June 15, 2024

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Interview with Tom Kennedy: The intellect is actually the toolbox for the soul: Video

Jazz interview with jazz bassist Tom Kennedy. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Tom Kennedy: – I grew up in the small suburban town of Maplewood just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. My father was a jazz trumpeter and radio musician as a young man, and eventually decided to settle down in Maplewood and open a music store in the late 1940s. We all grew up around that business, and eventually worked there when we were old enough…… I remember selling pop 45’s and albums (and a few guitars and basses) when I was 13 or 14 years old. I have many fond memories of that time, and it definitely kept me out of trouble!

But although the music store was ever-present, it was more of a backdrop in our family, and really wasn’t the driving factor in our futures as musicians. My sister, brother and myself were already drawn to music as toddlers, and were completely immersed in music by the time we were old enough to sell sheet music and records. I used to walk around the house at 5 or 6 years old, doing my best to hum and grunt out bass parts of beatles records that my sister was playing in the next room. My brother finally got tired of hearing me, and strung up a small plastic ukulele with 1 or 2 thick guitar strings so I could pretend to be Paul McCartney. I definitely heard BASS from the very beginning.

I’ll never forget the day that my brother brought home a double bass violin because he was asked to play with the school orchestra. I came running into the house, and saw that huge instrument lying on it’s side on our music room floor. I remember being so fascinated with it, and it actually took me 5-10 minutes to get up the nerve to actually pluck one of the strings. I still remember the sound that come out of that old school bass, and I think that moment literally changed my life and set my life’s path as a musician.    In truth, the music found me.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

TK: – It’s great that you mention sound, as that was always such an important element for me. I was always drawn to good sounding recordings, and discovering Ray Brown’s incredible playing and sound on Oscar Peterson recordings was one of the biggest influences of my early career.  My brother and I listened to them over and over, non stop.

My brother was a budding jazz pianist, the two of us began spending countless hours attempting to emulate Oscar and Ray. It was really my first conscious realization to the importance of the different characters in the sound of my instrument, and how it blended with the piano. And as we pursued music further, other artists we began to discover had profound influence, as well. Each new bassist I heard provided a totally new exploration into further crafting my sound.

I would literally hang on one note that a bassist would play on a particular recording, and practice and practice getting that note to sound like that musician, and that attention to detail still exists in everything I listen to.  And honesty, my sound continues to evolve, although much more subtly these days…… I really think it’s a never ending quest.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

TK: – My most current mode of practice has been writing my own music. I’ve discovered that looking outside of my roll as a bassist has had tremendous influence in all aspects of my playing, particularly in the rhythmic sense. The music i’m writing is quite “part oriented” like pieces of a puzzle, so every seemingly simple bass part actually has a profound meaning in the overall composition. And since I’m writing most everything on the computer with virtual instruments, actually playing the bass parts on my bass is quite eye-opening.

I will also practice by throwing on a loop of some kind, maybe a songo or samba, for example. I can easily spend an hour playing over a groove like that, as I will eventually find myself eventually gravitating to a set of chord changes to practice. I also like to practice rhythms contrary to the pulse, and to really break down a bass line or pattern into individual increments…….. it’s a fun way to challenge myself and to keep my hands moving.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

TK: – I guess it’s about building a tolerance to those opposing influences in music, just as we do in ordinary life. I think we’re obviously aware of them, but it’s how we deal with them (or not deal with them) that makes it interesting.

It’s funny, but as a musician/artist, it can be difficult to turn away from a situation where you might find yourself in a completely different circumstance, and possibly an uncomfortable one. Although I think that most of us are much more relaxed in “like-minded” situations with other players and experiences, I guess it really depends on if there is something to give or something to gain in the challenge of stepping out of your comfort zone.

For me, it’s having a conviction and being strong and positive in what I’m pursuing along with other people that have a similar insight. I suppose that sensibility helps to create a kind of buffer from more negative or contrary influences.

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

TK: – One of the most important things for me is having a great rapport with the musicians I’m performing with. I think that here is a camaraderie that naturally exists with a group of artists traveling together and sharing their talents show after show, and that positive energy is felt before a performance, as well. For me, the energy of a good audience with the shared spirit of the musicians on stage really take a performance to another level. There is definitely something magical in the middle of a show, and I’ve found myself playing things I’ve never played or practiced before, sometimes ridiculous speeds and the sudden burst of technique and energy to pull it off. I think my best advice for mentally preparing for each performance is simply to stay in a good and positive place with your fellow musicians, and to never take for granted the fortunate position of taking part in a unique moment in time.

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JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

TK: – For me, intellect is actually the toolbox for the soul. I’m definitely on a lifelong quest to keep honing my craft, and for many years it involved improving technique/time/feel and learning as much as possible about as many different genres and cultures of music as possible. And now, it’s so much more about immersing myself in the music, emotionally, allowing my lifelong experience to provide the tools I need to get to where I want to go, creatively.  I think the most soulful playing comes from those times where there are no conscious or physical obstacles in the way, when I can truly communicate my musical voice without resistance.

And there is, of course, the art of being intelligent in different musical situations, and making good musical choices. For me, there is no better way to exercise both aspects of your question than putting myself in as many diverse situations as possible, and getting to that soulful, meaningful place where I can be free to enjoy it!

