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Tom Kennedy: In A New York Minute

Jim Worsley By

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AAJ: It sure is something positive to plug into. I have had the pleasure of seeing and hearing you play with the incomparable Mike Stern many times. Last month I saw the quartet twice in a ten-day period, first at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix and then at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood. I mention the time frame because it is notable how songs sound so different within it. Is the approach to keep it fresh by implementing some changes in advance, or is it all improvisation?

TK: It's totally in the moment. I try to go in with no preconception. We know the music backwards and forwards. We have played it a lot together. I make it my job to learn any new music as quickly as I can, so that I can get away from the sheet and just play. Then I can look at it from as many different angles as I can. When we get out on stage, it's just the now.

AAJ: That interplay, camaraderie, and true enjoyment of playing is very much a part of, and transcends, the listening experience.

TK: With that much focus—and we are all really locked in—we are also able to have fun with it. That's why the amazing grooves happen: the concentration lends itself to some great moments. You dig in and the audience is responsive, which makes you want to dig in even harder.

AAJ: Going back to where it all started, you mentioned your talented older brother, Ray. What was it like growing up in a musical family?

TK: I was so fortunate from the time I was a little kid. My father and mother owned a music store in a St. Louis suburb called Maplewood. They started the music store back in the '40s. They were planted in Maplewood for several years before the three of us kids came along. I am the youngest of three. My sister is five years older than me. From the time we were little we would be at the store listening to records and playing instruments. My father was so proud to find out that we all had perfect pitch, which was pretty extraordinary. So, by the time I was two or three years old, I had a little ukulele and was trying to pick out the bass lines on The Beatles records. I had a record player that you could put on neutral speed and disengage the motor. Then I would turn it to the right pitch manually. I would put my finger on the record and turn it to the right pitch. That's when my father got suspicious that we had some pretty good ears.

AAJ: That's really incredible. What led you to the upright bass?

TK: For us, it was just natural. We just gravitated to it. Music found us. We weren't really looking for it. It kind of pursued us. I played trumpet for about a year. My brother played trumpet. We ended up playing trumpet all through high school. Ray was in middle school at the time and they didn't have a double bassist in the orchestra. He was asked to play because he was so musical that they knew he would pick it up. The idea was for him to take it home for a couple of weeks, learn the parts, and play them with the orchestra. He brought an upright bass home to practice. That was the first time I ever saw it. It was laying on the floor in the music room and I went over and pulled a string. I immediately just fell in love with it. Within a few days Ray and I were starting to figure out how to play tunes together. He had just started playing the piano and was really into Oscar Peterson. Ray was twelve and I was nine. We had been dabbling with other instruments, but when I got the bass it really took off. Ray went back to the orchestra teacher and told him that he wasn't going to be able to play bass because his brother stole it from him. I don't think you are going to get that bass back! I ended up playing it like four or five hours a day.

AAJ: That seems to have worked out pretty well. Was your father a musician?

TK: My dad was a trumpet player. He had kind of a small big band and traveled around the Midwest. He was a personality as well. He would do a little bit of singing and played a lot of Louis Armstrong.

AAJ: That's the image that just popped in to my head.

TK: He had that same kind of appeal and people liked him. He did that for years, and then at one point his mom mentioned that she thought it would be smart to open a music store. I think she was trying to get him to settle down and get into something like that. I don't think there was much security in what he was doing. So that's when the store got started. When we were old enough to stock shelves or tune a guitar, we started working there as well. The store kind of saved my life. I had a very late adolescence and was kind of a troublemaker. I was better off working at the store than being on my own, so the store saved me in a lot of ways.

AAJ: Somewhere in there, you started a band together.

TK: What happened was that, before we even met Dave, we were playing with some other kids. We found a little drummer that just basically played brushes on the snare drum. He was good and we ended up playing a lot. We were playing all the time at little parties and stuff. The funny story is that one day my dad gets a call from the local musicians' union. They said "We need to talk to you about the boys. We keep hearing their names and know that they are playing around a bit. We think that they need to join the union so that they will be protected." Mind you, I was twelve at this point. They set up a 2:00 PM meeting on a Saturday for us to bring our instruments and audition for the union. We started playing, and pretty soon we see people coming in with paper cups and paper plates with cake on them. They had punch and coffee. It turns out that they just wanted to hear us play.

