I first met Nina Kennedy way back when. We were young classical music students in Philly. She went on to finish her studies at Julliard (piano) while I gave up my beloved opera and went on to claw my way (many years later) singing for my supper (and not much more) in jazz clubs. We had a very fortuitous meeting in NYC when we realized that we had lived in the same housing development (Lower New York) for years without crossing paths. When I asked her what she was up to she told me she had made a documentary, the subject of which was her father Matthew Kennedy. Her father broke down some racial barriers by having gone to Julliard in a time when black people were still experiencing systematic discrimination in all walks of life.
I saw Nina's film, Matthew Kennedy: One Man's Journey. It's a personal valentine to her father, a man who accomplished things that few people ever have -- even with the hindrance of racism.
Not only a pianist, he was a faculty member and leader of the Fisk Jubilee Singers -- a historical group, representing the University. Built in 1866, the school had to be constructed like a fort to fend off the threats of the KKK. After viewing this film I asked to interview Nina, as I thought there was even more to the story than was told -- she told it and more.
Melody - Your film portrays the struggles and triumphs of your father. Although he faced institutional racism, it seems that he was gifted with an extraordinarily rich life. Does he feel blessed? He does not seem like an angry man, even though you encouraged him to express himself honesty.
Nina - He definitely sees himself as blessed. He is very good at denial. I think that is what got him through living in the segregated south.
M - Don't we all need to be in some denial to deal with the harsh realities of a cruel world?
N - It depends on how extreme the trauma. Some people think they would not be able to function if they remembered the full extent of the trauma. For them denial is a safety valve.
M - Your father's mother was extremely motivated in her attempts to render him successful. Is it possible that having a strong matriarch or father could be one of the keys to all around achievement in this always competitive and judgmental society?
N - I think the constraints she put on him manifested in destructive ways.
M - What constraints?
N - Always having to be respectful, suppressing anger - refusing to acknowledge slights and humiliations. But she was the one who propelled his education, taking him to Julliard. He already had a radio show by 11 and accompanied silent movies.
M - Your mother was a pianist as well. She was barely touched upon in the film --was she as accomplished musically as he was?
N - Even more so...
I had realized that to me the missing link was Nina's mother, Anne Gamble. Why was she absent from the story?
M - Since she was the superior musician, do you think her career was hindered by the fact that she had a double "handicap" to face? Did she prefer being a mother, or do you think that like many professional woman of all races she was conflicted?
N - She did NOT prefer being a mother -- and being a female, her accomplishments were ignored. They both were on the piano faculty at Fisk, and there was a time where others, even in the black community would introduce him as the pianist and she the wife. When I grew up I saw the upset, tears and frustration, but I did not understand why. I heard her play; they did duo piano tours that I saw. And she gave facility recitals.
M - At some point did you wonder why they were being treated differently?
N - As a child I just thought that she was emotionally unstable.
M - Did you ever start seeing it differently?
N - Now I see her as a victim of sexism. In their duo recitals they would each do solo sections and to my trained ears I could tell that her performances were superior, but he would get the bigger applause.
M - In what way technically was she a stronger player?
N - Perfect pitch -- he sometimes had memory lapses -- she could always improvise her way through a difficult passage. Actually they were both pretty academic players.
M - Is that academic approach possibly because of the emotional restraints that were put on your parents to "behave?"
N - Possibly.
M - How much of the making of this film is really about your coming to terms with "life with father?"
N - I have been the recipient of a lot of his repressed anger so for me delving into his past was a way to find some answers -- explanations for his behavior.
He was able to put his rage on me -- by yelling and screaming and losing control and then act 10 minutes later as if nothing had happened.
M - It seems as if creative families are constantly tearing each other apart. I think it was overly modest of you not to mention your own playing in the film. Was that an unconscious decision?
N - I am not good at blowing my own horn.
M - Yeah, I get that one all right. So now that you have gotten him squared away, is it your turn to shine?
N - I think so.
M - How will you be doing that? Why did you spend so much time in Europe?
N - I did major in piano and conducting at Julliard, so maybe now in the age of Obama, American is ready for a black woman conductor.
I was in Europe because the cost of living is more reasonable; it's actually possible to live from your earnings as a classical musician (especially in Vienna) and while I'm there, I'm "the American." The boys in the Vienna Philharmonic LOVED me! And now, since my country elected Obama, I'm back (along with other artists who had left the country while Bush was president). I've been lucky to make such wonderful music abroad and I want to share my love for this music with the kids in Harlem.
M - Oy, do we have to name names? -- I have vowed never to mention Bush or Obama in articles!!! I try to avoid politics as much as I can.
N -Yes we do have to, I would not be in this country if he did not get elected.
M - Which leads me to ask gingerly: Is there a time in your life, in America, where racial issues will not be your hot button? When it comes to music that is?
N - Frankly, I don't see how it's possible to be black in America and NOT have race issues be a hot button. My great-grandparents were slaves. That means they were bought and sold as chattel, raped (in some cases on a daily basis), worked to the bone with no pay, and raised children who were segregated and discriminated against. Yes, I have ancestors who were rapists, and my sexuality has been severely affected by that fact. I also have ancestors who were presidents, and I have yet to see any of their estate money. Still waitin' on that inheritance!
As a musician, of course I've been denied opportunity because of my race, because of not having "connected" family members, etc. But I'm lucky that I'm not stuck in this country. The love of music is worldwide. Global, if you will. The irony is that I'm privileged as an American when I travel abroad (except in Egypt and Turkey where I kept my mouth shut and my head down). But in Europe it's taken for granted that I've had the best musical training in the world in America.
One can only hope that the next picture she makes will be of her leading the New York Philharmonic!
"Matthew Kennedy: One Man's Journey" will be screened Friday, October 22nd at 7 pm. at the Harlem School of the Arts, 645 St. Nicholas Avenue at 141st Street You can take the A, B, C, or D train to 145th Street. 212-926 4100, contact - Byron McCray.