Dave McKenna is simply one of the legends of the jazz piano. He, of course, would probably disagree. "I don't know if I qualify as a bona-fide jazz guy," he says. "I play saloon piano. I like to stay close to the melody." His humility and laid-back personal style seem a contrast to the vibrant vitality of his masterful piano style. His range is truly extraordinary. One minute he is caressing a lovely ballad, the next he is thundering and rumbling through a high-powered rendition of I Found a New Baby.
Dave was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, into a musical family. His father William McKenna, a postman, played the drums part-time, and two sisters are singers. His mother, Catherine Reilly McKenna, was Dave's first piano teacher. In additions to being a good piano player, she was a fine violinist as a young woman. He also took lessons from Preston "Sandy" Sandiford in Boston, a fine piano teacher Dave liked very much. He explains that he developed his trademark left-handed bass style because "I wanted to hear something like what I heard on the records."
Dave began his career with Boots Mussulli Band, then left home to play with the Charlie Ventura band, followed by a stint with Woody Herman. After two years in the army, he returned to Charlie Ventura's band, then worked with Gene Krupa, Stan Getz, and Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. He often worked with Bobby Hackett, including some gigs at Eddie Condon's in Manhattan, playing what Hackett called "Whiskeyland Jazz." Among Dave's biggest influences was Nat King Cole, who remains one of his favorites to this day.
While working with Bobby Hackett, Dave discovered the pleasures of Cape Cod. He and his wife Frankie moved to the Cape in 1966 with their sons Stephen and Douglas. The move changed his career as well as his address - he worked less frequently with bands and more often as a solo pianist, but he still spent a great deal of time on the road.
Dave's musical magic found a wider audience through recordings, from his first solo recording on ABC records in 1955 to his wonderful work in the 70s for Chiaroscuro Records and then for Concord Jazz. In the 1980s, Dave's many fans could enjoy his magnificent medleys 6 nights a week at the Plaza Bar at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, where he was pianist-in-residence.
Dave has traveled all over the world to play festivals, cruises and concerts, and Boston-area fans always considered it a rare treat when he did perform close to home, either solo or with noted jazz artists including Dick Johnson, Gray Sargent, Marshall Wood, and Donna Byrne.