September 12, 1921: Tom Kennedy Born in Cambridge
One of the busiest guys in Boston jazz from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties was alto saxophonist Tom Kennedy, born in Cambridge on September 12, 1921. He wasn’t the best horn man in town and never claimed to be, but he sure could draw a crowd.
Kennedy started playing professionally in 1940, in a corner bar in Somerville, and by the mid-forties was working regularly in Boston with Tasker Crosson. During World War II, he tended a forge at the Charlestown Navy Yard by day and made music by night. He led his Bay State Boys in 1944-45, through which passed some good young talent, like bassist Chet King and drummer Harold Layne. The piano player was Don Shirley, and I’ve been trying to determine if it was the same Don Shirley who was then studying psychology at Harvard, and who in 1945 made his debut with the Boston Pops playing Tchaikovsky. That Don Shirley had an enormously successful career straddling the worlds of classical and popular music, and it would be quite a surprise to learn he played jazz with Kennedy during his student days.
With the end of the war, Kennedy joined Hillary Rose’s house band at the Savoy with bassist Lee Farrell and drummer George “Peanuts” Seaforth, and he stayed with Rose, playing the working-class bars between Boston and Portsmouth, until 1951. Then Kennedy then crossed the street to join Dean Earl at Eddie Levine’s, where he played calypso with Gene Walcott and backed the singing of Mae Arnette. During the summers, Kennedy and Walcott played on the excursion boats as Tom Kennedy and His Calypsonians. Then in 1955 came the Brown Derby and Kennedy’s new band, the Fabulous Four. They played at the Brown Derby for eight years, five nights or more per week, until 1963, an amazing run by any standard.
The Fabulous Four (which included pianists Ernie Trotman, Paul Broadnax, or Rudy Riley; bassist Jim Clark; and drummers Harold Layne or Harold Ford) mainly played jazz and standards but added R&B, rock and roll, Dixieland, and if the occasion called for it, probably “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” too. They were entertainers and good at it.
Altoist Kennedy was strongly influenced by the bluesy saxophone of Earl Bostic, with a touch of Johnny Hodges on the ballads. He was a capable player, good enough to fill in with Basie’s band for a week at Storyville in 1958. He sang, too; a tenor, but with the mannerisms of Al Hibbler.
Kennedy recorded On His Way, his only LP, in 1957 for the Golden Crest label, but he didn’t care much for it, because Golden Crest insisted on using New York studio musicians instead of the Fabulous Four. Nonetheless, he sold the record off the bandstand at the Brown Derby, and I like to think that’s where my battle-scarred copy came from.
The good times rolled on until the Brown Derby changed to a rock policy in 1963. With the Fabulous Four out of work, Kennedy broke up the band, and as the decade progressed, he gravitated to the suburbs as the jazz jobs in Boston dried up. He was a fixture in Metro West clubs into the 1980s, including a six year stay at the Maridor in Framingham.