Legendary jazz pianist Dave McKenna died from lung cancer Oct. 18 in State College, Pa., where he has lived for the past two years. His son, Stephen, lives in State College.
McKenna was born May 30, 1930, in Woonsocket, R.I. His father, a postman, was a part-time drummer, and his mother, a violinist and pianist, was McKenna's first piano teacher. He also studied piano with Preston (Sandy) Sandiford in Boston. McKenna first performed in Boots Mussulli's band in the Boston area, and he later left home to work in bands led by Charlie Ventura and Woody Herman. After two years' service in the Army, McKenna returned to Ventura's band and then worked with Gene Krupa, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Bob Wilber, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Scott Hamilton, and at Eddie Condon's in New York. McKenna also appeared on television shows featuring Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett.
McKenna, his wife, Frankie, and their sons, Stephen and Douglas, moved in 1966 to Cape Cod, and McKenna lived in South Yarmouth and South Dennis. On the Cape, McKenna worked mostly as a solo pianist at The Columns, West Dennis, and the East Bay Lounge, Osterville.
McKenna made numerous well-received recordings on the ABC Paramount, Chiaroscuro and Concord labels. In the 1980s, he worked six nights a week at the Plaza Bar at the Copley Plaza Hotel, Boston. He also played at many festivals, jazz parties and on jazz cruises, and he worked with such Boston area musicians as reedman Dick Johnson, guitarist Gray Sargent, bassist Marshall Wood, and vocalist Donna Byrne. He was widely admired by fellow musicians.
Due to health problems, McKenna was not able to perform for the past several years. A modest man, he used to say, "I don't know if I qualify as a bona fide jazz guy. I play saloon piano. I like to stay close to the melody."
Peter Keepnews wrote in The New York Times, that McKenna "liked to spin out long medleys united by a theme, like famous and obscure songs with 'You,' 'Stars' or 'Spring' in the title."
In addition to his two sons, McKenna is survived by his wife, Frances Wiggins McKenna of Oak Island, N.C.; his siblings, Jean O'Donnell and Donald McKenna, of Woonsocket, and Patricia Savard of Barrington, R.I.; and a granddaughter. A memorial service for family, friends and fellow musicians will be held, date to be announced.
McKenna was an avid fan of the Boston Celtics basketball team, the New England Patriots football team, and especially the Boston Red Sox baseball team. I learned of McKenna's death while listening to the radio broadcast of the seventh game of the American League Championship Series during the evening of Oct. 18. The Red Sox's announcer said that one of the great fans of the Red Sox, Dave McKenna, had died.
One of McKenna's close friends, Leo Curran, 80, road manager for Stan Kenton's orchestra from 1948 to 1955, died Sept. 23 at the Milford (Mass.) Regional Hospital. The primary cause of death was an infection, but Curran had many ailments, many of which were brought on by a fall he had in a doughnut shop in 2006. Curran served in the Navy's Seabees in World War II. A jazz fan, he studied tenor saxophone and clarinet with Milford's Boots Mussulli. After years on the road with the Kenton band and having suffered partial paralysis and blindness, Curran returned to Milford.
In 1961, Curran and Mussulli formed the Milford Youth Orchestra, which played at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. Curran's eyesight was restored with surgery, and he could drive a car again. He became known as Milford's "most colorful character," and he walked around town or spent time in the town's library, where he borrowed books and sometimes helped with music inquiries. He was a founding member of the New England Jazz Alliance and had been helping Kenton's daughter write her father's biography.
In his late years, Curran took more interest in the older styles of jazz. His many friends and I will miss him. During our occasional conversations, Curran always displayed a good sense of humor and a vast knowledge of swing.
Mary Lou (Condon) Didriksen, 55, wife of drummer Dave Didriksen of Doctor John Clark's Wolverine Jazz Band, passed away from cancer Oct. 16. Mrs. Didriksen, a native of Yonkers, N.Y., and her husband of 24 years resided in Acton, Mass. Mrs. Didriksen was co-owner with her husband of Willow Books and Cafe in Acton, Mass. Jazz is performed there every Friday night. A memorial service was held on Oct. 21 at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Acton. She will be missed by her family and friends.
In April 1993, the RAG published my interview of Jack Bradley, a collector of jazz memorabilia, who lived in Harwich on Cape Cod. According to Niko Koppel, in the Sept. 29 edition of The New York Times, Bradley first met Louis Armstrong in the early 1950s, and they subsequently became close friends. Through the years, Bradley collected much Armstrong memorabilia, including photographs, many of which Bradley took to accompany his stories about Armstrong in Coda, Down Beat and Jazz Journal.