by J.B. Hyppolite
Larry McKenna, 75, is a Philadelphia jazz icon with an international reputation. This Sunday, Dec. 16, 6 to 10 p.m., he will receive the annual Jazz Bridge’s “Making a Difference” award at LaRose Jazz & Banquet Hall, 5531 Germantown Ave. Jazz Bridge is a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization that helps jazz musicians who have health and financial problems, and this event is a fundraiser for the Daphne Fund, which assists Philly area female jazz and blues musicians.
“It’s a really good organization, so I’m very pleased to be honored by them,” McKenna said in an interview last week. “I think one of the reasons that they might have chosen me is because I’ve coached a lot of younger people for over the past 40 years. The way I look at it, there’s always a small percentage of younger people who are still attracted to jazz music, even though only three percent of records sold today are jazz. What we need is to get more people to come out and hear it, but Philadelphia unfortunately doesn’t have as many places to play jazz as it used to.”
McKenna has spent quality time on the road with the legendary Woody Herman, and he has backed giants such as Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco, Rosemary Clooney, Peter Nero & The Philly Pops, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. According to a statement from the Jazz Bridge, “McKenna is simply a beautiful player in every sense of the word. No matter what the nature of the performance, the musical style, the tune or type of recording session — and he’s appeared on hundreds of CDs as an accompanist and leader — he can always be counted on to swing tastefully, inventively, creatively and with feeling. His singular sound and refreshing approach to improvisation make him a certifiable, one-of-a-kind, instantly identifiable artist.”
McKenna is very modest and self-effacing when asked about his collaboration with so many musical giants of the past 50 years or more. “It wasn’t exactly that I was hanging out with those guys,” he told the Local. “I was hired to play in the orchestras that played behind them; you know? It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing where they even knew who I was. When I played with Frank Sinatra, we had something like a 40-piece orchestra.”
Of all the instruments he could have chosen, what is it that drew him to the tenor saxophone? “People have said that it’s the closest instrument to the human voice,” he replied. “I would say that if you listen to all the great saxophone players in jazz going back to the very beginning, one of the things that all the great players had was an individual sound. Within two measures I could figure out who was playing. The instrument echoes a distinct sound akin to its player.”
Larry does not want to discourage young jazz musicians, but because there are not many places to play any more, he wants them to be realistic. “What I would advise young musicians,” he said, “is to be aware of the reality and to find something good to fall back on. You can’t just go out there and say, ‘Here I am’ and hope somebody’s gonna hire you. It doesn’t work that way. You have to know what you’re going to be up against.”
Larry McKenna started his musical journey at the age of 14 when he was living in Olney and attending Olney High School. After turning 18, he immediately went out on the road with Philadelphia area bands, but aside from playing Las Vegas during a brief stint with George Young’s Band, Larry has spent most of his musical life in Philadelphia.
Larry is also an instructor of jazz theory, harmony and saxophone at the Community College of Philadelphia. He has also taught at Temple University, University of the Arts, Widener University and West Chester University, and many of his former students have churned out successful musical careers. Larry has been featured as a sideman on many albums and has three CDs out under his own name: “Profile” (2009), “Might as Well be Spring” (2001) and “My Shining Hour” (1995). His next one will be entitled “From All Sides.”
Music arranged by McKenna was performed on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and in the Nicholas Cage movie, “Birdy,” in which Larry played and appeared. He has published many jazz-oriented arrangements for school concert bands. McKenna is a widower with a daughter who lives in Philadelphia and a son in California who writes music and plays the guitar.
Along with receiving the Jazz Bridge “Making a Difference” award this Sunday, McKenna will also be performing, beginning at 8:30 p.m., backed by drummer Rob Henderson, bassist Steve Beskrone and pianist Luke O’Reilly. An open jam session will be part of the evenings’ festivities, and for a $10 contribution, musicians are welcome and invited to sit in.