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Tom Kennedy: In A New York Minute

Jim Worsley By

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AAJ: Hopefully the opportunity to play more shows together will present itself.

TK: We could easily do it. We had an absolute ball together. I have played with the best guitarists in the world, with the best drummers in the world, and with the best pianists in the world, and I never take that for granted. When I am up there in the middle of it, with all this wonderful stuff wafting around me, it is such a wonderful feeling. Then I look at the audience and see how into it they are and have that communication with them. If they're not there, we're not there. It doesn't happen without them. They create the energy. It's great to have that kind of positive energy, with all the other stuff going on in the world.

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.

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