mike Brignola, myself, and a guy named John Nugent. Nugent has become a jazz promoter, so he couldn't make the Chris' date. We used our local rhythm section of Tom Lawton, piano, Lee Smith, bass, and Dan Monaghan, drums. A week later, we played a festival in Rochester, NY. We used Dave Reichenbach on sax at Chris' and in Rochester.
AAJ: What's the connection of the "Four Brothers" to the Woody Herman band?
LM: It refers to a certain saxophone voicing, three tenors and a baritone. In 1947, Woody put together his second band. Someone suggested he go to a ballroom in East LA, the Mexican section of Los Angeles. They had a band including Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Herbie Steward. Well, Woody was so impressed that he hired them on the spot. So he had three tenors and a baritone sax instead of the conventional two tenors and two altos, and Woody had some arrangements written for them. That year, the band recorded a song called "Four Brothers." The sound was very striking and became known as the Woody Herman Four Brothers Sound. So we got guys who at one time or another had been with the Woody Herman band and used them with just a rhythm section and give everyone a chance to blow. Our rhythm section consisted of all Woody Herman alumni as well.
AAJ: Did you go back and listen to some of those early recordings?
LM: No, the arrangements we use were strictly from us.
AAJ: What was it like working for Woody Herman?
LM: I liked Woody. I only saw him get mad one time, but he was usually very even-tempered.
AAJ: What was he looking for with the musicians and arrangements?
LM: It was said that Woody rewrote arrangements like Basie did, but I didn't see that. We went with what the arrangers brought in. I know as an arranger that the last thing you want is for someone to make big changes in what you doyou spend a lot of time working on it.
AAJ: I've always wondered about big band leaders. They don't seem to do much on stage, yet they have such a big impact. Woody's band had a unique style that evolved over a period of time, with so many innovations. How did he accomplish that?
LM: Woody Herman didn't evolve much as a clarinet and saxophonist. But the great thing about him was that he allowed things to happen, to develop, with the band. While many leaders are very conservative and put roadblocks in the way of the band, Woody knew he had all this talent, and he was smart enough to encourage the guys' special talents. He never put his foot down. He had an open mind.
In one newspaper, a critic put down Herman's clarinet playing. Woody read it and said to a bunch of us, "Well, I don't claim to be a great player. I know I'm not Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw on the clarinet. I just do what I do. My whole thing is my band." Which was the truth. The critic shouldn't have picked on him for his clarinet playing. He actually played quite adequately. He played alto in the style of Johnny Hodges. He was also a good singer. Did you know he had the first hit recording of the tune "Laura"? He convinced Johnny Mercer to write lyrics to that tune from the movie. As a result, Woody had a million selling record as a vocalist on that tune.
CS: Going back to watching that variety show, hearing Tony Mottola, being able to follow the improvs of standards. As an improviser who's been playing for many years, you mainly do tunes like "Laura," from the Great American Songbook. But many of the young people today don't know those tunes. Does that affect the way that you communicate with a younger audience these days?
LM: I don't usually think about that sort of thing. But now that you mention it, sometimes when I play a standard, it may actually be a tune that someone in the audience never heard, and I wonder, are they following me? But no, it doesn't affect whether or not I choose it or how I play it. I just go by my own preferences. In fact, I've actually been credited with how I pace my tunes. On the It Might As Well Be Spring CD, for example, I've received many compliments on my selections and how I played them. When I choose a set, I place them so it comes out satisfying. Even if someone never heard a particular song, it still gets across to them.
AAJ: Still, Carl has asked a good question, because the melodies are what trigger associations in the listener.
LM: Yes, it might not have the same significance for a young person as it would for a more mature audience. To some extent, my tastes are different from other players. I heard these tunes when they were originally sung by, say Perry Como, or played by Dexter Gordon, and they all mean something personal to me.
AAJ: But then we have what are called "contrafacts," where the bebop players made up their own tunes to the chords, and omitted the original melody. So they were trying to get away from the Great American Songbook, it appears.
LM: Well, that's what's been said. But I've done that sort of thing, not in order to get away from the tune but as a sort of exercise. One of the tunes I did for the John Swana album is called "Is It Over My Head?" and it is based on the chords to "How Deep is the Ocean?" I came up with a tune that sounded good with two tenors and a trumpet. It was a creative process. I really wasn't interested in disguising the original melody.
