Oral History

Studs Terkel, oral historian, 1979

Studs Terkel, oral historian, 1979

Liz has been interested in oral history since 1979, when her forward-looking younger brother prompted three surviving grandparents to tell him about their early lives.

Soon after, when Liz was a newly hired editor at Chicago Magazine with an office just down the hall from Studs Terkel and WFMT broadcast booths, she enjoyed the first of many elevator conversations with Studs. By the time the doors swung open at the ground floor that first time, Studs had invited her to be profiled* in his then in-progress book, American Dreams Lost and Found. Liz’s appreciation for the power of oral history grew dramatically out of these encounters.

In 1984, the jazz pianist Dave McKenna became a favorite storyteller in Liz’s life. She selects an excerpt of a transcribed interview for inclusion, below, in part because at the time of this conversation Dave was a patient in a nursing home. Capturing personal histories of people feeling stuck in institutions or undergoing chemotherapy or other thought-provoking life events is something Liz would one day like to professionally pursue.

More recently and formally, Liz has conducted structured interviews for clients seeking to profile associates whose valued contributions reflect strengths of their organizations. Among others, these include interview-based profiles of a retired telecommunications executive, a sushi artisan, a psychiatrist/museum exhibition designer/posture expert, and a French chef.

Transcript of Interview with Dave McKenna–Excerpt

September 14, 2005,  Smithfield, Rhode Island

At the time of this interview, jazz pianist Dave McKenna (1930-2008) was confined to a nursing home while recovering from a surgical procedure. Because he didn’t feel comfortable either lying in bed or sitting in a chair, Liz was particularly grateful to him for submitting to this first of several “institutional interviews.”

Sharing stories when spending long days in a nursing home is therapeutic, visits from young family members is even better

Sharing stories when spending long days in a nursing home can be therapeutic, but visits from young family members are even better

Liz Muir: The last time Betsey and Madeleine visited you in the hospital, you were really interesting. They said to me, “You should be interviewing Dave in the same way you’re interviewing your father’s cousins.” In any case, I’ve always wanted to do this because my thinking is: “Who is more interesting than you?” Betsey and Madeleine said you were so charming, and that they had asked you about famous people you’d met.

Louis Armstrong, Dave McKenna, Jack Lesberg, Newport, 1970

Louis Armstrong, Jack Lesberg, and Dave McKenna, Newport Jazz Festival, July 10, 1970

Dave McKenna: They did? I only came up with two.

LM: Who?

DM: Maybe Kurt Masur? And I met Ted Williams, but I don’t know if I even mentioned it. (laughs).

LM: Did you mention Sammy Davis?

DM: I did.

LM: Did you mention Frank Sinatra?

DM: Yeah, but I think I only briefly told them that I shook hands with Frank, toward the end of my life…in Boston.

LM: Tell some of your great stories in the great way you tell them.

DM: Ask me questions!

LM: Okay. Do you want to talk about people you met?

DM: Not particularly.

LM: Do you want to talk about your childhood?

DM: Maybe something will come to mind when you ask.

“They were hurtling things around the room”

LM: Okay. Tell me about the first time you traveled with a band—when you first went on the road. What was that like? With professional musicians, on the road? How old were you? What year was it? Who was in the band? And what was it like for someone barely out of high school—

Dave McKenna, Block Island, RI, his first overnight gig

Dave, Block Island, RI, age 17; the only time he was homesick was here, where he played his first overnight gig

DM: It wasn’t a big band. It was a small. . . Let’s see, there were four horns, three rhythm, and two singers…. I don’t know. Yeah. Anyway, it wasn’t a long trip. We went to New York and met Charlie Ventura. I went in with Boots [Mussulli] and one of his buddies. Margos Slovabodian [??]… I’m not sure about that. Boots didn’t drive that much—he didn’t drive at all! He was like me! Later on, though, toward the end of his life, he drove. We checked into a New York hotel and we had a rehearsal at Charlie’s pad in Queens. Either that night, or the next night, we played in a place practically underneath the 59th Street Bridge. It was Sunnyside Gardens. We played the gig. Joey Maxim, the fighter, was there.

