In July 2002, Kate and I hooked up with friends to hear the great American jazz pianist Dave McKenna play the grand piano at East Boston’s Cafe Italia. Back then, I never went anywhere without a Minolta AF-C point-and-shoot in my pocket.
If you’re not a jazz fan or past Boston resident, you may not have heard of McKenna. Starting as early as age 15– and while also recording more than 50 albums– he swung with cats like Charlie Ventura, Woody Herman, Eddie Condon, Stan Getz, Gene Krupa, Zoot Sims, Bobby Hackett, Art Tatum and Bill Evans. Legendary pianist George Shearing called him “simply the best.” New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett said he was “one of the hardest swinging pianists of all time.” Rhode Island PBS profiled him in its 2022 documentary “The Key Man: Dave McKenna.” And way back on Saturday, July 7th, 1972, he rocked Carnegie Hall.
Dave, though, described himself as a “saloon piano player.” He preferred to perform to the clink of drinks… as a hush flowed outward with his music across the room. During the ‘80s, he played six nights a week in Boston’s opulent Copley Plaza Hotel. Audiences there often included politicians (especially Tip O’Neill), fellow musicians (Zoot Sims, Kurt Mazur), actors (Faye Dunaway), local cops, and even a gangster or two. Later, McKenna toured the world to festivals, cruises and local hangs like Cafe Italia– where we caught up with him on a sweltering 85-degree evening.
Five Jazzed Frames
The place, on Meridian Street (shown in the above photo), was the sort of intimate neighborhood venue McKenna loved. Outside, the light was already falling into dangerous hand-held territory. And in the cafe, it dropped still more. As we entered, “Old Blue Eyes” hinted there’d be music inside:
The place was small… and McKenna’s night-long set had already begun:
Dave often worked solo. But on this night, a string-bass backed him:
And a vocalist fronted:
Two Hands, Many Voices
Often labeled “stride piano,” McKenna’s style was also branded “three-handed swing.” Why three-handed? Because his big left hand could handle tracks normally reserved for string bass (often played on the piano’s lowest keys)… while it also assisted his right hand with middle harmonies and melodies. McKenna could independently control the volume of these separate voices– and single-handedly (or rather, double-handedly) sound like an entire jazz combo!
But his left hand may have been hurting. In the above photo, you might just make out a white glove on it. Online, I found no other shots of him wearing gloves. So maybe his wrist was– on this night– the reason three-handed-Dave shared the stage.
The Camera Did its Best
My AF-C struggled in the dim cafe. It was the black model with ASA settings up to 400, but I’d loaded Fuji 800. With film’s latitude, this overexposure shouldn’t have been too big a problem.
But even if I’d owned the camera’s optional flash, I wouldn’t have popped it in McKenna’s face. So with exposure times potentially as long as 1/8 second, it wasn’t an ideal situation for hand-holding.
The camera faced an even bigger obstacle, too! Though the cafe’s floor was small, a few of us still managed to squeeze in a dance or two. If the AF-C had been just a little smarter, it would have refused to shoot when I started jiving. But it didn’t. I really tried to hold my hands steady, but my feet were anything but.
Whoever first said “The best camera is the one you have with you” was right– even if you’re in a dark, jazzy bar, with a camera (and photographer) that aren’t quite up to the challenge. Though the night’s shooting was tricky, and the results iffy, the AF-C was still there.
Sadly, the camera quit working shortly thereafter. Cafe Italia and Dave McKenna also “left the scene” in 2008. As I write this line, it seems a superb time to slip some McKenna on the turntable… and leaf through the rest of the Minolta AF-C’s evocative images. Bad photos can still hold good memories.
NOTE: I digitized these negatives with the DIY system that I described in this article.
–Dave Powell is a Westford, Mass., writer and avid amateur photographer.
