The Troy Street Observer

Oct 30, 1979: Bill Evans, Dave McKenna at Lulu White’s

Lulu White’s, the jazz club on Appleton Street in the South End, had a good year in 1979—maybe its best year. And the end of October club owner Chester English went on a serious piano kick. He brought in local stalwart Dave McKenna and matched him with an array of great piano players.

Cover of Bill Evans LP
Bill Evans Trio at Lulu White’s, October 30, 1979

There were three pianists in the house on October 25-26, a Thursday-Friday engagement. McKenna shared the bill with the adventurous Joanne Brackeen, not long removed from Stan Getz’s group, and the conservatory-trained Polish pianist Adam Makowicz, who was to spend a considerable amount of time in Boston in the early 1980s.

Then for five nights the following week, October 30 to November 3, McKenna played opposite Bill Evans. McKenna played solo. Evans had his trio, with Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera. It must have been an amazing week, listening to these two craftsmen, so different and both so brilliant.
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Oct 20, 1977: Teddi King Part 3, “This Is New”

Earlier installments in this series detailed Teddi King’s rise as a jazz singer in the early 1950s, and her venture into the realm of pop later in that decade. Her career faded in the 1960s, but the improving prospects for interpreters of the American songbook revived it in the 1970s, and brought her into the studio with Dave McKenna on October 20, 1977.

Photo of Teddi King
Teddi King at the This Is New sessions, October 1977

Earlier that year, King told The New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett that despite the sequined gowns and Las Vegas stage act and RCA Victor contract, “I was doing pop pap, and I was in musical despair. I didn’t have my lovely jazz music and the freedom it gives. Elvis Presley got bigger and bigger, and rock arrived, and I got very depressed and thought of quitting the business.” King didn’t quit, but she labored through the sixties in near-anonymity.

While working on Nantucket in summer 1970, King contracted lupus, the debilitating disease she battled for the rest of her life. Weakened by illness, she changed her approach to singing. King always liked Billie Holiday for her depth of feeling, but other influences changed over time. As a young band singer, she liked Frances Wayne and Helen Forrest. There was a strong Sarah Vaughan influence in King’s jazz material, and Lena Horne inspired her RCA years. In the seventies, she concentrated on lyrics and telling stories in song, and Mabel Mercer became, as she told Balliett, “her goddess.” (Balliett, an avid King fan, dedicated his 1979 volume of essays, American Singers, to her.)
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June 24, 1989: McKenna’s Last Set at the Plaza Bar

Photo of Dave McKenna
Dave McKenna in the 1980s

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.

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May 30, 1930: “Saloon Player” Dave McKenna Born

The fine pianist Dave McKenna was born on this day in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in 1930.

Photo of Dave McKenna
Dave McKenna in the 1980s

Dave McKenna was an integral part of the Boston jazz scene for only about eight years, which constitutes less than a quarter of the time he was active professionally in New England. Still, the listeners who heard him when McKenna was the resident pianist in the Plaza Bar in the Copley Plaza Hotel cherish the memory. Everybody liked Dave. Even people whose taste in creative music went in different directions liked Dave because he was a one-of-a-kind and very, very good at what he did.

What he did in the Plaza Bar, of course, was play solo piano, from 1981 to 1989, for about eight months a year, six night a week, four hours a night. He was self-effacing: “I play a lot of melody. I’d call myself a saloon player.”
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Jan 10, 2010: Remembering Dick Johnson

Star Dust & Beyond

On January 10, 2010, reedman and bandleader Dick Johnson, favorite son of Brockton, Mass., died at age 84. Although his band Swing Shift was immensely popular locally, Johnson was best known to the national audience as the clarinetist picked by Artie Shaw to lead his revived orchestra in 1983. Said Shaw of Johnson’s clarinet playing in 1980: “He’s the best I’ve ever heard. Bar nobody. And you can quote me on that, anywhere, anytime!”

Dick Johnson spent six years on the road with Charlie Spivak and Buddy Morrow; enjoyed lengthy musical associations with fellow New Englanders Lou Colombo, Herb Pomeroy, and Dave McKenna; and released recordings on Emarcy, Riverside, and Concord. His final recording was Star Dust and Beyond: A Tribute to Artie Shaw, in 2006. Not once, but twice, his hometown of Brockton declared “Dick Johnson Day” in his honor, on September 6, 1984 and May 1, 1999.

It’s good to remember Dick Johnson was much more than a Shaw acolyte. Wilder Hobson reviewed Johnson’s Riverside recording Most Likely in Saturday Review in 1958, on which a grittier Johnson played only alto. The others in his quartet were Dave McKenna, Wilbur Ware, and Philly Joe Jones. Wrote Hobson: “Johnson, who like all modern altos has listened to Charlie Parker, and who is especially fond of Lee Konitz, plays himself with irresistible verve and invention; he composes intricately jaunty tunes; and his rapport with the other three players is perfection. A good deal of the briskness of a New England October has gotten into this music, but Johnson can also suggest the summer shore.”

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