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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