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The First Call: Tenor Sax Larry McKenna

Melissa Gilstrap

Here in Philly, whenever someone needs a tenor sax player, the first call is to jazz great Larry McKenna. It's been that way for so long that most know his number by heart. And it's not just jazz bands that make that call.

It was that way when he backed Sinatra at the Latin Casino; when he was part of the "MFSB Orchestra" for Gamble and Huff backing Patti LaBelle, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and other Philly greats; when director Alan Parker needed music and a player for the Nicholas Cage film, Birdy, and many other instances.

A soloist, bandleader, arranger and composer, McKenna's got a resume rivaling many household names without necessarily being one. Having performed with Woody Herman, Clark Terry, Jon Faddis, Buddy DeFranco, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Bootsie Barnes, Frank Sinatra, Frank Tiberi, Warren Vache, Johnny Mathis, Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, and many others, he's resided here in Philadelphia all his life. Still, his arrangements were played by Doc Severinsen and the band on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He's also appeared as soloist with The Philadelphia Orchestra and with some of the orchestra members in their PhilOrkJazz project.

McKenna is also an educator. In fact, it's said his influence has been so great on young players it seems as though there's a "Larry McKenna School of Saxophone Playing" in our region.  He's taught privately, as well as at Temple University, the University of the Arts, West Chester University, and the Community College of Philadelphia.  Some of his advanced private students are well-known professional musicians. He's led many clinics and workshops, and has also presented lectures.

His recordings as a sideman are too numerous to mention, but he's had four CDs as a leader on the racks: 1995's My Shining Hour, 2001's It Might As Well Be Spring, 2009's Profile, and his just-released CD, From All Sides with vocalist Joanna Pascale.


Listen for Jill Pasternak's conversation with Larry McKenna, and music from his Profile and From All Sides CDs, on Crossover, Saturday morning at 11:30 am on WRTI, with an encore Friday evening at 7 pm on HD-2 and the All-Classical web stream at wrti.org.

It's his parents' fault. For Joe's sixth birthday, they gave him a transistor radio. All of a sudden, their dreams of having a doctor or lawyer (or even a fry cook) in the family went down the tubes.