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Larry McKenna: Keeping the Legacy Alive

Victor L. Schermer By

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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 traditions—they'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 clarifying—it'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 Ammons—strongly 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, "Hey—I didn't know I used a Myxolydian scale there!" [Laughter] They all knew the chords but not the terminology.

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