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Larry McKenna: Keeping the Legacy Alive

Victor L. Schermer By

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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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