Joe Kennedy Jr., photo from The Richmond Times Dispatch
You've seen the "most interesting man in the world" commercials, right?
Well, what would you consider someone who has a masters degree, traveled the world, was on national TV, played for a pair of symphony orchestras, formed and fronted a jazz quartet that featured Ahmad Jamal and Ray Crawford, was a member of Benny Carter's All-Stars, performed with The Modern Jazz Quartet, was on the stages of national and international jazz festivals, has a sterling list of recording credits, led a marching band, was the director of both high school and college music programs and composed be-bop and classical scores? Well, even if he's not the most interesting man in the world, Joseph Jerome "Joe" Kennedy Jr. was surely its most interesting violinist
Most of the references say he was born in Pittsburgh in 1923, but his childhood friend Ahmad Jamal said he was from McDonald. His self-taught musician grandfather Saunders Bennett (early jazz trumpeter Cuban Bennett was Joe's uncle) tutored young Kennedy on the violin during the early thirties, and we know McDonald is where Bennett lived.
But whether he was from the City or a bedroom community doesn't make much diff to us; he was raised a Western Pennsylvania boy either way. His ear was drawn to classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz pianist Art Tatum, and Kennedy would hold true to those seemingly opposite musical poles all his life.
Kennedy served his stint with Uncle Sam as a member of the Camp Lee Symphony Orchestra in Petersburg, Virginia, during World War II, then he returned to Pittsburgh. He played locally in small combos until 1946, when he formed the Four Strings, a jazz quartet.
The original group consisted of Kennedy, violinist and leader; Ray Crawford, guitar; Sam Johnson, piano and Edgar Willis, bass (who went on to play for Ray Charles & Sonny Stitt). Pianist Ahmad Jamal and bassist Tommy Sewell were later replacements for Johnson and Willis.
The group was the house band at Local 471, the Black Musicians Union, for a year and were active in the Hill hall's renowned late night jams. Beside club dates, the Four Strings appeared at Carnegie Music Hall and earned some side money by taping background music for syndicated radio shows.
While playing the local circuit, the band found a huge fan in East Liberty pianist, composer and arranger Mary Lou Williams. She arranged and produced a recording session for the Strings with Moses Asch in New York that resulted in the 1949 album "Trends" on his Disc label. Down Beat magazine gave it a strong review and called Kennedy's work "the cleanest violin we've ever heard."
Asch, whose main label was Folkways, would later include a couple of Four Strings tracks ("Patches" and "Desert Sands") on the LP "Jazz Violins Of The Forties" in 1981, featuring Kennedy with other fiddle pioneers Stuff Smith and Paul Nero.
But the group dissolved in 1950 "because of a lack of employment" as Jamal so delicately put it. Actually, it didn't put much a crimp in Jamal's future. He formed his Three Strings combo in 1951, taking Crawford with him. Jamal added that his breakout hit “Poinciana” was a part of the repertoire that bandleader Kennedy had in the Four Strings play book.
Kennedy would rejoin Jamal and Crawford in 1960 as a sideman on the "Listen to the Ahmad Jamal Quintet" album, and appears with his bud on 1995's "Big Byrd: The Essence Part II" and the following year's "Ahmad Jamal a Paris." He also helped Jamal with composition and arrangement chores on his early LPs, and played with him regularly throughout his career.
But education, near and dear to Kennedy's heart, was the road he chose after the Four Strings. He studied applied music at Carnegie Tech (now CMU), headed back to Virginia to complete his BA at Virginia State College (now University) and planted his roots in the Old Dominion.
After graduating, he joined the Richmond Public Schools system, eventually becoming the Supervisor of Secondary Arts and Humanities (tennis star Arthur Ashe was one of his students), and moonlighted as the Director of Band at Virginia Union University. During the summers, he returned to Pittsburgh to earn his Masters in Music Education from Duquesne University.
He was as much an academic as a musical star. He became a faculty member of Virginia Commonwealth University in 1973, developing coursework in African-American music history until 1984, when Kennedy was chosen as the Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Tech and retired as a Professor Emeritus.
But never fear; he kept on his dual track musical career. In 1963, Kennedy became the first African-American member of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, along with Dr. Thomas Bridge, and remained their resident violinist for 18 years even with his scholastic workload. From 1993-94 he served as Composer In Residence for the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, for which he wrote a full-length jazz and gospel fantasia. One of his compositions, "Sketches for Solo Violin, Jazz Trio, and Symphony Orchestra," has been performed by several orchestras.
Kennedy was considered the first violinist to fully buy into bebop, and you can bet all his academic endeavors and symphony work didn't diminish his jazz jones. Just to keep his hand in the pot, he was a board member of the Richmond Jazz Society, which eventually named the jazz performance stage used during the town's annual music festival after him.
In 1962, Kennedy recorded the LP "Strings by Candlelight," with pianist Hank Jones, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and bassist Milt Hinton. In 1980, he recruited bassist Major Holley and drummer Oliver Jackson to join with him and Jones to record "Magnifique!," later reissued in the US in 2002 as "Falling in Love with Love." He was the bandleader for both albums.
As a sideman, he can be heard on Toots Thieleman's "Accentuate the Positive" (1962); John Lewis' "Kansas City Breaks" (1982); The Heath Brothers' "Brothers and Others" (1984) and Billy Taylor's "Where've You Been?" (1989).
He got his share of TV love, too. Kennedy was part of a BBC documentary "Fiddlers Three," appeared in "A Salute to Duke Ellington" at the Kennedy Center, which was televised nationally on "Kennedy Center Tonight" and performed with Jon Faddis and the Great American Jazz Ensemble on PBS.
Wax and vids are nice, but Joe Kennedy's milleau was the stage, where it was said that he could play his violin like a horn. He performed live primarily with Jamal and cousin Benny Carter's All-Stars, and appeared with John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Internationally, he toured Japan and played the North Sea Jazz Festival at the Hague, the Grande Parade du Jazz, Nice, France; and the Birmingham, England, International Jazz Festival. And he hit the US festival circuit hard, too, performing at the Concord, Monterey, San Francisco and Kool Jazz Festivals, the Aspen and Richmond Music Festivals and at Carnegie Hall.
His honors include a City of Richmond "Joe Kennedy, Jr., Day" (1996), a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Theresa Pollak Prizes for Excellence in the Arts (1999), the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation's Living Legacy Jazz Award (2001), and commendations from the Virginia General Assembly (2002 & 2005).
Joe Kennedy passed away in his adopted hometown of Richmond in 2004 at the age of 80.
Joe Kennedy Jr. with John Lewis on "Django."