An Interview With Jazz Musician Joe Kennedy

joe k

Joe Kennedy is a New Orleans based jazz musician; here is a link to his website:

www.bigjoekennedy.com

Q:  When did you know you were a musician?

A: I’ve been creating a ruckus in a musical fashion since birth. I wanted piano lessons when I was 8 so my mom got a keyboard and started me with a private instructor. I started performing in public in middle school. It was a very rewarding experience. I went to a magnet school that combined grades 6-12. I played piano for the Show Band that went around to area elementary schools and put on concerts to try and encourage other likeminded students to enroll at our school. In high school I got involved with a band, we recorded a cd of original material and played teen parties, festivals and social gatherings around the area. It was at this time that I was invited to attend a local blues jam at a bar. I was 15, and my parents came with me so I could get in. Imagine the sight. . . A 15 year old kid up on stage playing with a 65+ year old delta blues player. I looked so out of place, but I loved it. We went back almost every week. In the beginning the house band got me up for 2 songs per night, but after a few months and rigorous practice, they were allowing me to stay up and play for 30-40 minutes. I’d have to say that the experiences I had on that stage formed a great part of my desire to pursue music as a life choice. I had a band instructor that recited these fine words almost

every day, “music isn’t a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.”

Q:  Who are some of your musical influences?

A: I tend to base my musical influences on feel and groove more than genre of the music they play. I love the way Ray Charles played. His voice, his playing, his arrangements and his compositions just speak to me. I listen to Ray at least once a week, guaranteed. Right now I can’t get enough of the tune “Every Saturday Night” from the album Ray Sings, Basie Swings. It’s got groove for days and the background singing just makes it greasy. I have a James Taylor live album that I have listened to so many times it’s just about warn out. My range is similar to Mr. Taylor’s and I really enjoy the subtle inflections he uses to really get his point across. A friend gave me a copy of Right Turn On Blues by Jimmy McGriff about 15 years ago. I still listen to that album all the time. I think that Jimmy’s playing influenced my taste a lot. He plays fine jazz, but in the middle of a phrase he’ll throw in a dirty, low down, funky blues lick that makes the listener want to moan. It taps in to something inside of me and gives me the stink face (when the music is grooving so hard that you end up looking like you’re smelling something funky or eating something sour). I find a lot of comfort listening to Paul

Simon. He’s telling a complete story with his beautiful melodic lines, the depth and complexity in the music and the picture his words paint. I’d have to say those are my top 4 influences.

Q:  What inspired the song It Don’t Bother Me?

A: I was reading a translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and came across this poem that I felt was quite insightful. I used it as the basis of the chorus. It begins with, “Few in number days of our lives have passed away. . .” It talks about how the days of our lives will come and go, there is no stopping that. The true journey is embracing the day you’re in right now. The sorrow of two days has never haunted me. The day that hasn’t come and the one that’s gone away don’t bother me.

Q:  Who are some examples of underrated living jazz musician?

A: I live in New Orleans and there is music 7 days a week, all day, every day. You can go to clubs and hear some amazing jazz. I think every metropolis area with a jazz scene will have heavyweights that no one else has ever heard of. Those are the underrated living jazzers that help shape the playing of the next young lion to come blazing out of a local scene and break on the national market. I’ve lived in the greater Milwaukee area, Las Vegas and New Orleans and have met guys in each place that were astonishing, yet they’re not on the charts, they’re not headlining concert halls and they’re not making overwhelming money.

Q:  What is your strangest New Orleans story?

A: It’s funny, I don’t have a laundry list of wild or strange stories that have directly happened to me about New Orleans, but just the art of people watching has proven to be very entertaining. I tend to be more of the guy watching it all fall apart, rather than participating in it falling apart. The beauty of New Orleans is you can see it all, anything is fair game, and people don’t seem put off or shy about it. You can walk through the French Quarter and see men dressed as women, religious supporters handing out pamphlets on Bourbon St., vacationers taking full advantage of the ability to have open intoxicants while walking down the street, people working for beads, exotic dancers just about naked in doorways trying to entice a passerby, people getting arrested, people passed out in the gutter, liquor fueled rage, and much more. I do get personal satisfaction from turning the tables on the guys asking for free handouts. People will walk up to you in New Orleans and ask you something like “I’ll bet you I know

where you got your shoes” or “I’ll bet you I know how many kids your daddy had.” The

interpretation of the question allows for the person suggesting the bet to have the upper hand. As a tourist you aren’t ready for these so you often engage them thinking there is no way this stranger knows where I got my shoes or how many kids my dad had. After you accept the bet, they tell you the answer, and expect a tip. They can get pretty aggressive about it too. Being a local, I am ready to deliver my response and spout out, “my shoes are on my feet and my daddy didn’t have any kids, my momma had ’em all.” Those are the punchlines to their bets and I have beat them. Now, I don’t put out my hand expecting them to tip me because that’s not my style, but it’s fun to watch them get heated about it.