AAJ: I get your pointin no way are you negative about these songs that might seem old-fashioned or sentimental to some younger listeners. Well, now, Carl, what's your opinion about all of this? You're a young guy starting out as a jazz musician. What's your take on this?
CS: I think both standards and new, original material are of equal importance. I have one group that plays only original material, and then I have another group, a trio, that plays only the standards.
AAJ: Do you play any songs written in the past twenty years?
CS: Not so much. I go for American Songbook plus some stuff from the 1960s, Wayne Shorter, and some of my own new original music, but I don't play others' stuff from the past ten years or so. I might play a recent pop tune, but I change it around a lot, so that the average listener might not always know what that song is.
AAJ: One of the interesting questions about jazz is what the melody actually does. Lester Young emphasized the lyrics rather than the melody. Of course, somewhat humorously, he could hardly remember many of the lyrics!
LM: He supposedly said that when he played a tune, he was thinking of the lyrics, as if he was singing. He thought that was important. But then he once made a recording where he was actually singing, and he couldn't remember the words!
AAJ: You yourself, Larry, are such a lyrical player. You seem to be very aware of "the song as a whole," or something like that when you play.
LM: Yes, I try to do that.
AAJ: What are you actually listening for?
LM: Well, with some of these standards, I've heard the various jazz instrumental versions, but I was also strongly influenced by the original vocalistsSinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Tormé, and so on. For me, the song itself is everything, in contrast with some jazz players who say, "Let's get the song out of the way so I can do my own thing." But I personally like the tunes a lot. I stick closer to the melody than I ever did, especially on the first and last choruses. I seem to be gaining more and more respect for these songs.
Guys like Cole Porter were genuine artists and there's a lot of subtle nuances in their songs. For example, in Porter's "Night and Day," the melody is repeated but with slight variations that make a big difference. Jerome Kern spent a lot of time getting his melodies to be just the way he wanted them to be. It seems unfair that we treat them so casually. Of course, as jazz musicians, part of our purpose is to destroy the melody! Ha, ha!
AAJ: So you're not trying to deconstruct the song; rather you're trying to bring out that which is inherent in it as potential.
LM: Yes, when I've learned most of these tunes, I sit down at the piano and work them out. I'll try different chord substitutions and so on. At that point I am deconstructing, but then I'll put it all back together again, and, seeing the various possibilities, I'll still keep in mind how it came out of that original tune.
The CD It Might As Well Be Spring and the Movie Birdy
AAJ: Your CD It Might As Well Be Spring is just bursting with beautiful renditions of standards where your choruses are complex and subtle, yet the melody is always kept in the listener's heart and mind. Who are your sidemen on that one?
LM: Jason Shatill on bass, Pete Colangelo on piano, and Jim Schade on drums.
AAJ: Some excellent musicians, I'd say. Most of the tracks are familiar standards, like "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," but there are a couple I'm not familiar with, like "So Many Stars."
LM: That was written by Sergio Mendes.
AAJ: The songs are obviously about a season of the year. But do they have particular meaning to you?
LM: Well, they're all songs I just happen to like. And there were a couple I never played before: "So Many Stars;" "Make Me Rainbows." But the producer gave me only a day or so notice to pick the charts before going into the studio! So I had to think fast and came up with the theme of "springtime." My wife then suggested I do "April Showers," which you rarely hear jazz players perform, but Don Glanden did it on his CD. So I put that one in. A couple of the tunes only had vague hints of springtime, like "I Like New York in JuneHow About You?" I actually had to learn a couple of tunes for the first time, like "Make Me Rainbows" by the great film composer John Willliams. I always liked that tune, but no one ever played it on gigs.
AAJ: Speaking of movies, I was surprised to learn in your website autobiography that you yourself were actually involved in a movie called Birdy (1984), from the 1980s, with Nicholas Cage. How on earth did you get involved with just one movie, which I recall was a rather unusual film? And as an actor, arranger, and performer to boot!
LM: Well, when they made that movie, they decided to shoot most of the external scenes in Philadelphia, which is the locale of the story. Well, a clarinet and saxophonist named Harold Karabelhe passed away about ten years agohe was called because the assistant director had been in the army with Harold, and they had a scene where they needed a band to play at a high school prom. The guy said, "Harold, I want you to put a band together to play this scene."
