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Fisk Music Group Was Moneymaking Powerhouse

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Fisk Music Group Was Moneymaking Powerhouse

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Fisk Music Group Was Moneymaking Powerhouse

Fisk Music Group Was Moneymaking Powerhouse

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The documentary “One Man’s Journey” tells the story of pianist Matthew Kennedy, who was the musical director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The group is credited with introducing the world to Negro spirituals. His daughter, filmmaker Nina Kennedy, joins host Michel Martin to talk about the film.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We were just talking about Fisk University's current financial troubles. And in the past, as you may have heard, the school's fundraising efforts often relied on the talents of a select group of vocalists - the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: The group began performing in 1871 touring America and Europe to raise money for the school. The Jubilee Singers helped introduce the rest of the world to negro spirituals. Pianist Matthew Kennedy became director of the singers in 1957. And his name may not be familiar, but Kennedy was known as a child prodigy among entertainers such as Bill Bojangles Robinson, Lee Antoine Price(ph) and Duke Ellington.

He is now the subject of a documentary, "One Man's Journey" by filmmaker Nina Kennedy, who joins us now in our studios in Washington. We should mention that you're not only the documentarian, you are also Matthew Kennedy's daughter. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. NINA KENNEDY (Filmmaker, "One Man's Journey"): Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: Why do you think your father's story is not well known? It's quite remarkable.

Ms. KENNEDY: Yes. I keep wondering how famous he would've been if he had been a member of the majority population. He came from a very poor background in rural Georgia and actually heard the famous Russian pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff, perform live in 1932 in a concert in Macon, Georgia. And this was at a time where the South was still segregated. He witnessed this concert from the segregated balcony and actually set out to imitate Rachmaninoff's playing style when he saw all of these white people just, you know, bursting out in applause and just, you know, standing and worshipping this man, almost.

He was 11 or 12 at the time. So he decided, you know, this must be something special if you can get that kind of reaction from so many people. And it was

MARTIN: I should try to check this out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KENNEDY: And, really, it was the result of his decision to try to imitate this man's playing style that won him the scholarship for study at Julliard.

MARTIN: Well, let's hear a little bit of your father playing Rachmaninoff.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: By the time he was 12, he'd already been playing for years.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

MARTIN: In fact, as he recounts, he'd been playing since he was 4 years old.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

MARTIN: Just by ear. Just by listening to his sister and I think his mother also play - or other people playing and by ear. In fact, he recounts the story in the film, actually. Why don't you tell it?

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah. Well, he would hear his mother singing around the house, spirituals and hymns she would learn in church. And he would pick out the melodies and the pitches on the piano. And eventually she saw that he was ready for some training, so just decided that, you know, full steam ahead. He's going to play the piano and come hell or high water. You know, she found a way to teach him. In fact, they found a piano teacher who agreed to allow him and his cousin to clean her studio. This was a white teacher - in exchange for formal piano lessons.

MARTIN: And, also, he says in the film, it was difficult for him to get instruction initially because there were no African-American teachers in his orbit who were available to teach him at the level that he required. But this teacher who was known in his hometown, was afraid.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

MARTIN: Of what the damage to her reputation might be.

Ms. KENNEDY: Exactly.

MARTIN: If she took on this black student. How did they work that out, then? Did she just decide to swallow hard and do it? Or did they have some arrangement worked out where her instruction was somehow kept under wraps? Or was it that the cover of his mother cleaning the studio for the teacher somehow made it okay?

Ms. KENNEDY: Right. Well, he was already a little celebrity in the town. He had a regular radio program. And he would play the organ for the silent films at the cinema. So people in Americus, Georgia knew him as Sunshine. This was his stage name. And, still, when he would return, you know, after studying in Macon, he'd go back to Americus and then the newspaper would list: Sunshine returns to perform. I wonder if any survivors of that time realize today that Sunshine was actually Matthew Kennedy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm not sure he wants to promote that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But, you know, in the film your father talks about how as a child his mother took him around to meet famous musicians hoping that they could help him start a career as a performer. And in this clip, I just want to play a short clip from the film, where he talks about meeting Duke Ellington.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

MARTIN: Let's play that.

(Soundbite of documentary, "One Man's Journey)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MATTHEW KENNEDY (Musician): After Duke heard me play some things, he said, Mrs. Kennedy, I think he's too young for you to even consider exposing him to the kind of lifestyle in the nightclubs. The smoking and the drinking would be an atmosphere that would not be good for him.

