RIP Ken Kennedy

May 7, 2011

In Fresno California, there was a small, not very remarkable building located on Shaw Avenue near Highway 99. This was the Dew Drop Inn, a bar owned by Bob Kennedy and where on Thursday nights a collection of local musicians performed traditional jazz for the jazz-loving patrons. The group was led by stride pianist and vocalist Ken Kennedy and during the time I was associated with it included such local musicians as tubist Elmer Tuschhoff, banjoist Ken Farnsworth, trumpeters Bill Murphy and Brian Taylor, trombonist Paul Keen, drummers Howard Weber, Doug Gilmour, ¬†and Cliff Kennedy and Kennedy family patriarch Bob himself on reeds. On occasion Ken’s ¬†mother Wanda would favor the audience by sitting in on steel guitar as well. I first became aware of the group through leader Ken’s radio broadcasts on the old KXTC radio station advertising the Central California Traditional Jazz Society, of which he was then President. I met the group members and had the pleasure of performing with the Dew Drop Inn Jazz Band from 1988 until 1999, with a brief hiatus during my time living in Japan. In fact, the old Dew Drop Inn was where I first began learning the traditional standards and where I began to learn how to play truly improvisational jazz – we had no lead sheets, arrangements or anything other than the leader’s tempo and key signature to go by!

The years went by and I was gifted with the friendship of Ken and his entire family. When the Kennedy family formed a small family band, consisting of Bob, Wanda, Ken, Cliff and Nancy, I as fortunate enough to be invited to join as well. Those were some of my best memories – playing Western swing with the Kennedy clan. To my eternal gratitude, the entire family opened their hearts to me, and invited me into their lives. We have spent Thanksgivings, Christmases, Fourth of Julys and other occasions courtesy of the hospitality of the family and we hopefully returned the favor by performing for the enjoyment of the family and friends. Ken himself grew into one of my closest friends and even after I moved away from the area, we continued to talk and on the occasions I visited, we would spend companionable evenings with a bottle of port discussing events and reminiscing about mutual friends. When my mother passed away in 2004, it was Ken who sold her house for us.

Through the years, no matter what, the Kennedy clan – especially Bob, Wanda and Ken – have remained some of my closest friends and have been a rock that I could rely on when there were no others. They are a close-knit clan and despite the untimely deaths of both of Ken’s siblings, the family continued to thrive, blessed with loving grandchildren and great-grand-children. However, in 2009, Ken suffered a debilitating stoke that cost him the ability to speak and to play the piano. Despite the best efforts of his doctors, he was unable to recover from this and his situation was compounded when a large and very aggressive tumor was diagnosed on his lung a week or two ago. He moved into hospice care a week ago.

I was planning to go visit him today, but events have overtaken me. I received a call from Ken’s wife Pat informing me that he passed away at 10:35 this morning. I will always be grateful for all the years of friendship that we had, and wish him much joy in the Big Jam Session where he is performing with the other greats who have gone before. Ken Kennedy, it was an honor and a pleasure knowing you and I will miss your music, your company, your conversation and above all your friendship. Rest in peace, my friend. Farewell.