So the directorthe famous director Alan Parkersaid that the band members should be in their twenties and thirties, but Harold was in his fifties, so he was eliminated, but he was asked to act as contractor. So he called me, and I agreed to do it because it seemed like it would be fun, but I myself had to lie about my age a bit on the application! So we did the movie. We played "Rockin' Robin'" and a couple of other songs that had been hits in the 1960s.
AAJ: So that was your fifteen minutes of fame. [laughter].
LM: The funny thing is that I still get residual checks from the film. Twenty three years later! And I've had people call me up and say, "I saw a guy in a movie who looks just like you!" [laughter.]
AAJ: Getting back to your recordings, can you tell us it a bit about the one called My Shining Hour?
LM: That's somewhat older than It Might As Well Be Spring. I made it around 1995 as I recall. At the time, I was playing at Chris' Jazz Café in Philly. It had recently opened and was run by the original "Chris," Chris Dimitri. I had a trio that was there every Friday night with me, Dominic Mancini on bass, and Bill Schilling on piano.
At the time, there was a Canadian record label, EPE, Ed Preston Enterprises. One of their staff heard me on Al Raymond's big band album. He contacted Al and me, with the idea to do a small group album based on the music of Harold Arlen. But that staff person left the label, so Al Raymond suggested making the recording independently. So I picked ten Harold Arlen songs and did small group arrangements. We recorded it with Schilling on piano and guitar, Mancini on bass, and Butch Reed on drums. We sent the master to EPE records, and then they put it out. It was later put out on Alana records by the guy who originally suggested it. It may even have come out on a third label as well.
McKenna's Influence on Other Musicians
AAJ: Whenever I talk to a musician in Philly, your name always comes up. They all regard you with great affection and respect, as one of their mentors as well as someone they enjoy working with on gigs. You seem to me to be as well an almost mystical transmitter of a legacy. So, when you teach and give advice, what do you specifically try to convey to the guys?
LM: Well, you know, I think they give me a lot more credit than I deserve, especially your pianist friend, Tom Lawton. Tom is always saying, "I learned that from Larry." And I say, "No, I never showed you that!"
AAJ: Maybe he's right.
LM: Well, some guys like John Swana were actually in my class when I taught at West Chester University. They may have learned something from me. And some guys do say they learn a lot from me on jobs. They do often rely on me for certain tunes and chord changes. And they say some of my experience just rubs off.
AAJ: That's how jazz develops: inspiration. But they talk about you in a very special way. They have a sense of awe about you.
LM: Well, I suppose there's that aura, what I picked up over the years from exposure to some of the great ones.
AAJ: One thing you bring into the equation is that you know music intuitively, like some folks "know" math or painting or whatever.
LM: I hope that's true.
AAJ: When I listen to your playing, I hear the whole saxophone legacy. I hear Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz. Critics have often compared you to Getz. I hear the traditionsthey're instinctive with you.
LM: Stan Getz was one of my main influences. But, still, if you compare a Getz recording with one of mine, we don't sound alike. But if they're going to compare me to someone, like what school does Larry come from, they're not going to compare me to Coltrane. Basically, they're saying, well, Larry is from the "Getz School," which also includes Zoot Sims and Al Cohn and so on, as opposed to the "Coltrane School" or Wayne Shorter or whatever.
AAJ: That's very clarifyingit's not just Getz, but that whole style, Zoot, Al, and so on. Did you ever have any contact with them or with Art Pepper or some of those guys from the West Coast?
LM: I met Stan Getz a few times, but not the others. But I heard most of them play live and on records. They were all ten years older than me. But, for me, I'm sort of a chameleon; I tend to go with the style of the band I'm playing with. For example, on John Swana's recording Philly Gumbo, Vol. 2 (Criss Cross, 2005), with Swana, Bootsie Barnes, Sid Simmons, Byron Landham, Mike Boone, and me, Swana said, "You sounded like Charlie Rouse on that record." Well, if there was any resemblance, it was due to the kind of music we were playing.
It's more obvious with singers. Some years ago, there was a place on Front Street called Rick's Cabaret, they had a blues singer named Sarah Dean, and the numbers were somewhere between Dixieland and Swing. In that group, I sounded like a swing player, maybe Bud Freeman or someone like him. If I play with a bop band, a lot of my influences are bop players.
