He knows the joy of sax

Larry McK­enna will jazz it up on Fri­day at the Art Mu­seum. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF MELISSA GIL­STRAP

Frank Sinatra prob­ably nev­er thought twice about it, but Larry McK­enna will nev­er for­get it.

It was 1976 at the famed Lat­in Casino in Cherry Hill and Ol’ Blue Eyes was in rare form. His hand-picked con­duct­or, Bill Miller, struck up the band for the next song on the set list. But Frank began singing the lyr­ics to the wrong tune.


The next night, at the same point in the show, Sinatra threw Miller un­der the bus.

“He said to Bill Miller be­fore the whole or­ches­tra, ‘And don’t screw it up like you did last night,’” re­called McK­enna, who backed Sinatra on ten­or sax­o­phone throughout a sold-out run at the “Lat­in.”

“[Sinatra] was a great artist and prob­ably the best sing­er of that kind of mu­sic that ever was, but he also had a per­son­al­ity that a lot of people couldn’t deal with,” McK­enna said.

These days, McK­enna doesn’t have to deal with pre­ten­tious head­liners any­more. After some six dec­ades in the mu­sic busi­ness, the 75-year-old lifelong Ol­ney res­id­ent gets to call his own shots.

And pure jazz lov­ers are reap­ing the be­ne­fits. McK­enna has be­come one of the stand­ard bear­ers in the le­gendary Philly jazz scene and still per­forms dozens of live shows a year, in­clud­ing fre­quent ap­pear­ances in the Phil­adelphia Mu­seum of Art’s sum­mer­time “Art After 5” series.

That’s where he’ll be this Fri­day, shar­ing his finely aged in­ter­pret­a­tions of jazz stand­ards as well as ori­gin­al com­pos­i­tions. McK­enna’s quar­tet also will in­clude Tony Miceli on vi­bra­phone, Kev­in Mac­Con­nell on bass and Dan Mon­aghan on drums.

“[Jazz] has al­ways been there, and there’s al­ways been a small seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion who likes it,” McK­enna said. “It’s like three per­cent of re­cord in­dustry sales are jazz and it’s been that way for many, many, many years. It doesn’t go away. It nev­er does.”

Al­though not a house­hold name, McK­enna has the cre­den­tials to im­press even the most cas­u­al mid-20th cen­tury pop­u­lar mu­sic fan. He has per­formed with Woody Her­man, Rose­mary Clooney and Tony Ben­nett, among many oth­er not­ables.

In the 1970s, he was a mem­ber of the “Moth­ers Fath­ers Sis­ters Broth­ers” or­ches­tra util­ized by Gamble and Huff’s Phil­adelphia In­ter­na­tion­al Re­cords at Sigma Sound Stu­di­os, ap­pear­ing as a non-cred­ited per­former on re­cord­ings by loc­ally de­veloped stars like Patti La­Belle and Har­old Melvin & the Blue Notes.

“I played with guys like that. Then the next night, I may [have been] play­ing at some­body’s wed­ding,” McK­enna said.

In oth­er words, he did whatever it took to make ends meet at the time. But he con­sidered a ca­reer change only once.

“The only time I ever did any­thing else was around 1965 and work in mu­sic got to be really slow. I met my fu­ture wife and was con­sid­er­ing get­ting mar­ried,” he said.

Some friends per­suaded him to en­roll in barber school.

“I hated the barber thing. I nev­er really wanted to do it,” McK­enna said. “I worked at it for a year and a half and then I got a steady gig play­ing mu­sic.”

He doesn’t even have to both­er with wed­dings or backup stu­dio gigs any­more.

In ad­di­tion to his play­ing, McK­enna has de­veloped an ex­tens­ive fol­low­ing as a sax and jazz the­ory teach­er, hav­ing in­struc­ted classes at the Uni­versity of the Arts, Temple, West Chester, Widen­er and Com­munity Col­lege of Phil­adelphia.

Now, as a wid­ower and empty-nester, McK­enna has the free­dom to ded­ic­ate him­self fully to his own in­spir­a­tions.

He is the lead per­former on three LPs, most re­cently 2009’s Pro­file, and is work­ing on a new al­bum due out this fall. And with his pol­ished im­pro­visa­tion­al style, he is viewed as a bridge between his genre’s golden age and new­er gen­er­a­tions of mu­si­cians.

“Each per­son has a style,” he said. “You de­vel­op a sound and a cer­tain phras­ing. It’s like a voice. This is something you work to de­vel­op over years.

“It’s sort of like hear­ing a young per­son speak, then an old per­son speak. I’m not talk­ing about the tech­nic­al part of [play­ing]. It’s the voice you get after hav­ing lived through a whole bunch of stuff.” ••

“Art After 5” per­form­ances be­gin after 5 p.m. and are held in the Phil­adelphia Mu­seum of Art’s Great Stair Hall. Per­form­ances are in­cluded in the reg­u­lar mu­seum ad­mis­sion price. Call the mu­seum at 215-684-7506 or e-mail to artafter5@phil­amu­seum.org for more in­form­a­tion.

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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