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Will Kennedy: From East Bay Grease to the Yellowjacket Sound

Ben Scholz By

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As a musician, you strive to impact your career by developing and growing music. —Will Kennedy
Among contemporary fusion musicians, drummer Will Kennedy stands out as a legend in both the creative and commercial scenes. Growing up in the Bay Area, Kennedy found music at the tender age of four. By his twenties, he was working in the Los Angeles studio scene as the go-to guy for talk show TV orchestras and movie scores. In 1986, he joined the legendary jazz fusion group Yellowjackets, remaining a key figure in the band for nine years and recording ten full length albums. I met with Kennedy at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago after one of their first shows with bassist Felix Pastorius .

All About Jazz: Yellowjackets were one of my first forays into world of fusion. I've always dug Robben Ford's music—his singing as well as his guitar work. Looking into both of your Yellowjacket histories, I can't see any overlap in times you each played in the band together. Have you ever performed or recorded with him?

Will Kennedy: Robben remains one of the big key figures in the Yellowjackets band. We don't get a chance to work very often cause he's been busy with his own career, though he's definitely a friend of the band. However, we've had the opportunity for him to sub in a couple times There've been a few instances when Bob Mintzer wasn't available for a gig, this has happened at least three or four times in the last five or six years. Additionally, Robben was featured on the Timeline recording, four years ago now on Mack Avenue Records. That was the last CD that Jimmy Haslip recorded with us before his departure from the band. So, there have been some instances where we worked with Robben. It's really cool to play some of the songs he was featured on back in the beginning of the band. When Ricky Lawson was in the band. It's great fun for me to get in there and do my Ricky impersonation.

AAJ: I had no idea. Are there any recordings, other than Timeline, of that music?

WK: Maybe some bootleg recording on YouTube, from the audience of the gig that Robben did with us in Santa Barbara, CA. It was a charity event for Eddie Todoury; we did a benefit concert for them. Bob Mintzer wasn't available so Robben did the gig with us. A week or so after we did that gig someone mentioned to me that it was on YouTube. Outside of that and the Timeline recording, I think that's it.

AAJ: I know that you and Peter Michael Escovedo were on the Wayne Brady Show together. What was it like working with Wayne? Was it scripted out or was there a lot of improvisation like on "Whose Line is it Anyway?"

WK: I took a ten year hiatus from Yellowjackets starting in 2000. Peter Michael and I are both from the Northern California, San Francisco Bay area, and that's where we met in the mid to late 70's. Peter found himself in the musical director position for The Martin Short Show. Martin Short had this day time talk show with Peter Michael at the helm and myself on drums. It was short lived, but it was a lot of fun. After Martin Short's show went down, Wayne Brady came up right after. Wayne Brady was doing "Whose Line is it Anyway," but he broke off and started another daytime talk show. It was kind of a variety show that we participated in, so it didn't have much to do with "Whose Line is it Anyway." Basically, it was a daytime talk show with a few musical guests and it was really great fun. Peter Michael was leading it, and there was a fair amount of improvisation.

Now, here's a bit of behind the scenes trivia—it costs a lot of money to perform a popular song on television. Obviously you have to pay the composer, publisher, etc. Because of this, we found ourselves composing similar sounding songs, that had the vibe of a song you might've heard before. We developed a great technique while on the air, right before a commercial break. Wayne would do a little talking, then lead us into a commercial and the band would start playing. Then boom, a commercial would start playing. There would be a good 10-15 seconds of the band playing on camera, and at that point we would play a similar sounding song. Then, as soon as the cameras would go off, we would kick into the real song! It was really great fun. Obviously when we returned to the air we would flip back to the generic song. Then we would cut it off and Wayne would continue with the show.

There were pluses and minuses to having a television gig. Obviously there's no travel and no leaving town. Musically, there was very little soloing or overall development. You're playing; you're on and then you're off. You're on, next commercial, and then you're off. The concept of developing musically and shaping a song was just not there. There was no time for that sort of thing and this was a downside. As a musician, you strive to impact your career by developing and growing music, but this situation did not lend itself to that type of development. This was television and that was one of the hazards. We had a bunch of really great musicians who played with us, we supported the musical guests that came on the show, and that was fun. We had to really pull it together and learn a song quickly because five or ten minutes later we were on the air playing in front of national television. It was challenging and great fun at the same time.

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