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Larry McKenna: Keeping the Legacy Alive

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

The Standards

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 point—in 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 vocalists—Sinatra, 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!

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