Dave McKenna (1930-2008), a swing pianist of extraordinary talents and taste who played in Woody Herman's Capitol Records band in the early 1950s and as a sideman on notable sessions with Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff, died yesterday. He was 78.
"In the 1970s the two pianists most frequently featured on Chiaroscuro recordings were Earl Hines and Dave McKenna. Earl appeared on a dozen LPs during that decade and Dave appeared on 10. Earl was nearing the end of his career, and Dave's solo career was just beginning to take off. I was lucky enough to be in the presence of these remarkable artists many times. There were no second takes with Earl; he played it once and that was it. He was that secure with what he did. Dave was more thoughtful and the results were equally outstanding. But he was even better when he didn't have any constraints.
One day in late 1977 Dave was at New York's Downtown Sound studio as part of a quintet that also featured Flip Phillips, Kenny Davern, George Duvivier and Bobby Rosengarden. It was a terrific recording, and afterward the guys packed up and left. Everyone but Dave. I suggested we go out for dinner, at the always reliable Blue Mill on Commerce Street. We talked about a lot of things, and as the dishes were being cleared away, I asked Dave if he'd like to come back to the studio and try something.
Always reluctant, he asked what I had in mind. I said, 'Give me a couple of Bradley's [nightclub] sets. No Take 1 or Take 2. We'll just turn on the tape recorder and you play whatever you want to play.' He liked the idea, and we walked back to the deserted studio. I changed the room around for a solo recording and turned down the lights. There was a quick sound check and then Dave just played and played and played. There was never a false note, never a hesitation, and everything was inspired. The only time he stopped was when I had to change the tape. My only regret is that I didn't ask for three sets. It was the last time I worked with Dave on a recording.
Those 10 selections on McKenna (1977) [now out of print] will have their 31st birthday in less than week, and they still sounds just as fresh and inspired as when they jumped out of the speakers in the control room all those years ago. I was lucky to have been there and even luckier to have been able to enjoy this master pianist's music for nearly half a century. And Dave, as I write this, the Red Sox are leading Tampa Bay 2-1."
McKenna also can be heard on Bird with the Herd (1951), featuring Charlie Parker with Woody Herman's band; Solo Piano (1955); Urbie Green's Blues & Other Shades of Green (1955); Phil and Quill (1956); From A to Z (1956), with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims; Chuck Wayne's The Fourmost Guitars (1956); and other albums on Chiaroscuro and Concord. One of my favorites featuring McKenna as a sideman is Bobby Hackett's The Most Beautiful Horn in the World (1961).
NEA Jazz Masters. On Friday evening I traveled down to Jazz at Lincoln Center to see six legends inducted as 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters. Billed as America's highest honor in jazz, this event was held at the spectacular Rose Theater in New York's Time Warner Center. The concert hall is so magnificent that you constantly have to remind yourself you're not in a classical facility but one built specifically for the music we love.
The annual gala has become somewhat akin to the Oscars, not for the glitz and red carpet nonsense but the sheer number of jazz legends bumping shoulders in one room. Last night I had the privilege of mingling with new inductees George Benson, Jimmy Cobb, Lee Konitz, Toots Thielemans, Snooky Young and Rudy Van Gelder. And I chatted with Phil Woods, Chico Hamilton, Gerald Wilson, Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler, Roy Haynes, Billy Taylor, Candido Camero, Frank Foster and so many others. I know, I know. I still can't believe it.
The evening kicked off with NEA chairman Dana Gioia conducting an hour-long conversation with the new inductees about their careers and recollections of other jazz legends. An awards presentation and concert followed, but unfortunately I was pulled away at the last minute and wasn't able to attend.
The reception and on-stage dialogue were sights to behold. Looking around, it was hard to imagine that there, in one room, were major forces behind swing (Snooky Young), bebop (Phil Woods), cool (Chico Hamilton), third stream (Lee Konitz), jazz fusion (Jimmy Cobb), Latin jazz (Candido), West Coast studio orchestration (Gerald Wilson) and jazz contemporary (George Benson). Not to mention, the person who recorded all of them (Rudy Van Gelder). I'm still pinching myself.