AAJ: They just wanted a free band for their office party.

TK: That's exactly right. It was hilarious. They told my mom later that we were already in but, yes, they thought they would get a little free concert out of it.

AAJ: They got one great deal that day.

TK: They sure did. Looking back, I think they might owe me fifty bucks. [laughing throughout] So now we had the union on our side, and they would recommend us for gigs. Here we are, just kids, and we started playing with Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Sonny Stitt, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, and guys like that.

AAJ: These cats must have fallen over when they walked in and saw a group of kids as their back up band.

TK: Yeah, pretty much. I remember Sonny Stitt looking at us and kicking into "Cherokee" at breakneck speed. It was kind of sink or swim. After the first tune he was smiling and asking if we knew "April In Paris" and some other tunes. We ended up playing with him for about ten days. This is back when gigs were more like two weeks. That is now a thing of the past.

AAJ: That had to be a great learning experience.

TK: Oh, it was wonderful. We just caught the tail end of that. What an education, to be able to play with all those guys that early in life. You learn a lot of the subtleties not just about the music, but about personalities and all that. We knew we had hit the big time when they would call us back. They would come to town again and call us. We knew we were doing something right.

AAJ: What can you tell us about your late brother? [Ray Kennedy passed away in 2015 due to complications with multiple sclerosis.]

TK: There was nobody in music that I respected more than my brother. He was the most incredible musician that I have ever met to this day. The thing about Ray, in a general sense, was that he was a fan of music. He was always learning and never had the sense that he was better than the situation that he was in. To give you an idea, Ray was playing "A Night in Tunisia" with Dizzy Gillespie, and he was ready to play his solo when Dizzy—as, of course, he generally did—went up for a high note. As soon as that happened, Ray just froze. He sat out about a chorus because he just was in awe of the moment. It struck him that he was actually onstage playing with the great Dizzy Gillespie. For me, that moment really encompasses Ray's love and appreciation of it all. He was like an encyclopedia of jazz. He was a humble guy who just happened to be an immensely talented musician.

AAJ: What bass players or other musicians did you listen to growing up? Who would you consider to be influences?

TK: I referenced Oscar Peterson earlier, so Ray Brown was huge. Jerry Cherry was a St. Louis bassist that was also my mentor. The young drummer on the brushes I mentioned before was Jerry's son. Jerry had thousand of albums and we listened to a lot of music. He was a great teacher. But again, Ray Brown was the big influence on me. During that time, I heard Ron Carter, Leroy Vinnegar, and Eddie Gomez. Overall, it opened up when I heard Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans. That led to Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman and other modern players. It happened pretty quickly starting with Oscar Peterson. Within two or three years we heard Chick Corea. Light as A Feather (Polydor Records, 1973) came out and Stanley Clarke just blew me away. I had just never heard an upright played that way before. We were really into horn players and along came Brecker Brothers. The first time I ever heard Michael Brecker play I was like, "Whoa. Now, this is where it's going. This is the new thing." We were still very young and just absorbing all of this stuff. There were endless possibilities. We got in on the ground floor.

AAJ: You came along at just the right time.

TK: We really did. All that stuff was just starting to blossom and so were we. Then we got into Herbie Hancock and I wanted to do that whole Paul Jackson thing on the bass. We were just hungry for it.

AAJ: When did the electric bass enter the picture?

TK: About that time, when we started getting in to Herbie and Miles Davis's electric stuff. I remember one night, late at the music store, my dad and I were just getting ready to close up for the night. A guy walked in and asked if he could play an electric bass. He picked up an electric bass and started funking on it. He was slappin' it and funkin' with it. That was my first real interest in the instrument. I realized that you could do other things with it. It wasn't just a small upright. I got a good electric bass and started taking that seriously. It was a bit of an alter ego thing though. I was still mostly into the upright and playing straight-ahead jazz.
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