New documentary takes an honest look at a local jazz great
In 1982, Tony Bennett and Count Basie teamed up for a PBS special recorded in Boston. But before the two jazz legends took the stage, the cameras followed Bennett into the lounge of the Copley Plaza Hotel so he could sing with the piano player.
That pianist was Dave McKenna, who for much of the 1980s played six nights a week at the Copley Plaza, largely eschewing the life on the touring circuit that his considerable talents would have allowed. A new documentary, “The Key Man: Dave McKenna,” looks at the life and music of a New England jazz great who was loved by a Who’s Who of local notables including Ted Williams and John Updike, but whose shy and sometimes abrasive personality and struggles with alcohol held his career back. (The film is currently streaming on Quincy Jones’ Qwest TV.)
McKenna’s deep impact on the local jazz scene went well beyond his Copley residency. The pianist, whose dazzling but sensitive approach was often described as “three-handed,” lived on Cape Cod for much of his life and was best friends with famed Boston broadcaster Ron Della Chiesa. His collaborators bassist Marshall Wood and guitarist Gray Sargent went on to become part of Bennett’s core band. But “The Key Man” was made by a filmmaker with no prior ties to the Boston jazz community.
“I was in a rock band called Moga and we were playing at the Met Cafe. In the hallway, there are plaques from the Rhode Island Hall of Fame, and one of them was for Dave McKenna, who was born in Woonsocket. I’d never heard of him, but he looked like an interesting guy,” says director Greg Mallozzi. “I went and looked him up and bought some of his records, and was shocked at how incredible he was.”
Mallozzi worked with McKenna’s family to bring his story to the screen. McKenna’s sister Jean contributed a trove of archival photos and rare videos of McKenna performing, while the pianist’s children talk candidly about the challenges of being raised by an alcoholic. “It is a part of his life, and it would have done the story a disservice not to mention it,” says Mallozzi, who says he didn’t want McKenna’s personal life to overshadow his musical legacy. “But, that’s why a lot of opportunities were not available to him. He was a guy who struggled with depression, but also who truly did not care about being famous. He was just as happy to play in some dive. And like his sister says in the film, his emotions came out in the music. He had these struggles but his music was so profoundly beautiful.”
McKenna once told Boston Globe columnist Jack Thomas that he’d turned down a plumb West Coast gig because it was slated for September, and he didn’t want to take the chance that his favorite team might still be in contention and playing games that would conflict with his concert schedule. When Thomas learned about the terminal illness that would take his life this past October, Dave McKenna's music was used to score a WBUR commentary about how he’d spend the rest of his life.
Shortly after Mallozzi started “The Key Man,” a team of producers came on board, including Jay Rooney, who had also produced the 2019 documentary “WBCN and the American Revolution.” From conception to screening it just took about three years,” says Mallozzi, who co-directed the 2020 documentary "Blue Code of Silence" about a corrupt New York police officer and has a 2023 film about parapsychologist Andrija Puharich in the works. Realizing that a major streaming service would be unlikely to acquire a film about an acclaimed but niche artist like McKenna, Mallozzi was happy when Jones’ jazz-heavy streaming service offered to pick up the film.
As Della Chiesa points out in an interview with WBUR, “that era is all but over” as live pianists have mostly disappeared from lounges and restaurants. McKenna died in 2008, but his music lives on both thanks to his old fans and to new generations of pianists who discover his approach. There’s a fan website devoted to archival audio and video of his music, and YouTube videos that show aspiring pianists how to play Dave McKenna-style piano. And every time the stock market goes up, WBUR listeners hear McKenna. That’s his recording of “We're in the Money” that airs when “Marketplace” does “The Numbers.”
“He’d say ‘I’m just a saloon piano player.’ I’d say Dave, you’re more than that,” recalls Della Chiesa, who with his wife Joyce, would accompany McKenna on trips to Italy, and who will celebrate his 85th birthday with a swing concert in Hingham early next year. “He knew hundreds of tunes, and he could string together a whole medley out of songs that had related titles, like songs about summer. What he really loved was the Red Sox, Italian food and playing piano.”