AAJ: Speaking of bop, who would you say brought bop to the tenor sax, since Bird developed bebop on alto?
LM: I guess you'd have to say Dexter Gordon. But that was in the mid-forties. I didn't come onto the scene several years later. So I remember tenor players who were influenced by both Lester Young and by Bird. You can hear that in Wardell Gray, and Dexter, and Gene Ammonsstrongly influenced by Lester Young and also Bird. Even Illinois Jacquet was influenced by Young. Sonny Stitt sounded almost like Bird when he played alto, but on tenor he had his own distinct style.
To Transcribe or Not to Transcribe Others' Solos
CS: During that time when everyone was trying to sound like Coltrane, was it at all awkward for you to not sound like him?
LM: That came later on. Actually there are more tenor players now who are trying to sound like Coltrane than there were back then. And they only take certain periods of his playing. Similarly, the trumpet players who want to sound like Miles Davis, they want his sound from the 1950s rather than, say the 1980s. It's sort of paradoxical, because both Trane and Miles evolved well beyond what these guys want to emulate. In my opinion, Coltrane's influence has actually been too widespread, and we now have countless tenor players who all want to sound like him. In my day, we tried to incorporate our influences into our own unique styles, but nowadays everyone tries to sound like Coltrane. They all transcribe his solos, etc.
AAJ: Do you ever transcribe other musicians' solos?
LM: No, I just try to figure it out harmonically, At one time, I tried to imitate Getz and other saxophonists. But it wasn't the exact notes they played, but rather their overall style. I would try to absorb the articulation, the phrasing, and so on. But I never transcribed solos verbatim. Nowadays, they ask students to transcribe whole solos.
AAJ: Do they do that at the University of the Arts, Carl?
CS: There's a whole course entirely devoted to transcription and analysis. But some teachers have the same attitude as Larry. Like I studied with the tenor player Ralph Bowen and he just encouraged me to listen for a certain phrase that I liked and so on.
AAJ: For you Carl, do you pick up on any particular ways of learning to improvise?
CS: For me, the academic stuff of scales, chords, you need that for dexterity and to get things into your ears. But I will do transcriptions to get things stirred up and hear different ways of playing.
LM: Well, honestly, I didn't do that. In fact, I didn't learn to play in school. I learned to play on gigs, and so on. I only started thinking about those things when I had to do the teaching myself and needed some kind of a method. I never heard of fancy stuff like "modes." Myxolydian and stuff. That was a dominant G-7th scale with an F natural that belongs to C. Bob James hired Dexter Gordon for a record date. He told Dexter not to use "that Myxolydian scale" on a retake, and Dexter exclaimed, "HeyI didn't know I used a Myxolydian scale there!" [Laughter] They all knew the chords but not the terminology.
AAJ: In all fairness, the thing with modes didn't come until a bit later: Miles Davis, and so on.
LM: Yeah, they all refer to the Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) album as modal, but only one or two of the tunes are modal.
CS: "Blue in Green" is not modal. "So What?" is modal.
LM: But you could say "So What?" is just based on a D minor 7th chord. And you could go back to standards like "Dearly Beloved" and find the same pattern in the whole eight bars. So I don't know why they thought it was so new. And on that album, if you listen to Cannonball Adderley, he was just doing his own way of playing bebop. The fellows who have done research on that album tell us that the players never intended it to be anything revolutionaryit was just a record date. Actually two sessions a few months apart.
AAJ: Well, perhaps Miles Davis himself did have something special in mind. In any event, the most innovative music really contains everything that came before it. That's part of what makes jazz so fascinatingyou can hear elements going back to Africa or the Southern plantations in the most modern jazz.
The Personal Side
AAJ: But let's talk about you as a person, Larry. When I go to a club like Chris' and you're playing, I think to myself, "This guy McKenna, he's a "mystery man.' He sits there rather anonymously in a business suit, doesn't make small talk, and just plays his axe. Who is this guy?" So who are you? For example, you mentioned your wife earlier. I had no idea whether or not you were married.
LM: My wife passed away almost seven years ago. I was married for thirty-four years. She was ill with breast cancer for a long time. She got cancer in 1977 and died in 2000. For twenty-three years she fought that disease, with some periods of remission.
