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Larry McKenna: Philadelphia's Gentleman of Jazz

Melissa Gilstrap
Larry McKenna

Saxophonist player and instructor Larry McKenna has instilled his love and connection with his instrument in listeners and learners alike over the course of his multi–decade long career. Despite being the consistent recipient of praise from fans and former students alike, McKenna remains humble enough to seem vaguely bewildered when confronted with it.

This reaction may result from how naturally McKenna "clicked" with his instrument. McKenna first took an interest in the sax when he was just 14 - an age when whims tend to be as fleeting as they are intense.

Aware of this capriciousness, McKenna’s mother agreed to sign her son up for lessons under the condition that he stick with his clarinet lessons, which had recently replaced guitar lessons, for a full year. Though McKenna had struggled to connect with the earlier instruments he had tried, (giving up the guitar when his lessons failed to make him sound like Tony Matola), his fascination with the saxophone never wavered.

Maintaining focus on the ultimate prize, he managed to parlay a stable commitment to the clarinet into a long-term love affair with the instrument that has become his lifelong passion. Interestingly, it was the sax that ultimately made him pick up other instruments  - teaching himself to play the piano as a means to learn harmony.

That combination of curiosity and enthusiasm has carried McKenna through a remarkable career. He’s established himself as a heavy-hitter in both classical and jazz saxophone performance on a global scale, playing alongside iconic performers including Woody Herman, Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, and Frank Sinatra.

A committed educator, McKenna is on the faculties of both Community College of Philadelphia and University of the Arts in Philadelphia (where he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012), and also teaches at the Conservatory of Musical Arts in Audubon, NJ. And he continues to record and perform. In fact, his 2013 release From All Sides was a WRTI listener favorite, ranking No. 2 in our Top 100 Jazz CDs of 2013 list.

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