Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Dave McKenna

If you are among those who just said “Dave who?”, THIS IS YOUR LUCKY DAY! I am about to offer up a gift more lasting, more aesthetically pleasing and more spiritually enlightening than any you have likely received during this “season of getting”. That gift? The pianism of Dave McKenna.

Indulge me some first-person info.

Dave McKenna ca. 1985
Dave McKenna ca. 1985

Along with untold millions of others of my generation, as a little shaver I took piano lessons. By the time I was thirteen I could play a handful of Beethoven Sonatas, Bach’s Two and Three-Part Inventions, some Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, etc., etc. But: with my puberty entering hyperdrive, I became bored with the “classics”, and while I spent a good bit of time writing my own, primarily rock ‘n’ roll flavored ditties, I stopped practicing the piano (and my parents subsequently cut off the lessons).

And then I was hit by a bolt of musical lightning, my epiphany, a life changer: 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 potential harmonic complexity, its melodic sophistication, its discipline, its conversational nature and, as a primarily improvised music, its freedom from the printed page.

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

Jazz is music of the oral tradition. And while there have evolved over the last fifty years (or so) all sorts of pedagogic methodologies for “teaching” jazz techniques, you cannot teach someone to “swing”: either someone can or someone can’t. At the end of the day, the only way to learn how to play jazz is to listen to, emulate, and then assimilate the work of other jazzers. Over the years, certain horn/wind players have had a major impact on my playing, most notably Louis Armstrong (Pops is still the godfather of us all!), Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Paul Desmond, Ruby Braff, Sonny Stitt, and Lee Konitz. 

But the jazz musicians who have had the most impact on me are, not surprisingly, pianists. For me, the short list of those pianists who have most powerfully influenced me reads (in no particular order): Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck (a great composer, by whatever standard we choose to apply), Oscar Peterson (who was called “Hercules” by his awed colleagues), Bill Evans, Armando “Chick” Corea, Phineas Newborn Jr., Roger Kellaway, Lennie Tristano, Sal Mosca, and Dave McKenna.…

Learn more – including Dr. Bob’s TWO recording recommendations – on Patreon!

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