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Honored jazz violinist, educatorby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2004 Todd S. Jenkins
Joseph J. "Joe" Kennedy Jr., one of America's most respected jazz violinists, died on Saturday, April 17, 2004, in Richmond, Virginia. He was 80 years old.
The cousin of alto saxophonist Benny Carter, Kennedy came up in Pittsburgh; among his childhood friends was pianist Ahmad Jamal. His grandfather, Saunders C. Bennett, Sr., taught young Joe to play the violin. His early musical influences included classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz pianist Art Tatum.
Kennedy served in the Army during World War II and performed in the Camp Lee Symphony Orchestra in Petersburg, Virginia. After his discharge he formed the Four Strings with Jamal, guitarist Ray Crawford, and bassist Edgar Willis. The quartet explored bebop textures within an unusual setting. With the help of pianist Mary Lou Williams, the group landed a contract with Disc Records and cut their first album, Trends, in 1949. The album was reviewed favorably in Down Beat, and the magazine specifically described Kennedy as "the cleanest violin we've ever heard". Kennedy continued to work with Jamal and Benny Carter off and on throughout his life. He also performed with the likes of Toots Thielemans, John Lewis, the Heath Brothers, Hank Jones, Billy Taylor, the Roanoke Symphony, Jon Faddis and the Great American Jazz Ensemble.
Kennedy studied at Carnegie Mellon University, received his B.A. at Virginia State College and his master's degree at Duquesne in Pittsburgh. He subsequently returned to Virginia and made the state his permanent home. In 1963 Kennedy became one of the first African-American members of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, an inspiring achievement. Education was always close to Kennedy's heart. For 32 years he taught music in Richmond's public schools and, from 1984 until he retired in 1995, he was the director of jazz studies at Virginia Tech. During his tenure there, Kennedy was one of the subjects of the BBC documentary "Fiddlers Three". Kennedy also developed coursework in African-American music history while at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Kennedy played a number of the world's top jazz festivals during his career, and his compositions have been performed by several orchestras. Albums issued under his name include Strings by Candlelight (Cap, 1998) and Falling in Love With Love (Black & Blue, 2002). In the mid-80s he was one of the subjects of the BBC documentary "Fiddlers Three". His honors include 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 a commendation from the Virginia General Assembly (2002). He continued to perform and record up until a year before his death.
Joe Kennedy, Jr. is survived by his wife, Thelma Marion ("Jennifer") Copeland Kennedy; son Joseph Jerome Kennedy, III; daughter Victoria L. Kennedy; and one grandson.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.