Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Dave McKenna, solo piano

It Happens Every Spring

Five days ago, on March 30, 2023, something took place that hadn’t happened since 1968, 55 years ago: major league baseball’s Opening Day took place with all thirty teams starting their season on the same day.

I am aware that this year, spring technically began on March 20, 2023.  But let’s be real: in the United States, the true end of winter and beginning of spring – and with it the sense that verdant life and hope spring eternal – is marked by the beginning of baseball season.   

In the words of Terrence Mann (as played by James Earl Jones in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams):

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

Terrance Mann’s is a sentiment that would have been shared entirely by the miraculous (not too strong a word) jazz pianist Dave McKenna (1930-2008).  McKenna was a life-long Boston Red Sox fan, as the cover of the prescribed Dave “Fingers” McKenna album above attests.  In fact, according to that album’s producer Hank O’Neal:

“The project [to record the album] was firmed up in May 1977 at a Yankees/Red Sox game (the Yankees won; sorry Dave).”

(On the album jacket of the original vinyl version of the recording, the producer Hank O’Neal explained the cover this way:

“A note on the cover.  Dave McKenna likes the Boston Red Sox.  In fact, he may very well like the Red Sox better than playing the piano.  Anyway, to boost sales in the Boston area, John De Vries fashioned a cover modeled on the old 1940 Play Ball baseball card.  We cheated, in that Dave’s name has been moved to the top of the ‘card’ since, I am told, that if the name of an album is not at the top, prospective customers might overlook it.”)

Dave McKenna in 1990, age 60
Dave McKenna in 1990, age 60

When I Discovered Jazz

Pardon me a bit of first-person pronoun-dominated background.

Along with untold millions of us, I took piano lessons as a little shaver.   By the time I was thirteen I was a competent pianist; I could play an armload of Beethoven Sonatas, Bach’s Two and Three-Part Inventions, some Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, etc., etc.  But at the age of thirteen, I became bored with my piano lessons, and while I spent a good bit of time writing my own, primitive, primarily rock ‘n’ roll flavored ditties, I stopped practicing and subsequently stopped taking lessons.

And then I was hit by a bolt of musical lightning: at the age of 14, I discovered jazz.  Here was a music with all the rhythmic intensity of rock ‘n’ roll but magnified – to my ear, a gazillion fold – by the polyrhythmic magic that is swing.  I was gob-smacked by its harmonic complexity, its melodic sophistication, its discipline, its conversational nature and, as a primarily improvised music, its freedom from the printed page.  …

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