Fisk University legend, Dr. Matthew Kennedy, made his transition on Thursday, June 5, 2014. Best known as director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the quiet giant started playing piano as a young child in the segregated South, and went on to perform at Carnegie Hall and around the world.
Dr. Kennedy led the Fisk Jubilee Singers for 23 years. Known for his gentle, steady nature and for hands that seemed to have been dipped in the mythical Fountain of Youth, Dr. Kennedy remains an ‘icon’ at Fisk University, his alma mater and longtime employer. He was a figure you would expect to see whenever the alma mater was being sung.
Dr. Kennedy was born in Americus, Ga., on March 10, 1921 to a postal worker and a teacher. He played ‘It’s Me, O Lord, Standin’ in the Need of Prayer’ by ear when he was just four years old.
After hearing Sergei Rachmaninoff perform in 1932, in Macon, Ga., where Dr. Kennedy and his mother sat in the balcony of a segregated concert hall, he started imitating the Russian pianist’s playing style. His skill won him a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York, where he met Duke Ellington and performed at the Apollo Theatre.
When Dr. Kennedy graduated from Juilliard with a piano diploma in 1940, one of his teachers encouraged him to return to the South and go to college at Fisk, a small school with an internationally known choral ensemble called the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who needed a piano accompanist.
That role took Dr. Kennedy around the world. But Army service during World War II interrupted his studies and performances. He finally earned his baccalaureate degree in 1947, and started working as a music instructor at Fisk. He earned his master’s degree from Fisk in 1950. He married Anne Gamble, another pianist who taught at Fisk, in 1956, and was appointed director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers the following year.
Dr. Kennedy held that post for 23 years, retiring from Fisk in 1986. But he remained active in the community and continued to play piano at First Baptist Church Capitol Hill well into his 90s. Fisk University honored Dr. Kennedy and bestowed the Honorary Doctorate of Letters degree at Commencement in 2008.
Dr. Kennedy is the subject of the award winning documentary, Matthew Kennedy: One Man’s Journey. To honor his late wife, in 2001, Dr. Kennedy established the Anne Gamble and Matthew W. Kennedy Endowed Scholarship in support of Fisk music students’ education.
He is survived by daughter, Nina Gamble Kennedy, numerous cousins; nieces; nephews; and friends. In lieu of flowers, the Kennedy family requests that donations be made to the Gamble-Kennedy Endowed Scholarship. Donations may be sent to the Division of Institutional Advancement, Fisk University, 1000 17th Avenue North, Nashville, Tenn. 37208 or made online at connect.fisk.edu.
Visitation will be at noon on Saturday, June 14, at First Baptist Church Capitol Hill, followed by a music presentation at 12:30 pm, and the funeral service at 1 pm.