Born: August 21, 1960 Primary Instrument: Bass
Jazz bassist Tom Kennedy was only 11-years-old when he first appeared on local television, playing the acoustic bass live with his brother's trio. But it's not the experience of being on television Tom clearly recalls from that day; it's the moment when he looked up and saw Dizzy Gillespie walk into the studio, horn in hand, ready to join in.
When you're 11 and playing alongside your idol Dizzy, can a successful jazz career be far behind?
That jam counts as just one memorable marker in a musical journey that would establish Tom Kennedy as one of the most sought-after bass doublers on the jazz scene today.
A master on both acoustic and electric bass, Tom is a busy touring and studio musician known for his acrobatic, horn-like solos and pure, emotive interpretation. Whether playing straight-ahead jazz or fusion, Tom ranks as one of the top jazz bassists in the world with credits that include performances and recordings with James Moody, Freddie Hubbard, David Sanborn, Stan Kenton, Patti Austin, Maureen McGovern, Rosemary Clooney, Ellis Marsalis, Vinnie Colaiuta and Lee Ritenour, to name a few.
As an integral part of Modern Drummer hall-of-famer Dave Weckl's band, with whom he composes, records and tours, Tom's work is recognized internationally. LA Weekly writes that his playing is nothing short of inspiring and Downbeat Magazine calls him a true virtuoso.
The son of a professional trumpet player, Tom showed a gift for his instrument early on, feeling the pull of the bass even as a toddler. A two-year-old Tom would hear the jazz records played regularly in the Kennedy home and sing “boom, boom,” mimicking the music's deepest sounds.
“I feel like I was always very aware of music and especially the bass even before I was a musician,” Tom says.
When his piano-playing big brother Ray Kennedy brought an acoustic bass home from school for nine- year-old Tom to try out, Tom remembers immediately being taken by the sound and feel of the instrument. From then on, he was officially building his now prolific career and started playing acoustic bass on mainstream jazz gigs around his hometown, St. Louis.
Mentored by local legend Jerry Cherry and inspired by John Worster of the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Tom often shared the stage with veteran jazz artists who were in town. Before he'd even graduated high school he had already performed on the acoustic with Peter Erskine, David Sanborn, Eddie Harris, Nat Adderly, Freddie Hubbard and Stan Kenton.
When he was 17, Tom was introduced to the electric bass thanks to a stranger who visited the music store his father owned.
A guy came in one day while I was working, plugged in a jazz bass and started slapping, something I'd never seen before, he recalls.
Intrigued by the technique, Tom started listening to Larry Graham, Louis Johnson and other slap players. He learned that Stanley Clarke, whose acoustic playing he'd admired on the early Return to Forever recordings, also played the electric bass. Hooked by the endless possibilities of the electric instrument, he was soon dividing his time between both instruments.
In the 1980s, Tom relocated to New York and quickly scored work with multiple groups. Further accolades came through a recording with guitar great Bill Conners and tours with tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker in the world-renowned jazz group Steps Ahead.
Performances and recordings continued from there with artists including Al Di Meola, Mike Stern, Herb Ellis, Frank Gambale, Steve Gadd, Tony MacAlpine and Virgil Donati, among others. A 1997 debut solo release, Basses Loaded, featured Tom on original compositions and standards with his brother and Brazilian pianist Tania Maria.
He followed that showcase with a second solo release, Bassics, released in 2002, with Tom leading an all-star group including guitarist Mundell Lowe and drummer Joe Labarbera. A 2006 recording with the Ray Kennedy Trio was a best-seller in Japan, going gold there the same year.
Many of Tom's latest projects involve customized bass tracks for bass by mail clients from around the world. He records those tracks on his 96k digital home-recording studio.
Making music is a pursuit Tom embraced naturally. Today he continues that path, touring, composing, teaching, performing and recording while maintaining his reputation as a master of his craft, drawn by the irresistible call to keep creating, keep advancing his music.
I'm driven by the evolution of my music -- what it becomes over time, the way it improves and changes, Tom says. It's the progression of my musical being that keeps me going.