Innerviews: Versatile guitarist ready for any gig
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.
"You have to listen so much harder and have to connect with the other musicians because something really spontaneous and unexpected may happen, and you have to be able to react in a way that is appropriate to that new occurrence in the music.
"That's not something you get when everything is composed and played the same way every time. There's a certain discipline to that, but when we play songs in Bob Thompson's band, it's never played the same way twice. Ever. When two different jazz groups play same song, it won't be played the same way. Everything can change so much all the time and still remain essentially the same song or piece of music.
"The groove just feels so good. I am completely and utterly present. I try to be completely focused and concentrating on what I'm doing. A lot of people think it is about just pouring emotion into everything, but it's hard to be as in control as you need to be and still consider the art to be this cathartic thing, where it's just an unbridled outpouring of emotion all the time. The music will be effective if it is performed well. So it's somewhere in between.
"I knew I was going to come back here because I had work waiting for me. I had flown in one Christmas to play in Bob Thompson's Christmas show, and I had been coming back during holidays and summers to play. Things had solidified to where I was pretty much a permanent member of the Bob Thompson Unit when I got home.
"I started playing in a trio at Soho's. Steve Himes had a gig there on Sundays and I would go with Derek Kirk, the saxophonist, and we would sit in.
"Even when we weren't working steadily, we were still taking our instruments where we knew there would be jazz happening and asking if we could play. I sat in with Himes and Dugan Carter and Bob and got to know everybody.
"I've learned more from Bob than I did at any school. He has a lot of insight as to how the business operates and how to conduct yourself, how to be a good person.
"The most important thing I've learned from Bob is that you play how you are. You can't live your life one way and play some other way. It's very honest, the most subtle, brutal kind of honesty there could ever be.
"There is no separation between how nervous or confident I might be in life and how nervous or confident I might be when I go out there and play. Whatever is going on in your life is what happens with the music, inevitably, even if you don't think so.
"I've got Mountain Stage, Bob, my Wednesday night gig at the Bistro, and I teach privately. I play here at the Unity Church on Sundays. Ron Sowell, the Mountain Stage band director, is the music director here.
"In August, the Mountain Stage Band played two shows in Fairbanks, Alaska. They were probably the two best-received Mountain Stage shows I've ever seen. I didn't realize that many people in the area listened to the show.
"I'm making a living as a musician. It makes a lot of sense that it has worked out the way it has. I had faith that if I put myself in a situation with people who were like-minded and wanted to work, I would be able to work, too. Who knows where it will go from here?
"All I need to do now is do it on a bigger scale. I've never been the type to risk everything and throw myself out there in an open-ended way -- the old model of having a record I want to peddle, hyping myself up and moving to L.A. or New York where thousands of other people are trying to do exactly the same thing and maybe less than 1 percent actually achieve stardom.
"If I was interested in that, I would have just started a rock band and tried to be a star. I wouldn't have gone to Berklee.
"The way to make a surefire living is to make yourself prepared enough to say yes whenever you get the call to play. I can say yes to a lot of people, whether they need me to play a jazz gig, a classical gig or a rock gig.
"I've got a CD that I have spent way too long working on. It should be out in the next couple of months. I need some cover art for it and to finish up the last little bit of mastering. I recorded it four or five years ago at Bob Webb's house.
"It's called 'Something to Say.' That came from Bob. I was fighting with myself over a title. I let Bob hear it and he just said, 'I think you definitely have something to say.' So that's the title.
"All the songs are original compositions. I'm already thinking about the next one."Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.