AAJ: That must have been a very difficult time for both of you. Do you have any children?
LM: My wife had two daughters prior to our marriage. Then we had a son. One of her daughters was killed in a car crash twenty years ago. The other girl still lives with me. Tomorrow's her birthday. My son lives in Los Angeles. He's a singer/songwriter and plays the guitarnot jazz.
AAJ: Did your wife love music?
LM: Yes. She would come to hear me when she could, given her medical condition. She was a real survivorshe lived much longer than any of the doctors expected. But the chemo often knocked her out of commission. And she actually died from a chemotherapy related stroke rather than the cancer itself.
AAJ: Now, these days, do you have any interests other than music?
LM: No, I really don't. Occasionally, I'll watch a ball game on TV or read a book or whatever. It's kinda crazy, but I'm always having tunes running through my head all the time. Sometimes I think I'm like an idiot savantI only think of tunes! Sometimes I have trouble going to sleep.
AAJ: It's like the musical brain can't stop. I've heard that from other musicians. As you mentioned, Tom Lawton is a good friend of mine. Even when he's having a conversation, his fingers are always going with piano music. He's hearing music constantly.
LM: The other night, some tune started in my head, and I was thinking of every possible way to play it, and I tried to stop myself, but I couldn't! [Laughter]
AAJ: I like to get musicians' personal takes on spirituality. Coltrane once said that music was an expression of his spirituality. Do you have a spiritual philosophy? Sonny Rollins, for instance, studied meditation in India. Do you ever think about that sort of thing?
LM: No, I'm not that heavy. But the one thing I have always believed is that music comes from God.
AAJ: That's pretty deep!
LM: Well, but when I play, I'm not consciously trying to convey something spiritual. It's just musicfunny, pretty, whatever. I was just telling someone that a lot of the new guys don't have a sense of humor in their playing. Dizzy and Bird and those guys did a lot of playing that had to do with humor and romance. Nowadays, you can't be sentimental. If you want to call all that stuff spiritual, that's the way I see it. But I do think that God creates the music.
AAJ: I would say that comes through when you play. And I do think humor is a big part of spirituality. The music of Mozart, Beethoven, even Gustav Mahler, contains elements of humor. And I do think there is a trend not only in jazz but in society in general today to be ultra-serious, take oneself too seriously. We've lost some of the lightness and romanticism.
So, to round off our discussion, what do you plan to do next? Are you a "day at a time" guy, or do you have some plans? Would you like to compose?
LM: My composing is more in the form of arranging. I play with a big band, the Clef Club Jazz Band. I write some arrangements for them. I do it all rather spontaneouslyI don't plan it out in advance.
AAJ: So what's next?
LM: I'm working on doing another CD as a leader. If I get a producer, we'll go with that and figure out the tunes, and so on. I can't disclose too much right now because we're having some talks with a producer.
AAJ: So how would you sum it all up, Larry?
LM: Well, I remember a story Sammy Nestico once told me. Billy Byers hired him to do some arranging with a team he needed for a production. Byers knocked off ten pages of arranging for every one that Barry could do. At first, Sammy felt devastatedhere's a guy ten times as good as him. But then he realized each person is unique. If you do your personal best, you're a success. That's what I think aspiring musicians should keep in mind. Like, I might never be a Coltrane, but whatever I do I try to do it well. And I've gotten to where I have a distinct style and people appreciate my music. I couldn't ask for more than that.
Selected Discography Frank Tiberi, 4 Brothers 7 (Jazzed, 2007)
Craig Raymond and the Next Generation Big Jazz Band, Straight Ahead (Star Satellite, 2006)
John Swana and the Philadelphians, Philly Gumbo, Vol. 2 (Criss Cross, 2005)
Robert Henderson, RH Positive (Philly Breakdown, 2002)
Larry McKenna, It Might as Well Be Spring (Dreambox Media, 2001)
City Rhythm Orchestra, Goin' to Town (Limehouse, 2000)
Larry McKenna, My Shining Hour: Larry McKenna Plays Harold Arlen (EPE, 1996)
Woody Herman and His Thundering Herd, Crown Royal (Laserlight, 1992)
Buddy DeFranco, Born to Swing (Hindsight, 1988)