Friday, November 16, 2012

Joe Kennedy Jr.

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."

Friday, November 9, 2012

Back To Normal...

Sorry, guys, the blog was hijacked earlier this week and it took Old Mon a couple of days to root out the offending code. But we're back to normal, and we're sorry for the redirect.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Pittsburgh TV Dance Parties

Terry Lee's "Come Alive" from TL Sound Company

Back in the early days of TV, local channels used to churn out their own programming to supplement the shows that the networks provided. And one of easier, low-budget productions was a live teen dance party.

It was a great way to draw the kids from their transistors and car radios to the new medium for an hour, combining records with free live acts promoting tour and club dates. What high-schooler of the late fifties-to-mid sixties wasn't on a show, or at least tuned in to catch one of his buds going all herky-jerky to the latest dance craze on TV with his babe?

As far as we can trace, the first live TV dance show to reach the Pittsburgh market was from Steubenville, Ohio, when WSTV (now WTOV) aired "Nine Teen Time" with hosts Stan Scott, George Wilson and Del Curtis. The show was first broadcast in 1955 in glorious black and white, and lasted until the late sixties. Some local acts that played there that you may recall were soul man Johnny Daye, Canonsburg's Donnybrooks, and the Stereos, a Steubenville group with a big following in the 'Burg.

A couple of years later in 1957, the 800 pound gorilla, Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," roared out of the City of Brotherly Love, lasting into the late eighties. It started in Philly as a local show in 1956 after Clark had expanded his play list to include "race records" - R&B - inspired by Pittsburgh's top-rated WCAE DJ Jay Michael, who in fact hosted a Bandstand show in the summer of 1959 when Clark was on vacation.

Jay Bird began his TV career in late 1954 as a rotating host of Thrift Drug Store's "Lullabye In Rhythm" on station WDTV (the forerunner of KDKA-TV), along with WJAS' Barry Kaye, WWSW's Art Pallin, and maybe KQV's Joe Deane (we can't confirm him). The show was on Thursdays at 11:45 PM, and starred  pop recording artists who were appearing in Pittsburgh area clubs.

Michael started his own show, the "Jay Michael Bandstand," in 1958 on WCAE-TV (now WTAE) and it ran throughout 1959. It aired from 3-to-5 PM every Saturday. Ricky Wertz, locally known as the hostess of the sixties Ricki and Copper show, began as Jay's on-air assistant on Bandstand. Del Taylor took over the hosting duties in 1960 when Michael left Pittsburgh for San Diego.

Among the performers Jay highlighted over the years were Fats Domino, Bobby Rydell, Sam Cooke, Brenda Lee, Johnny Preston, Desi Arnaz, Eddie Fisher, Andy Williams, Eydie Gorme, Debbie Reynolds, Jeff Hunter, Jerry Vale, Dorothy Collins, the Platters, Vaughn Monroe, Julius La Rosa, Tab Hunter, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, the Ames Brothers, Sophia Loren, Connie Francis and locals like Johnny Jack, the Skyliners, the Orlandos and Tomme Charles.

Another early TV dance show was the "6 O'Clock Hop"/"Daily Dance Party" that aired M-F on Channel 11, then WIIC, and had Chilly Billy Cardille as host. That Dance Party likely began sometime in 1957. Bobby Rydell and Connie Francis were among the acts that appeared on Cardille's card. Unfortunately, we can't dig out much on the program; it seems Cardille's incredibly diverse career is forever defined by "Studio Wrestling" and "Chiller Theater" to the exclusion of everything else he did - and the radio/TV pioneer did a lot.

The dance show that everyone remembers was Clark Race's KDKA "Dance Party." He took over the reins in 1963 from KD's Randy Hall, the original host, and the show went on until 1967. It aired on Saturday afternoons from 2:30 to 4:00 PM. "Back in those days, he was the biggest thing in town. He was the Dick Clark of Pittsburgh," Dance Party's director Victor Vrabel told the Post Gazette's Adrian McCoy.

The show opened with Race's familiar "String of Trumpets" radio theme by Billy Mure. Then local teens got down to the Twist, the Shimmy, the Mashed Potato, the Monkey, the Limbo, the Swim, the Boogaloo, the Frug, the Watusi, the Hitch-Hike...any sixties move that was hot was busted on "Dance Party." The program was held in what is now KDKA's evening news set (usually live, sometimes taped), fitting enough as the show was headline teenage news.

Among the acts that Race hosted were the Supremes, Buddy Holly, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Turtles, the Beach Boys, the Four Tops, the Hollies, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Tommy James and the Shondells, the Strangegloves and Neil Sedaka. Some local artists that appeared were Lou Christie & the Tammys, Bobby Vinton, the Vogues, the Donnybrooks, Buddy Sharpe & the Shakers and Johnny Daye.

Its successor on the Pittsburgh airwaves was "Come Alive" on WIIC (now WPXI), a show that began in 1966. Taped Fridays in the Channel 11 studios (the show aired Saturdays from 12:30-2 PM), it sometimes presented a timing conflict for original host Chuck Brinkman of KQV, who had a Friday night radio gig.

He thought he solved that problem the following year, when he switched to a Saturday afternoon radio slot, but instead ran into deeper doo-doo: His KQV show was sponsored by Coca-Cola, and "Come Alive" was backed by Pepsi Cola. *Awkward* So WMCK's Terry Lee became the host in 1967 until the show ended in 1970.

Whether Chuck Brinkman or TL hosted, the show drew some big acts: the Four Seasons, Moby Grape, Junior Walker, Tommy James & the Shondells, Gene Pitney, Paul Revere & Raiders, the Blues Magoos, the Association, the Animals, Iron Butterfly, the Turtles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the American Breed, Blue Cheer, Deep Purple, Shadows of Knight, the Monkees, the Temptations, the Human Beinz, ? and the Mysterians, the Easybeats, Canned Heat, Archie Bell & the Drells, the Four Tops, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Edwin Starr, Herman's Hermits, the Fenways, Racket Squad and the Electrons.

Lee returned to the tube on WPGH in 1976, when he hosted the “Terry Lee Show.” The program ran for two years on Channel 53 and then moved to KDKA where it aired until 1980. TL helped the action along, putting his featured TL dancers on a platform to get the dance floor hopping. Lee still has clips and slides of his TV show that he incorporates into his hop appearances to this day, and may be the only DJ with video existing of his show. Most of the tape reels of the various shows were erased and reused rather than archived.

He brought in acts like the Rolling Stones, Shazam, David Bowie, Boz Scaggs, Kool and the Gang, ConFunkShun, the Grateful Dead, the Rhythm Kings, and Sweet Breeze, playing between a heavy dose of dance tracks.

That was the last hurrah for Pittsburgh dance shows; local programming, once a cut-rate proposition, was now a drag on the bottom line. The music industry changed too, as national shows like Bandstand, Hullabaloo, Shindig and Soul Train all went off the air as dances were no longer the end-all of the biz.

But there was an era when the point of music was to make you grab a partner and move your feet. Pittsburgh teens from the late fifties through the sixties did just that, and made some memories on live TV that still linger.

(Old Mon would like to recognize reader Craig for suggesting the topic, along with Ed Salamon and his book "Pittsburgh's Golden Age of Radio" and Paul Carosi's web site "Pittsburgh Music History" for providing us with some background stuff we'd otherwise have never found.)