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

TK: – I remember being in my early to mid teens, and trying my best to get into a meditative place with the music where I could channel Bird and John Coltrane. I would literally try to shut out everyone in the room, trying to find that connection to take the music to another dimension. But I started realizing that trying to shut myself off from the audience I was playing for really didn’t make very any sense. People will attend a concert or club gig because they want the experience and energy of the live experience, and a huge part of that energy is the connection that the musicians share with the audience, and vice versa. I can’t begin to recount the many many times I’ve been in a sad or indifferent state walking into a gig, and feeling all of that negative immediately begin to fade away as I feel the energy of a great audience. And I believe that “giving the people what they want” is exactly the same as giving the music all you have, and again, finding that soulful place that the audience can feel.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

TK: – I remember having had a flight delay while traveling to a festival somewhere in Europe. We actually ended up arriving at the stage just as we were scheduled to go on, so there was unfortunately no time for a soundcheck. I basically plugged my bass into the backline bass amp, played a note or two to be sure that it was working, and we counted off the first song. As I played the very first note, I heard a distorted popping sound, and there was no more bass amp…. it just quit. I played the entire set just doing my best to hear the front of house speakers, basically unable to hear myself for the 90 minute set. Frustrating at first, but it actually ended up being so ridiculous that I was basically laughing through the entire gig.

Oh, and the amp started working again just as we finished……..

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

TK: – I always think it’s important for young people to go back and explore the history of the music, whatever the genre. And it’s especially interesting now because there are young people looking back a couple of generations, and still not getting back to Bird or Coltrane, much less having any exposure to the great American songbook. Music is destined to constantly evolve, and honestly, I do believe that there will be a lot of great music falling between the cracks of history. I think the point is to embrace the evolution, and realize that young people aren’t going to have the same heroes or the same list of “standards” to play. But I believe that once a young musician becomes interested in jazz, it’s highly likely that they will search back and discover the genius of Bird, Coltrane, Stitt, etc, and may revisit “All the things you are” and “In a mellow tone”, as well.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

TK: – I was so blessed to have a brother that I was very close to, and who was an incredible jazz pianist. Ray truly lived for the music, and it often seemed that he would literally breath it in, and out ….. it was his life force in so many ways. We would listen and talk endlessly about it, the record player always going.  He was such a huge influence and inspiration in my life, and I definitely learned the most about the spirit of music and life from him.

There’s always something new to explore and uncover in music, as in life, and we are always striving to learn and grow. And perhaps my most treasured aspect is the happiness and peace music brings into our lives. It’s such an honest form of expression, and is shared so openly. I believe that openness between people is, at very least, a solid starting point in the quest to answer your question.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

TK: – I have always wanted to see all genres of music getting equal exposure. I remember touring Sweden in 1981, the 2 or 3 radio stations were playing an amazingly diverse blend of pop, jazz, classical, country and Swedish folk music. I had never experienced that before from a single radio broadcast, and it was so refreshing!   I would love to see much more of that model everywhere, as I think people in general would embrace a much wider variety of music, and have the freedom to choose the varieties of music that personally resonates with them.

I really thought that radio and the new streaming formats would go more in that direction after the demise of the big record labels, but it really hasn’t changed that much. But I’m still hopeful that the playing field can level out much more over time.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

TK: – At this stage, I find myself going back and rediscovering and exploring older records that I haven’t heard in 20-25 years. It’s really amazing how many memories and feelings can be stirred by hearing something again after so long, but also how your present sensibility and years of experience bring out so many other aspects of that music….. some for the first time.

For example, it’s so interesting to feel the youthfulness I hear now in those recordings, and to realize that I’m in such a completely different space and time than when I first heard them……. it’s shocking, but in a very good and interesting way. It’s much like watching a movie again after 2 or 3 decades……. it’s quite a different experience!

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

TK: – Music, as any art, is such a profound vehicle for love, unity and peace, and we must always bring our most honest self to every performance. And if we are truly coming from that place, the message is very clear.

I will always remember the gig I played about 10 or 15 years ago that really opened my eyes. I was working with my acoustic trio at a small dinner venue, and this particular audience was obviously there to have a drink or two, and indulge in table conversation…… the music was background.  I remember really struggling with the lack of attention by the audience, and by our first intermission, was really wondering how I would get through the rest of the night.  I made a quick exit to get some outside air, and it began to occur to me that maybe the lack energy and attention to the music might not really be the fault of the audience…..maybe I could turn things around.

I went back in to start the 2nd set, and instead of just calling the tune and engrossing myself in the music and other musicians on stage, I decided to try reaching out to everyone in the room. It’s probably impossible to verbalize, but I remember looking around the room and really breathing in the scene in a way I hadn’t done earlier. And as I did, I noticed that 2 or 3 people began to break away from their private conversations, then 2 or 3 more. By the end of that set, it was like a party…… people smiling, laughing and sharing in the positive energy all around them. I think that’s the best message we can possibly bring!

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

TK: – Musically, I always imagined walking down the steps of Birdland just as Bird broke into “Lester leaps in”, or opening the door to enter the Village Vanguard in the middle of a John Coltrane duet with Elvin. And how amazing would it be experiencing Art Tatum at “Art Tatum” club on 52nd street, or catching Bill, Scotty and Paul.   To experience the energy of those players “live”, along with the energy of the club or venue as it was happening would bring so many things to light…… I’m just so grateful that we have such a vast catalogue of recordings!

Simon – I am so impressed with your publication and for bringing such invaluable information to the music community…… please keep it going!!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Tom Kennedy (musician) - Wikipedia

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