MARTIN: As the Ellington clip points out, the black musicians of the time who made a living and were well known were generally in jazz and popular music. And as a classically trained musician, what did your father hope for?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, he makes it very clear that he didn't have a whole lot of hope. His mother did all the hoping for him. And initially she - the need was economic. You know, she was trying to find a way to bring some income into the family. But she was a very religious woman. And some of the lyrics of the popular songs she had problems with and she had decided somehow that her boy was going to be a world class concert pianist.

MARTIN: So, how did he come to be at Fisk?

Ms. KENNEDY: His teacher at Julliard, Lois Adler, was one of the benefactors of Fisk University at the time. In fact, it was her brother from Chicago who was giving quite some money to the school. And she was able to work it out through him that he could take on the post as piano accompanist for the Fisk Jubilee Singers. And then Uncle Sam comes calling and he goes off to fight the Nazis and comes back to finish his bachelor's degree.

MARTIN: The film is equal parts, I would say, it's about music and it's also about the impact that race had on his life. And it also makes the point that here he is, a man who was a child prodigy, who then went to serve his country, as so many did, and then still has to come back and live in these pinched, segregated circumstances and, you know, what effect that has on people and on someone's psyche.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

MARTIN: And the spirituals do play a role in that. I mean, you mentioned yourself in the documents that accompany the film, your filmmaker statement accompanying the film, you know, spirituals for some people are a little too heavy.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: They're just not - they don't want to hear all that all the time.

Ms. KENNEDY: That's right. That's true.

MARTIN: What did your father feel about making his career - essentially becoming known, in part, because of the spirituals? How did he feel about that?

Ms. KENNEDY: I think the music served as a tremendous emotional outlet for him because in terms of reacting emotionally to his surroundings in the South at the time, I think he has been and still is thoroughly emotionally dysfunctional. You know, he was able to witness horrible situations and just tell himself that he didn't see them.

And there have been times when I've tried to get him to tell me how it was and there was a time when I thought that he was just trying to keep the bad things from me and just not let me know how bad it was. But now at this point in my life, I'm realizing that he just didn't perceive it. He really did not perceive it.

'Cause, you know, he talks about horrible situations, not being able to sit or go to certain places. And he's telling it with a smile. But if you look closely at his face, you see it's really more of a grimace. And he learned to just hold that expression in place. And, you know, when people see that face and they hear the music, they're convinced that he's happy and he's Sunshine.

MARTIN: Your father is 89 now?

Ms. KENNEDY: That's right. He'll be 90 in March.

MARTIN: Is he aware that Fisk is once again in some difficult financial straits? Does he know about this?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, it seems like he's been heard to say, you know, oh, this is how it's always been. And there's been so much bad news about the financial situation for Fisk, but somehow Fisk survives.

MARTIN: So he has hope. He feels that this too shall pass.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right. That it has survived for so long.

MARTIN: What do you hope people will get from this film? Why did you want to do this film?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, firstly, I wanted to set the record straight for Americans to know that there was a great African-American classical concert pianist who was touring throughout the world. And the only reason he was unknown here in the United States was because of the racial climate here and also to resurrect the story of the Jubilee Singers.

MARTIN: You also wanted to make a statement about what else might be possible. You said that you feel that young black boys in particular feel that they can only hope to become, you know, ball players.

Ms. KENNEDY: Ball players, rappers.

MARTIN: Comedians, rappers.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

MARTIN: And I think you have to add president of the United States to that list. I think.

Ms. KENNEDY: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I think. But what else - what do you think people will see when they see this film?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, it's amazing to me when I take the film into the public schools and at some of these rough schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and I see teachers who feel utterly out of control of their own students. And I'll pop the film in and to watch these kids just sit up and pay attention when they see themselves represented on the screen in this way. And someone performing classical music wearing white tie and tails and with European audiences and being greeted by royalty and diplomats and ambassadors.

And they start to ask why they haven't heard about this before. And the questions continue, well, what is it about this image that is threatening to some, perhaps? Just the notion that someone could be a genius and a black man born in the United States, it's a nerve I touch on from time to time.

MARTIN: Nina Kennedy is director of the documentary "One Man's Journey." It happens to be the journey of her father, Matthew Kennedy, the longtime director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. There's a screening of the film this week in Washington.

Ms. KENNEDY: That's right.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. KENNEDY: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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