LM: Joey Maxim? Was that his real name?

DM: Yeah. Or was it…? It was that other guy…the middleweight… Jake Lamotta. And his wife Vikki. She was a beautiful woman. She sat right next to me on the piano bench.

LM: Were you afraid that Jake would get jealous? (laughs)

Dave: Nah. (laughs) I sort of laughed to myself.

LM: How old were you?

DM: I think I was 19.

At Dave's first New York City gig, Vikki Lamotta sat on the piano bench next to Dave--and then a fight broke out

Vikki Lamotta, the boxer’s wife, sat on the piano bench next to Dave at his first New York City gig…until a fight broke out

DM: Anyway, that part was all right. But a little while later some disturbance broke out. So Charlie says, “Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’” But nobody was paying any attention. (laughs) And things were flying around, and they were ripping out those things you see in theaters—the brass things with the velvet ropes.

LM: Oh, I get you.

DM: It didn’t last long.

LM: What caused it?

DM: I have no idea!

LM: Did it have anything to do with Jake Lamotta?

DM: No, he had nothing to do with it.

LM: Why did Charlie Ventura play the “Star Spangled Banner”?

At the Sunnyside Gardens gig "bombs were bursting in air"

At the Sunnyside Gardens gig “bombs were bursting in air”

DM: Well, they were hurtling things around the room. Some of them fell near us. And there were fights. They were fighting near us. Charlie didn’t want his horn [damaged]…he had about four or five horns. And the other guys had horns. Conte [Candoli] and Bennie Green, the trumpet and trombone players, and… They only had one horn apiece. And Boots had a couple of horns, an alto and a baritone. But it didn’t do any good at all, so we stopped playing that. And everybody started to split. I just sat at the piano, and sooner or later they came back.

LM: Had you been to New York much?

DM: No, I had only been once before, with a bunch of guys. Ray Dennis, and I think Buster Lachance…

LM: So the first time you didn’t go as a musician?

DM: Yeah, right.

“The money ran out fast!

LM: Okay. So what was your first impression of Manhattan?

DM: Well, that’s a different thing. We went to a club on 52nd Street, and the money ran out fast!

52nd Street, New York, NY, circa 1948

52nd Street, New York, NY, circa 1948

DM: Then we went to a place in Jersey, where there was a big band. One of those… A nice little place, right across the water, right near the Hudson.
That’s about it for that memory.

“Well, big names for jazz guys”

LM: I have a few questions.

DM: Yeah? Go ahead.

Young Dave plays

Young Dave plays

LM: Well, for example, here you are, 19 years old, and you’re playing with big-name musicians.

DM: Yeah, that’s true.

LM: And you’re in Manhattan, and you’re a kid, and you’ve only been there once. You haven’t traveled widely yet, right?

DM: Mm-hmm.

LM: You’re with guys that are a little bit older than you, right?

DM: A little bit.

LM: You were precocious right?

DM: I was 19, yeah.

LM: But the other people were a bit older. And they were big names, right?

DM: Well, big names for jazz guys.

LM: You must have been excited.

DM: Yeah, it was.

LM: You must have felt like the whole world was at your feet.

Ziti, etc.

DM: Most of all… Boots… We had to eat dinner in Manhattan before we went out to Sunnyside Queens to work the gig. And there was a nice restaurant called Sorrento, on 49th Street—that’s where the hotel was, the Forrest Hotel. But Sorrento was right across the street from the hotel. It was really nice. I ended up eating in there a lot….

Sorrento's, an early favorite place to dine, was across the street from the band's hotel

Sorrento’s, an early favorite place to dine, was across the street from the band’s hotel

DM: I don’t know if we played another gig while we were in town, but Boots always wanted to go there, and we always went there, and I liked it well enough in those days. I was happy with it. I always got the same thing: I got minestrone, veal Parmesan, antipasto (I think), and ziti. I think I always had ziti with it. And for dessert, I had that little… either spumoni or that little tiny thing… biscuit tortoni. I tried to get that in Boston and I never could. It tasted like almonds, but it was sort of hard.

