Bassist Matt Kendrick Brings Jazz to the Community
Most working jazz musicians get around — lugging gear from club to club, and joining in with rotating combos, playing where the music takes them. But Winston-Salem’s Matt Kendrick seems to be all over the place, even by the standards of the on-the-move musician. He’s covered a lot of ground, both physically and conceptually. Kendrick, a bass player, band leader and educator, plays weekly gigs around the Triad, and he also helps arrange the music for a weekly jazz service at Centenary Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, reharmonizing hymns or arranging standards that might be appropriate in that sacred context.
Kendrick, 58, has been a mainstay of the area’s jazz scene for decades. This time of year is an especially busy one for the bassist, playing holiday events and a popular series of concerts involving the music of Vince Guaraldi from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Over the years Kendrick has also performed a number of concerts that highlight and explore the creative interplay between the visual arts and musical inspiration, selecting a painting (or paintings) and writing specific pieces of music that were in some way spurred by the art. He also helps hold down the Tuesday night jazz at Tate’s Craft Cocktails in Winston-Salem, at Noble’s Grille on Saturdays, and at the Worx in Greensboro on Fridays. Kendrick is also on the music faculty at Wake Forest University.
Kendrick started playing bass when he was 14, after picking up the instrument at a rehearsal and getting to play “Ride, Captain Ride.” He played rock and funk for years in high school, and then when it came time to cut out a career path Hendrick was a little uncertain, since he hadn’t quite learned to read music yet.
“I was sitting around wondering what to do,” says Kendrick.
His father encouraged him to audition at the School of the Arts. Kendrick remembers sort of faking his way through the experience, just walking up and down some scales until the musical director asked him if he “had any licks,” which gave the young player a chance to cut loose with what he’d been working on in bands.
Kendrick suggests that his academic music studies had something to do with the supply and demand of certain instrumentalists.
“Mostly they needed bass players,” he says. Whatever the logic of the decision, it seemed to work out for everyone.
“She took me on. It was great. I got to learn how to play upright with a decent foundation. That really got me going,” says Kendrick.
The journey has taken him places and he’s returned home, like a good head/solo/head arrangement. Kendrick spent years in New York City in the late ’70s, playing a mix of avant-garde stuff and also holding down steady gigs playing in the orchestra for off-Broadway shows.
“I lived on the Lower East Side,” says Kendrick. “I sort of finished up my education living there for four or five years. It was great. It was so cheap. I did the bohemian thing there.”
But the murder of John Lennon sort of changed Kendrick’s feelings about the city, nudging him to return south to study harmony and theory at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he studied with jazz education pioneer Jerry Coker, before returning to Winston-Salem in 1981. He started leading his own band in the late ’80s, also recording with future jazz luminaries like pianist Fred Hersch. He’s performed with giants like Archie Shepp and Jaki Byard. Kendrick also led a Charles Mingus tribute band, playing the elaborate large-band compositions by the legendary bassist/composer.
“I studied Mingus a lot,” says Kendrick.
Duke Ellington is another bandleader/composer who inspired Kendrick and who continues to provide a framework for how to pursue musical freedom and expression within an organized context. Ellington was famous for, among other things, his ability to allow the members of his band to exist within a larger group, allowing individual musical characteristics to create an organic whole.
“Ellington always stays in the back of my mind in the way he just lets people stay who they are,” says Kendrick.
Ellington also wrote sacred music that was steeped in the jazz tradition, working to draw on folk, gospel and elements of European classical music. Another point of connection with Ellington for Kendrick is in the area of linking visual inspiration with the act of composing. El lington had a background as a sign painter, and he often referred to vivid colors or scenes when discussing the kernels of some of his compositions. Songs like “Azure,” “Mood Indigo,” “Black, Brown and Beige,” “Magenta Haze” and many others all point to color as a kind of synesthetic corollary to melody, harmony and rhythm. Ellington also often mentioned or suggested tableaus when discussing the inspiration for songs like “East St. Louis Toodle- O,” “Harlem Airshaft,” “The Sidewalks of New York,” “The Clothed Woman” and other compositions.
Kendrick’s art/jazz projects are maybe a little more specifically related to a piece of visual art than Ellington’s loose gestural connections might be. But the process is still fairly elusive and slippery. When creating the art/ jazz pieces, Kendrick usually works with a gallery or museum, finding art that he connects with and then jotting down ideas from there.
“It’s kind of a bizarre process,” says Kendrick.
“What I like to do is just go to the gallery and spend time with the paintings. The ones that really seem to speak to me are the ones I choose. What happens when they speak to me, I can’t really quantify.”
The art/jazz concept gives something for audiences to look at and ponder while they listen to the music, possibly teasing out points of connection between a melodic line and a contour or composition on a canvas, or linking color schemes and harmonies, visual accents to musical ones, and so on. It also provides improvisers with a potentially provocative jumping-off point for a solo.
The bass is central to jazz, holding down both key harmonic and rhythmic duties. But at the same time the instrument seems to encourage diplomatic and wideranging sensibilities in those who play it. Kendrick’s work as a teacher, a composer, a sideman and a bandleader demonstrate a mix of conceptual adventurousness and humble pragmatism.
“Bass has a lot of power in a group. It does. It controls a lot of things,” says Kendrick. “That’s a pretty good place to lead a band from.”
Beyond that, Kendrick views his role as a musician almost as one of service to the community, with ties to folk traditions of merry-making and song sharing. It’s a role that isn’t lost on the jazz fans of Winston-Salem and Greensboro who appreciate hearing live music played by skilled local musicians in intimate settings. People routinely approach Kendrick at gigs — seeing his talent, and knowing that he could be pursuing a performing career in a larger market — and thank him for hanging around the area and continuing to play.
“That’s kind of what I set out to do,” says Kendrick. !
JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Matt Kendrick holds down regular gigs at Tate’s Craft Cocktails on Fourth Street (8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 29) and Noble’s Grill (7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 26) in addition to a special Jazz Service at Centenary Methodist Church (646 W. 5th St.) at 10 a.m. on Dec. 27.