Q:  What is unique about jazz?

A: I feel that jazz is a form of creative expression that isn’t matched through any other art. The diversity within jazz is amazing. I can’t think of any other genre where two examples from that genre could be so different. If we say Sun Ra is jazz, and Jelly Roll Morton is jazz, then can we conclude that Sun Ra must be like Jelly Roll Morton? I don’t think so. But if we say Christina Aguilera is pop and Britney Spears is pop, can we conclude that Christina is like Britney? I think the similarities are far more with the Christina/Britney comparison. Let’s tryan other. If we say Nickelback and Creed are both Rock groups, they must be similar in more ways than they are different. I’d agree. But if we say Herbie Hancock‘s album Head Hunters is a jazz album, and Joe Sullivan’s Little Rock Getaway is a jazz album, they must be similar, I’d strongly disagree. Jazz is unique within itself, and quite unique when compared outside of itself. We break things down to smaller and smaller classifications until we find a place where we are comfortable with it, but we may be better served to simply classify music in two columns. One column for music that reaches us, music we enjoy, music that tugs on our heart strings, music that brightens our day, and music that speaks to us. The other column is for things that didn’t particularly reach us, or didn’t strike a chord inside of us to resonate with. On a fundamental level, it all comes down to this question. “Do I like what I’m hearing?”

Q:  Do you think talent or training is more important?

A: I think it’s important here to state that these are just my opinions. I think talent is very

important. The ability to hear the rhythm, or focus on the melody, listen for the different

inflections and embellishments and express one’s self through music is a talent. Training gives depth of knowledge and a broader understanding of what’s going on in the music, why it works, and where it’s likely going. If I had the talent to play by ear, and figured out how to sound like a recording, but couldn’t describe what I’m hearing or what I’m playing I’d need more training. Training doesn’t make one better at relaying the message of the music though. An instructor can train the student how to play the scales, how to read the notes, and how to manipulate the language of music, but if that student doesn’t have the talent to deliver the music, it will not have the same impact. Training doesn’t have to come from a classroom though. Refinement and coaching by peers through practice can be a great training ground. Think of American Idol for example. They find someone with a talent, and give them the training to create a finished product. Both talent and training are essential in being a professional music performer. Simply playing the correct notes doesn’t give the best performance. You have to put part of yourself in each note. That’s the talent. If you have the talent, the training can come and polish the stone.

Q:  What other kind of jobs have you had and how did they help or hinder you?

A: I’ve had some great experiences at jobs outside of music. I worked in a bank for 4 hours. I have a degree in Finance and wanted to utilize that while I finished my musical degrees. I was hired, went through orientation and was starting my first day. While talking to my supervisor about various policies, the topic of requesting time off came up. I was told that even though I might get my request in for days off weeks in advance, I’ll likely not get off much on the weekends being the new guy. I knew right there that it wasn’t going to work with my gig schedule. We parted ways that afternoon. I’ve had the typical grocery store jobs, worked as a cashier in a music store, and was a paper boy in my early teens. The other job that really helped me was working for my parents. They own a Commercial/Residential painting company. I’d work for them every summer through college, and they let me off any time I had a gig. It’s hard physical labor. Working in the sun all day, sweating, being 2-3 stories upholding a 5 gallon bucket of paint and trying to paint someone’s house. My forearms would get so tired I couldn’t play piano. I’d get cuts, splinters in my fingers, stung by bees, and overall just plain worn out. It did teach me the feeling of putting in an honest days work, busting your hump from sun up to sun down and getting up the next morning and doing it again. In life, knowing how to repair drywall, replace a ceiling that’s falling in, paint, and other home maintenance duties will pay off greatly in the long run.

Q:  What inspires you?

A: I’m inspired by joy and happiness. I had a gig for about 8 months playing in the produce department of a local grocery store. It was amazing. The people initially were shocked to see me playing by the potatoes and tomatoes, but the regulars got used to it and really appreciated it. The best feeling though was watching the children go through the stages of hearing the music, moving to the beat, seeing me playing the music and then going about the shopping with their parents. Sometimes the parents were so numb to the fact that I was in the corner playing that they rushed the children past. There was one little girl who came in every week with her grandmother and they always stopped and listened. This girl would light up with the biggest smile and it was even brighter in her eyes. She really enjoyed it, and being able to create that feeling in someone else is extremely rewarding to me. I play music because it completes a part of me that I haven’t been able to fill with anything else. I feel that without music, I’d not be the same person. Music allows life to inspire me. There is good and bad in everything, but music allows that to be expressed.

Q:  What do you want to say to Lou Reed?

 A: Thank you for your contributions to the orchestration of life. You offered great insight into the ways of the times.

Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)

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