In the spring of 1997, I was doubling (or tripling) as jazz critic at the newspaper in upstate New York where I worked as a features writer and columnist. I received no extra pay for the effort but, besides comp tickets and the privilege of meeting and interviewing musicians whose work I loved – Sonny Rollins, Marian McPartland, Kenny Barron, the late Elvin Jones and Nick Brignola, among others – I also got the chance to write about them while self-consciously working in the shadow of Whitney Balliett, longtime jazz writer for The New Yorker. He remains the only critic in my tight little pantheon of writing heroes, and I consciously aped his impressionistic style when writing about jazz and just about anything else when the approach seemed to work.
Dave McKenna, a pianist with a legendary dynamo for a left hand, was coming to town for three nights. I had seen him perform before but had never met or written about him. In the 1970s, Balliett had written a memorable advocacy piece about McKenna titled “Super Chops.” In it, he called McKenna “one of the hardest-swinging jazz pianists of all time” and “among the best of the post-Tatum pianists.” He described a diffident man with “a tempestuous side.” McKenna seemed to live for music, his family, good food and the Boston Red Sox, and I inferred from Balliett’s piece that, if not for music, McKenna might have been a fatally unhappy man.
McKenna was in town for three nights. I caught both of his first-night shows and got back to the office in time to file my review for the next day’s editions. He performed several of his customary medleys of songs thematically linked by title – say, “How Deep is the Ocean?” followed by “Red Sails in the Sunset” and “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” The club was small and I was seated next to the stage – in effect, a couple of octaves away from McKenna, as measured by his “hot-dog fingers,” as Balliett called them.
Next morning, driving to the office, I passed McKenna walking up Erie Boulevard. He was wearing very white, unlaced sneakers, and he walked as though the sidewalk had been sprinkled with tacks. I stopped, he climbed in and asked me to take him to a nearby convenience store where he wanted to buy newspapers to check on his beloved Sox. Back in the car, four or five papers in his lap, McKenna asked if my review was in that morning’s edition. I told him where to find it, and had the uniquely uncomfortable experience of watching the subject of a review I had written read it while seated three feet away from me. He took his time reading, grunted a couple of times, cleared his throat and exploded into a laugh that I can remember immediately describing, in the writing compartment of my mind, as Rabelaisian. “That’s all right,” he said, and that was the end of it.
I drove McKenna back to his motel, but for the next two mornings I picked up his newspapers early and delivered them to the front desk to spare him the painful walk. In the subsequent eight years, I heard rumors that his health was bad, especially his feet, then I learned McKenna, who turns 76 in May, had given up performing. The thought is deeply unsettling, like a wasted natural resource. Here’s McKenna, without false modesty, as quoted by Balliett: “People are always after you to play hot, but I don’t have super chops. I don’t know if I play jazz. I don’t know if I qualify as a bona-fide jazz guy. I play barroom piano. I like to stay close to the melody. When I play, I just tool along, and the only thing I think about is what I’m going to play next.”