Will Kennedy: Making Moments

Keeping Up With Big Brother

Will Kennedy sat behind his first drum set at age five, in the modest home in which he grew up in Oakland, California. His parents were not musicians, but his father had a sizable record collection and a passion for playing music at all hours. It was enough to perk up young Will’s ears.

“We were hearing music at all times in the house. Big band stuff, smaller trios, classical music, country western – the whole gamut. It was a really great school for us. Even before I knew what jazz was, I was rolling with that sound.”

This, of course, was a time of great transition for music, from the prim sounds of the 1950s to the increasingly looser tones of the 1960s. Fond memories of Count Basie playing “April In Paris” were soon replaced by something decidedly funkier. Those early years left a massive impression on Will and his older brother Hershall.

Tony Williams and The New Lifetime. Billy Cobham’s Spectrum. And the funk – Parliament Funkadelic, Sly And The Family Stone, Tower Of Power – I had the best of both worlds.”

With six years on Will, Hershall began mastering the keyboard. (He is now a well-known multi-instrumentalist for funk outfit Graham Central Station.) The younger Kennedy was forced to keep up on the drum set.

“Supporting my brother as he played keyboards was a great challenge. He being older than me, I had to be on my toes to keep up with him. It pushed me. I had the desire to be pushed and keep up. We would write songs, learn songs from other artists, and countless hours of jamming.

“We had the police called a few times. We got to know those guys.”

So began Kennedy’s first drum lessons, and a series of formative experiences that gave him the vocabulary and tools to be confident on the throne. At age nine, Kennedy began taking formal lessons, getting an education on rudiments, note values, and the drummer’s role in a band of musicians.

“Playing an instrument that could be considered the loudest, how is it that I could affect the performance by doing the opposite of that, arc the emotion of the song by using dynamics? Discovering things like that. Those types of things evolved in my mind.”

In a flash of entrepreneurialism, Kennedy turned his brisk skills progress into a position in the house band of a local club. It was his first taste of music not just as a hobby, but as a career. “It was like, ’Oh, wow, I can get paid for this!’ Up until then it was just fun and games, something that Hershall and I did to have fun. I realized that this is really an art, a profession, to get good at and leave a legacy and a mark on the industry.”

Kennedy fondly recalls playing at the Keystone Korner jazz club in San Francisco with his brother. “Born in 1960, I wasn’t conscious of Coltrane and Miles. I wasn’t old enough to see them then. But they were appearing there often. When I discovered that playing drums could turn into a career, in my teens, we started playing there. It was awesome. The Doobie Brothers, Kenny Loggins … a wide variety of artists would come and play. There was just a great community of musicians from the Oakland-Richmond-Berkeley—San Francisco area.”

Given such support, Hershall’s career began to blossom in the 1970s – he went on to join Graham Central Station after founder Larry Graham left Sly And The Family Stone – and shortly thereafter, so did Will’s. In the ensuing years, Will undertook more practice, played more gigs, and acquired plenty of chops all around the San Francisco Bay Area.

But he was still a young man, in awe of his elders. Nowhere was that more apparent at his first drum clinic, held sometime in the late 1970s, at the well-known shop Drum World, then in San Francisco.

Sharing the session with him? Some guy 14 years his senior named Dave Garibaldi. From a hugely successful band called Tower Of Power that Kennedy may or may not have used to listen to as a kid. No pressure!

“I was nervous as a puppy. I didn’t really know what really to say or do, other than to be myself and share techniques. Watching David do his presentation was a great learning experience and he just had a ton of techniques and approaches to share. We all went to school watching him do that clinic.”

Even as he absorbed Garibaldi’s chops, Kennedy was terrified. What was he supposed to say? To do? Should he get up there on stage and just play? Should he take questions? At a young age, Kennedy had the equivalent of a master’s degree in drum technique, but he was still in grade school when it came to the art of giving a presentation. He gave it his all anyway.

“The reaction was very positive, if I remember correctly. The advantage of having enough playing time under my belt to confidently deliver a performance and shape a solo and take people on a musical journey behind the kit, that’s what saved me through my nervousness.”

In other words, he made some moments.

