Listening: Featured Musician Mark Kennedy

Jerry Cook

Mark Kennedy, Guitar and bass teacher/composer/professional musician
Born
: Hanover, New Hampshire
Resides in: Benicia
Relationship Status/Children: Married with 3 grown children

What did you listen to as a teenager? Not my parents or teachers. Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock,” Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (“I asked my congressman and he said, ‘I’d like to help you son, but you’re too young to vote.’”) King Curtis sax solos, Ray Charles, Motown, Bob Dylan; I loved Henry Mancini’s TV themes, Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky, then I heard Coltrane and Bill Evans and Miles Davis.

What do you listen to now? I listen to the music that I teach people to play: Ray Charles, The Beatles, Stones, Eric Clapton, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Duke Ellington, Tom Waits, Howlin’ Wolf, Cole Porter, Diana Krall. I take requests and transcribe music that people want to learn.

What's the first music you remember hearing? My mother played religious music on the piano, and at the age of ten, I had a drum-set in the living room but I only knew one beat. We used to jam together—imagine “Rock of Ages” meets “Surfin’ Safari.”

What is your musical training? Singing lessons age 7-9, drum lessons 10-13, upright and electric bass from 14 on, then guitar at 20. In 1970 I went on the road with a rock band, playing bass and guitar six and seven nights a week (on the job training). I studied string bass with David Cobb, principal bassist in the Albany New York Symphony Orchestra. I played Rock, Blues, Folk, Jazz, Big Band, Weddings, Dixieland, pit bands for live theater, club dates, church groups. Then I ran away with the circus.

Is there music you listen to that might surprise us? I love the sound of silence.

Where did you go to school? I studied painting at the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, and music at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

How did you come to live in Benicia? I was an economic refugee from the tech boom of the nineties in S.F. Benicia was beautiful, affordable and had a vibrant arts community. I love Benicia!

How long have you been teaching? I’ve been teaching for 38 years. I started at Blue Bear (the college of rock and roll) at Fort Mason in 1975, from1987 to the present at The Community Music Center on Capp Street in the city. I also taught at School of the Arts in San Francisco and did artist-in-residencies at Cal Arts and UC Santa Cruz. I’ve been teaching at Kennedy Music Studio in Benicia for 15 years.

What instruments and style of music do you teach? I teach acoustic and electric guitar and electric and upright bass. I do private lessons and group classes on different skill levels. I like to get people to play well with others. I try to be the teacher I always wished I had.

Ages of students? Age 10 to 80. I have five students named Mark.

As a result of nerve damage from neck surgery, you had to give up playing professionally. How have you transitioned to teaching full time? Ironically, after years of circus music, my trapezius atrophied. I’ve always been a teacher. Now instead of practicing and preparing music for gigs, I prepare music for students.

You served as Music Director, composer and performer for the Pickle Family Circus. What was a typical day working for the circus? There were clowns everywhere, jugglers, acrobats, people in gorilla suits, trapeze artists, bodies bouncing up and down on trampolines, there were delighted, wide eyed audiences thrilled by the performances. We would set up bleachers, a backdrop, the ring, a trapeze and a bandstand, play two shows outdoors in a tent with no top, then strike and move on. We all shared in the work, we were young and fit and tan. We were the world’s healthiest looking jazz musicians.

You are a pioneer in the circus jazz genre. We all know what jazz is, and most of us have been to the circus, but what is circus jazz? What was unique about our approach was that we wrote the music as the acts were being created. We tried to describe themes, moods, tempo and dynamics, using jazz because it has rich harmonic, rhythmic, melodic and emotional possibilities. And because each performance is different, all of the musicians were improvising and interpreting visual cues. We wrote music that was quirky, eclectic, off-beat and fun to play.

Your students will be performing in your seventh annual concert at the Benicia Historical Museum on June 23rd.  What can we expect to hear? Guitar and bass students of all ages will perform for the public from 1:30-3:30pm at the Camel Barn. Their selections will include classical, rock, folk, blues, pop and jazz. This year’s program will include music by J. S. Bach, Robert Johnson, Cole Porter, Bob Dylan, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Duke Ellington. Refreshments will be served and admission is free and open to the public.

Categories: Arts + Culture, Miscellaneous