The Cat Came Back

And the band plays on: Larry McKenna is still sounding his horn.

By Marjorie Preston
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 28, 2001

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In a musical genre that demands at least the pretense of world-weary sophistication, jazz saxophonist Larry McKenna is not your average Joe Cool. He knows it; he admits it. His nerd quotient is painfully high. He's a middle-aged, middle-class white guy who favors basic brown sport coats and the everydad tie.

So what? Should he choose, McKenna's got the chops to blow your plate-glass slider straight to Camden.

Onstage, McKenna is famously rigid, taciturn and unmoving (except for those fingers, which raise plumes of smoke when he gets a good riff going). In fact, he's earned some dubious nicknames around town: "The Ed Sullivan of Jazz," "The Pillar of Stone," even "The Easter Island Head." But don't take these as signs of disrespect. He's also acknowledged as just about the best damned player in the city.

At least, he was--and he may be again.

McKenna had been on the disabled list for a while, due to a 1997 accident. He was crossing Spring Garden Street about 11 a.m. one rainy March day when a maroon car came careening from out of nowhere and ran him down.

The driver pulled over about half a block down and hurried back to the site of the accident, where a crowd was already gathering. He looked down at McKenna, who had sustained extensive muscle and nerve damage, taken four breaks to the right shoulder and eaten a lot of gravel.

"Hey, man," he hollered, "that was your fault."

McKenna was too dazed to respond. The driver walked back to his car and drove away. No one thought to note his plate number. He was never identified or charged. (At least he didn't sue for front-end damage.)

That body slam could have been a career-ender for McKenna, a local legend who's revered in jazz circles for equal parts bang-up bop and smoky jazz-pop, mixing the musical DNA of Lester Young and Phil Woods, with maybe a touch of Stan Getz.

"Here's a guy," says expatriate Philly trumpeter John Harrison, "who, when you say his name in a room full of musicians, everyone genuflects." After the hit-and-run, the city's jazz community held a benefit to defray McKenna's medical expenses, then held its collective breath. It's like the old joke: "Doc, will he ever play again?"

But for the 60ish McKenna, this was no joke. He endured a shoulder replacement, more than two years of physical therapy and bouts of excruciating pain in his quest to come back. PT, he says, was "pretty grueling. I went to Moss Rehab three times a week to do all these exercises. I had to lay on my back and lift a cane, and at first I could only lift it a few inches." Unable to bear the weight of his shoulder strap, he couldn't even lift his horn. But he could wiggle his fingers, and that was a start.

"The odd part was, I could lift my right hand up just as far as my belt, and that's exactly where I put my hands to play. I thought if I could do that, I'd be okay."

Four years later, he is. The Larry McKenna Quartet now plays a standing Friday night at Alex's Jazz Under-ground (formerly J.J.'s Grotto, at 21st and Chestnut). McKenna is also finishing a new CD (as yet unnamed, to be released on the Dream Box Media-Encounter label) with a gang of young players culled from his music classes at Temple University, including keyboard player Jason Shatill, bassist Paul Gehman and drummer Dan Monahan.

The CD is the softer side of McKenna--all romance, all standards from the Gershwin-Porter-Hoagy Carmichael lexicon: "Spring Is Here," "It Might as Well Be Spring." Each one declaims the glories of the thawing season: fresh starts, new beginnings, all that jazz. Metaphors in the making.

Jazz DJ Kirk Turner, a major McKenna fan who hosted Turn on the Quiet on WRTI-FM for five years, says the return of Larry McKenna says much about the health of jazz here in Philadelphia.

Ever stentorian, Turner exults, "I think of Larry as one of the distinguished gentlemen of jazz here, along with Mickey Roker, Tony Williams and Bootsie Barnes. They're the ones who will pass the mantle down to the next generation."

He's disappointed, Turner adds, that there's not a larger audience for McKenna in Philadelphia, but the jazzman himself disagrees.

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