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Larry McKenna: Keeping the Legacy Alive

Victor L. Schermer By

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Larry McKenna is a master tenor saxophonist. He has resided in Philadelphia all his life, and so is best known in that city, although he has been on the road a number of times, in particular with the Woody Herman band, and musical insiders everywhere know his work. His CDs as a leader include My Shining Hour (EPE, 1996), It Might As Well Be Spring (Dreambox Media, 2001), and 4 Brothers 7 (Jazzed, 2007), the latter with Frank Tiberi and two other sax alumni from the Herman band.

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 guys—I 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.

Starting Out

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 attention—I 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 it—that 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 improvising—I 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 afternoon—the guys who were playing at the clubs like Peps, the Showboat, and the Blue Note—they 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 obvious—don'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 crucial—we 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 music—very helpful. Later, I played as featured soloist with Adoph's big band.

AAJ: So, you started playing on your own—a "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 Bird—I'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.
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