Jazz violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. assembles an all-star cast of local players for the Big Gig. 

Cool Jazz

Jazz violinist Joe Kennedy Jr. opens the "Coolest Night of the Summer" at Brown's Island on Saturday, July 22. During his nearly four decades in Richmond, Kennedy has been a major contributor to the community; his public performances are only the most visible example of his good works.

"I've been a professional musician for centuries," Kennedy jokes. Conservatory trained, with a strong background in symphonic, European music, he was also exposed to jazz as an integral part of his training. "Jazz is just as meaningful as the other components that make up music," he says. Beethoven is very fine, but so are spirituals, folk music, the blues."

In his long musical career he has crossed paths with many great musicians. "In the service [during World War II] I played a lot with Irving Ashby, a tremendous player who was later part of Nat King Cole's trio," he says. After leaving the military, Kennedy started playing professionally in small groups in his native Pittsburgh. "There were marvelous musicians in the area," he says. The pianist in the first group he led - the Four Strings — was 16-year-old Ahmad Jamal, who is today one of the most influential jazz piano stylists and a key influence on modern players. Kennedy's long association with Jamal continues still — he is a featured player on the pianist's recent CD "The Essence."

The other players in Kennedy's first group are no less accomplished. Bassist Edgar Willis went on to play with Ray Charles, and guitarist Ray Crawford later played with Gil Evans. Over the years Kennedy has played with other first-rank musicians, including John Lewis, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Billy Taylor and jazz harmonica virtuoso Toots Theilman.

While performing regularly, Kennedy also built a successful career in education. He pursued studies in education at Duquesne University before moving to Richmond and receiving an undergraduate degree from Virginia State University. He taught for years in the Richmond Public School system, serving as the supervisor of music from 1973 to 76, and of arts and humanities from 1976 to 1983. He then became the director of jazz studies at Virginia Tech, a position he held until his retirement in 1995.

"I still seem to be quite busy," he admits. Over the years, his community involvement, including his work in establishing the Richmond Jazz Society, has built a strong circle of supporters in Richmond.

Kennedy has assembled an all-star local band for the Big Gig performance. "Russell Wilson also serves as principal pianist for the Richmond Symphony, as well as being on the staff of Smithsonian Masterworks," Kennedy says. "Bassist Clarence Seay has appeared on dozens of albums with some of the best current musicians. Howard Curtis, the drummer, is a cum laude graduate of the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music. He is a master percussionist, an outstanding educator and a great American. As a surprise guest we will have the wonderful vocalist James Branch."

Kennedy's pride in his fellow musicians and his knowledge of their accomplishments are typical of his personality. Throughout his conversation, his focus is always on others, and on the essentials. Fame is never the measure of success.

"I've had a lot of prominent students," he recalls. "But I don't want to be naming names. You know, I have had a lot who are not prominent by worldly standards, but who made equally great contributions."

For the Big Gig event, The Ramsey Lewis Trio is the evening's headliner, but anyone who arrives late may miss the heart of the show.

The Big Gig's "Coolest Night in July" features The Joe Kennedy Jr. Ensemble and the Ramsey Lewis Trio at 8 p.m. on Brown's Island. Admission is free.

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