By 1986, Kennedy was a Bay Area fixture, and that’s when he was asked to audition for the five-year-old band Yellowjackets. He aced it. Replacing founding drummer Ricky Lawson, Kennedy redirected the band’s funky inflections toward a more swinging, rocking path. The following year, the band recorded and released its album, Four Corners. It would be a milestone that set in motion a string of Grammy-winning recordings for the band and clarified to the industry at large what “jazz fusion” was – and ought to be.

will kennedy

Forever The Seeker

So, how does a guy who’s been playing in the same band for years keep it fresh? That’s the question on Will Kennedy’s mind as he embarks on yet another tour. The Yellowjackets have already been preparing with the occasional show here and there, but with A Rise In The Road to support, they will certainly be playing well into 2014.

“This is a gig you’ve got to shed for. If there’s a span of time where we’re off – like right now, three weeks of downtime – before the next run of dates, I’ll listen to some of the music and if not, go into the practice room and put the phones on and play along or just play a bit. Just to remember who I am.”

Despite the improvisational tendencies that the band embraces on the road, the need to serve the song is always top of mind for Kennedy. He remembers when he was a session musician in Los Angeles, recording drum parts for film soundtracks. The exacting experience informs his expressive, free-flowing playing today.

“When you’re hired for a movie date, in certain situations the producer desires you to come to that place of maximum content and contribution to what he’s written right away. He wants you to arrive in that place as quickly as possible, because he has a 100-piece orchestra waiting in the lobby and 20 scenes to record for. You’re in that seat, the music is going and the chart is in front of you. You’re looking at a very vague roadmap of the music you’re playing, and it’s on you to contribute the emotion and peaks and valleys. Sometimes you have specific things to play, other times he’ll give you direction. It’s nerve-wracking. Millions of dollars are being spent. If you blow it, there are 20 other guys lined up to fill what you couldn’t do. There are some butterflies in your stomach. You have to be confident enough to make a moment.”

Still, there are risks in mastering this moment-making – like boredom, or stagnation. With so many Yellowjackets shows under his belt, how does a veteran like Kennedy keep from falling into a rut? Simple: He tries to recognize, then actively avoid, old habits wherever possible.

“Through a couple of recordings, in some of the Latin tunes, I found myself playing similar ride cymbal patterns. It shows up on the gig, too. Once you line up those tunes next to each other [on a set list], it’s ’Oh, man, I played the same ride cymbal pattern on that tune two years ago as the one I just did!’ It’s almost shocking.”

To combat this, Kennedy seeks out new approaches to his instrument. He recalls the 1997 Yellowjackets song “Capetown,” from the band’s Blue Hats album, which is based on a 6/8 groove nicknamed “Magabu” that he borrowed from the West African country of Cameroon, courtesy of native musician Paul Tchounga. The moment Kennedy heard the groove, he couldn’t resist.

“I met Paul at a gig somewhere; he was playing. I talked with him for a while and realized he was from another place. We exchanged numbers and kept in contact. We got together one afternoon with two drum sets. We’re jamming, and he suddenly fell into this groove. I had a [Sony] Walkman at the time, and I asked him, ’Man, what is that, what are you playing?’ Where is the 1?’

“He showed me, and I recorded it, but I still couldn’t grasp playing it. It’s very angular and syncopated, yet has this floaty, bouncy feel about it that’s really cool. I ended up showing it to our pianist, Russell. He fell in love with it, and we ended up writing this song.

“Like with any syncopated groove, every groove has a pulse, a heartbeat. Once you can discover what its root pulse is, you can discover where the other limbs fall in relationship to that. I had to internalize the foundation of the 6/8 with accents on 1 and 4 before I could add the hi-hat part and bass drum part.”

Kennedy was so happy with how the final composition came out that he proudly notes Tchounga’s influence on it, even 16 years later. It’s all about switching it up and being open to new influences, he says.

“The important thing to remember is, bottom line, you can never know it all. There’s always something new to learn. Be a sponge; always be a sponge. Soak that stuff in and try to capture it. Even if you acquire a pattern that’s difficult, you can break it up and play parts and create variations. Simple things like that help keep things interesting.”

As interesting as the time you met what appeared to be the only other registered Democrat in Katy, Texas?

He just laughs.

“Here we are again, creating those moments.”

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