LM: You had already fallen in love with Italian food.

DM: Oh, sure. Right!

LM: Like a couple-three-four years before?

DM: Two years or so.

LM: So you were still newly in love with Italian food at that time?

DM: Definitely!

“We all smoked liked chimneys–it was wonderful!

LM: When you went from Rhode Island to New York, that first gig you were just describing, how did you get there?

DM: Boots and whoever drove him picked me up at my house—Boots wasn’t driving yet.

LM: What was it like? What did you do? Did you smoke yet?

DM: Oh, yeah, we all smoked like chimneys! (laughs) It was wonderful!

LM: Did you enjoy the driving?

DM: The riding? Yeah, sure I did. The Merritt Parkway and all that.

Merritt Parkway near Fairfield, CT town line circa 1949

Merrit Parkway near Fairfield, CT town line circa 1949

LM: What did you talk about? Did you listen to the car radio?

DM: We didn’t talk that much, and there weren’t many jazz stations. There was all this jive…Kay Starr…people like that…hits of the day.
The next gig I remember was in Washington DC, with Charlie. Washington was very interesting.

LM: Tell me about that.

“Earl Hines…sat in…Sarah Vaughan came in”

Earl Hines, New York City, circa 1947

Earl Hines, New York City, circa 1947

DM: Well, we played a club in the black section and Earl Hines came in and sat in. Sarah Vaughan came in…. We stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel, and the Washington Redskins were staying there. They were in training. They were going to open their season. Harry Gibson, the great passer from Alabama… I think Dick Gibson the bandleader may have been on that team. He played for them. He said he played for Harry Gibson.

LM: So here you are, 19 years old, and Earl Hines comes in–

DM: I wasn’t a special fan of Earl Hines, but I respected him. I respect him more now.

LM: Was it a thrill to–?

DM: Yeah. It was, sort of.

LM: Did he listen to you play?

DM: I suppose so.

LM: Did that make you nervous?

“Hey, nobody here is competing with Art!

Art Tatum, circa 1946

Art Tatum, circa 1946

DM: No, no. If I was going to get nervous…much later on…in the 50s… I played on that tour with Stan Kenton’s band, but with Charlie Ventura’s group shortened to a quartet. And Mary Ann McCall was with us. Shorty Rogers’ group…Johnny Smith as special guest, and the Art Tatum trio.

LM: Wow!

DM: Now, if I was going to be nervous… But I told myself: “Hey, nobody here is competing with Art! Pete Jolly was a magnificent piano player. He was a bebop piano player. “Nobody’s trying to play like Art. I’m going to do my little thing.” And it turned out Art liked me. And he liked Pete, too.

LM: What was your impression of Art Tatum?

DM: That was much later. Naturally, I respected him no end. As I did Earl Hines. But Art Tatum was–
Oh, here comes dinner.

Nursing home aide brings in tray with Dave’s dinner.

DM: Hey-hey!

LM: I’ll stop this now.

Stop Tape


Postscript–Dave plays



Dave plays 1999

*At Studs’ suggestion Liz’s profile was published under a pseudonym.

Image Credits:
Studs Terkel, 1979, candid news photo, Wikimedia Commons, public domain
Dave and grand-nephew, Smithfield RI, 2005
Louis Armstrong, Dave McKenna, and Jack Lesbert on bass, Newport Jazz Festival, July 10, 1970, AP Photo, J. Walter Green
Dave, Block Island, circa 1947, photographer unknown, Dave McKenna’s collection
Vicki Lamotta, The CyberBoxing Message Board
An Artist’s Rendering of the Fort McHenry Bombardment, Wikipedia
52nd Street, circa 1948, the William P. Liebling Collection, Library of Congress
Young Dave plays, photographer unknown, Dave McKenna’s collection
Forrest Hotel, vintage postcard, Ron Playle
Merritt Parkway near Fairfield, CT town line, George L. Larned Collection, Library of Congress
Earl Hines, circa 1947, William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress
Art Tatum, Wikipedia, the William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress
Dave plays, 1999, Liz Muir