CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At 32, Ryan Kennedy earns his living as a full-time musician. Forget the day-job bit. Music is it. His job. His love. His life.
Gentlemanly and soft spoken, the son of musical parents, he started playing the piano, and later the guitar, by ear. Guitar guru Chuck Biel polished those innate skills and introduced him to a world beyond rock 'n' roll. The influence of legendary jazz pianist Bob Thompson did the rest.
He graduated from the Berklee School of Music in Boston and returned home to make his way as a jazz, rock and classical guitarist. He plays with the Mountain Stage Band and the Bob Thompson Unit, has a standing Wednesday night gig at the Bridge Road Bistro and teaches privately, among other musical endeavors.
He feels a special affinity for jazz. He loves the spontaneity, the way his moods, good and bad, always surface in the music. No matter what.
"My mother and father are music educators. They both graduated from West Virginia Tech and lived around Montgomery for a while. When I was very young, we moved to the West Side of Charleston.
"There was always music around. They were always singing. In addition to being teachers, they both sang in the Symphony Chorus and would do operas at the Municipal Auditorium. They did Falstaff one year. And my mother was in a production of Hansel and Gretel where she was the witch.
"My dad played trumpet and piano. Mom played the French horn. Early on, my father was musical director at the First Church of God on the West Side. That was probably the earliest exposure to playing an instrument that I had. I would try to mimic what my dad did on the piano.
"They never really made it mandatory that I play anything. They just asked if I was interested. Even when I was 5 or 6, I knew how stressful it was for my parents to deal with the marching band and public school students, and I thought, 'Why would I want to do that?' When they asked if I wanted to play in a marching band when I was old enough, I would cry.
"But at same time, they did see that I had an aptitude for it. When I was 9 or 10, I would sit at the piano and pick things out by ear without reading any music.
"I never marched and never played any wind instruments at all. It was a surprise for my parents when I chose guitar, but they didn't hesitate to buy me one when I expressed an interest. Now I have 11 guitars, counting the bass.
"For about a year, I was just playing by ear and teaching myself what I could. It was standard rock 'n' roll stuff. I went through my Metallica phase, but eventually, that didn't satisfy me anymore. It no longer held any real mystery for me.
"Then I started studying with Chuck Biel. He's a great teacher, an enthusiastic guy. He cares so much about your development as a musician.
"He exposed me to so much music. I didn't know the guitar could be played in ways some of the musicians he played for me were playing it. Not only jazz and rock but classical guitar. He was the first to introduce me to Andres Segovia, Julian Bream and Django Reinhardt.
"Common Grounds, a teen hangout on Summers Street, was owned by Bob Webb. That's where we all really started thinking seriously about making a career out of music. That's where we played when we were 17 or 18 and weren't allowed to play in bars. We started to notice that we were developing a taste for it. It was kind of the big bang for a lot of young musicians' careers.
"I graduated from South Charleston High school in 1998 and went to West Virginia State for a year. Chuck Biel was the instructor there, so I went there with the sole purpose of continuing to study with him and getting my music reading and theory under control before I took off for Boston and the Berklee School of Music.
"There wasn't a specific plan in place. There still isn't. I just wanted to play. I knew I would probably teach privately. My degree at Berklee was in jazz composition, and I do write.
"For somebody who's bought up as a guitarist learning all the standard rock 'n' roll vocabulary, the licks and tricks, and even from a classical perspective, as rigid and strict and disciplined as you have to be to play that music, there's something about jazz that both extremes don't understand fully. There's a mystery about jazz, the improvisational aspect of it.