June 24, 1989: McKenna’s Last Set at the Plaza Bar
On Saturday, June 24, the Age of McKenna ended at the Plaza Bar in the Copley Plaza Hotel.
Dave McKenna first worked at the Copley Plaza in 1976, a trio date in the big street-level room that was then called the Merry-Go-Round, with its revolving stage in the center of the room. They usually hired singers there, good ones, but even talent like Teddi King and Johnny Hartman were unable to solve the creaking and groaning of the rotating stage.
The Merry-Go-Round was gone in 1979, replaced by the Plaza Bar, and the singers were replaced by pianists like Teddy Wilson in long residences. In 1981, the hotel management decided to book one pianist for a seven-month season starting just after Labor Day, and on September 13, 1981, the Age of McKenna began at the Plaza Bar.
McKenna put in his time with Charlie Ventura, Woody Herman, Zoot Sims, and others, but he was born to play in piano bars, and he played some good ones, like Bradley’s and Hanratty’s in New York, and the Columns on the Cape, before he arrived at the Plaza Bar. He could stay out of the limelight in such places, and play what he wanted to play. He told John S. Wilson of the New York Times in 1980: “I’m more of a song player than a jazz player. I’m a saloon player, a cocktail player. I don’t want to stretch out the way the jazz pianists do.” And on songs and songwriters: “I like show tunes—Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, Arlen, Porter. The guys I like have a big melodic thing.”
McKenna played more ballads than up-tempo tunes, but it’s the faster playing that people remember, and I wrote about that on his birthday. His ballads were dreamy and his swing was relentless.
And so, for season after season all through the ‘80s, McKenna held court at the Plaza, playing from 9 to 1 six nights a week, no cover. He was recording an album a year for Concord Jazz, and with those albums, McKenna finally achieved recognition beyond New England and the New York piano bars.
But everything comes to an end, and the 1988-89 season was the end for McKenna at the Plaza Bar. There were too many empty seats, especially later in the evening. And, as he told the Globe’s Fernando Gonzalez, “It’s time to go. I’ve been here too long. You get stale. And then also, even the people who like your work say ‘Well, we can see Dave tomorrow…’ It was an amicable parting, and McKenna moved on.
On the final night, fans sent roses and a big cake, the mood was melancholy, and all the attention embarrassed him. The Globe did not report what his last tunes were, but a few nights before I know he closed with “One for My Baby,” and it was as blue as any version Frank Sinatra ever sang.
Here is video of McKenna playing a few Kern tunes, “Nobody Else But Me” and “I’m Old Fashioned.”