William Claxton (1927-2008), whose black-and-white photographs of West Coast musicians in the 1950s provided cool jazz with a laid-back image and brooding mystique, died Oct 11. He was 80. [Photo by Steve Crist]
Born in Pasadena, CA, Claxton was in the right place at the right time. Captivated by the music of his father's big-band record collection, Claxton took a camera into Los Angeles-area jazz clubs just as Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Chico Hamilton, Russ Freeman, Bud Shank, Art Pepper and others were developing a cooler, more linear jazz form. Claxton also was among the first photographers to take journalistic pictures of jazz musicians outside, in daylight hours.
Instead of featuring his subjects in formal suits and ties, Claxton's images introduced America to Southern California's post-War informality. Musicians were photographed in T-shirts, blue jeans, Hawaiian and checked shirts, chinos and scruffy salt-stained loafers. In this regard, Claxton's photographs celebrated not only the fashion of cool jazz musicians but also their surf-and-turf lifestyle shaped by long sunsets, fast cars and disposable culture. Hollywood, too, was swept up by Claxton's romantic images and soon cast actors James Dean [pictured], Montgomery Clift and other brooding types in mid-1950s films about detached, misunderstood youth.
With the emergence of the 10-inch LP and local jazz record labels such as Pacific Jazz and Contemporary in the early and mid-1950s, the demand for album photography soared. Claxton's already-established relationship with many of the West Coast musicians made him the ideal choice for recording-studio photo sessions.
To fully appreciate Claxton's impact and influence, you only need look at jazz photos from the 1930s and 1940s. The bulk were nocturnal, club-based stills dominated by artists with glistening brows and starched white shirts enveloped in plumes of cigarette smoke. By contrast, Claxton's images featured West Coast artists in laid back settings, such as Art Pepper hiking up Fargo St. in Los Angeles or Chet Baker with then-wife Halema [both images pictured].
But Claxton was much more than a photographer of early 1950s jazz or a mere documentarian. There is a perspective and point of view in all of his photographs. Through his early 1950s images we see not only an emerging group of young, talented musicians but also faces that bore the strain of a high-risk lifestyle. The musicians of Claxton's photographs were cool. But in their sunken eyes, hungry faces and tortured smiles you could see frustration and a yearning for an American Dream that always seemed to be just out of reach.
For a superb essay on Claxton, see Doug Ramsey's post at Rifftides here.
Sonny Rollins. Reader John Herr sent along a link here to the site of saxophonist Jimmy Cozier, who has posted a letter Sonny Rollins wrote to Coleman Hawkins in 1962. An interesting correspondence from someone who was considered to be Hawk's equal by 1962.
JazzWax™. I'm happy to report that JazzWax last week was granted trademark status by the U.S. Patent and Trademarks office.
Benny Golson. Next Wednesday at 9:05 am (EST), I will be interviewed on Benny Golson by disc jockey Ralph Benmergui of JAZZ.FM91, Canada's largest jazz radio station. To listen live, go here.
New York jazz scene. NY1 News' art reporter Stephanie Simon just completed a super TV series called 24 Hours of Jazz, a day-long look at jazz in New York City. Her marathon adventure includes interviews with author and critic Will Friedwald. To view Stephanie's series, go here.
Hank Mobley. Today (Sunday) radio jazz maven Sid Gribetz of WKCR-NY is devoting his five-hour Jazz Profiles show to tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley. Tune-in time: 2-7 pm (EDT). Go here to listen live.
Lee Morgan. Tonight (Sunday), trumpeter Lee Morgan will be the focus of historian, writer and musician Bill Kirchner's Jazz From the Archives show on WBGO in New York. Tune-in time: 11 pm to midnight (EDT). Go here to listen live.