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Larry McKenna: Keeping the Legacy Alive

Victor L. Schermer By

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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" sound—Stan 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 do—you spend a lot of time working on it.


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