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12 thoughts on “Jazzing to Dave McKenna (in 5 Blurry Minolta AF-C Frames) – By Dave Powell”
Dave, it almost seems appropriate to have photos with movement considering the venue and the event. There is nothing like being there when it comes to great music and atmosphere. Jazz piano is one of my favorite but never had the opportunity for live performances. My wonderful wife gifted me one birthday with tickets to a live performance of Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Ensemble. WOW! I didn’t have a camera but I can still “see” my exact spot in the Meyerson concert hall in my mind. At one time downtown Ft. Worth had a live performance spot named Caravan of Dreams and we attended several performances there with saxophonist Richard Elliot being a highlight. Sharp isn’t always necessary especially with music. Thanks for sharing your life moment.
You are very welcome, Bill! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but a little blur definitely helped to convey the atmosphere and energy. I’m envious about your Marsalis tickets… and Richard Elliot: Yesssssss!
It’s nice to read a regional posting from New England!
My wife & I attend the outdoor jazz concerts in Hartford CT throughout the summer. They’re held at the music stage in Bushnell Park. Nothing better than listening to jazz as the sun sets on a warm summer evening. Of course, you need a camera in one hand and a homemade cocktail in the other…
Some purists would turn up their noses at your blurred shots. I take a different view; the intense warm colors and blur add to the atmosphere and reality of the moment. The pics visually invoke the feeling of live music. Nicely done.
I really appreciate that Dan… I thought other photographers might enjoy hearing about the music as much as the photos! And cocktails were definitely part of the experience (and the images). As a former insurance mathematician, I can relate to summer jazz concerts in Hartford. Was your quaff of choice a Martini, Manhattan or Negroni? (As a former Ohio boy, I’d go Kentucky Bourbon Manhattan.)
Summer concerts: Negroni & club soda or a Mojito. A Manhattan has always been a fall & winter cocktail in our home. We use Jim Beam for our Manhattans. We’re responsible – I bid farewell to my wild 20’s a half-century ago. I go crazy now by shooting Kodak p3200!
For the concerts, I carry a Leica CL (film). It’s not as compact as the XA, but it serves me well for an EDC.
My 20’s are also a half-century old. And by now, a single Manhattan on Saturday night can be tastier than the three (or so) per week that we enjoyed at around the time we saw McKenna! Negroni and club soda is an excellent idea too.
The Leica CL is a marvelous little camera! About 25 years ago, I found one in a bin of point-and-shoots at Goodwill. It was only $3… and a good buy for the lens alone. For reasons I do not understand, its owner had “harvested” the poor thing’s entire viewfinder assembly. But everything else works perfectly. And once I get up-to-speed on Caffenol, I’ll develop some CL photos shot using Sunny-16 and hyperfocal focusing.
The Cron 40 also works wonderfully on the Fuji X-Pro1… where it captures subtle shades of color better than the Fuji lenses. It’s currently my favorite “sunset” optic.
And a Happy Thanksgiving to you as well!
What an evocative, well-written story. I’m going to put some McKenna on the CD player.
I’m so pleased that you liked it, Gary! You also remind me of something. Christmas is coming… and I should look for some McKenna CDs!
Check out his “Live at Maybeck Recital Hall”–a lost and lamented small, intimate venue in Berkeley.
OMG… I hadn’t heard of those recordings! So I Googled “Live at Maybeck Recital Hall Dave McKenna”, clicked Google’s Videos tab, and found lovely tracks from that session. All wonderful! Many show off his “stride piano” style, and some (especially the one where he plays “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was”) feature that “string-bass left hand.” A new playlist has begun… Thanks so much Gary!
ADDENDUM! You know how YouTube tries to mix in videos related to what you’ve been watching? Well, while autoplaying Maybeck vids last night, YouTube started adding Boston TV recordings of Dave’s performances in the Copley Plaza Hotel. And Tony Bennett was a frequent collaborator! If you find them, ignore the sea-sick backgrounds. The old vidcams seemed to have trouble keeping ’em still!
I keep returning to your post, wanting to comment, but haven’t known what to say. Then zap. These snaps would be ideal on the front or rear cover of a live vinyl album of the artist. Your pictures speak volumes to me in this imaginary context. Well done!
WON…DER…FUL!! It’d be lovely to use a “dynamic” image that reflects the audience experience. And if I had to choose the best shot for a cover, I’d pick the last… with Dave and the singer. (My wife would too.) Thanks so much, Brian, for the lovely sentiment!