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Ray Kennedy, renowned jazz pianist from St. Louis, dies at 58 from MS

Ray Kennedy, renowned jazz pianist from St. Louis, dies at 58 from MS

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Ray Kennedy was a renowned jazz pianist at the top of his form in 2006 when he began to develop symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

But Mr. Kennedy, who grew up in Maplewood, continued playing. He was in high demand, had traveled the world with The John Pizzarelli Trio, and had been featured on more than 20 CDs and in three movies. After his disease was diagnosed, he recorded jazz versions of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

By 2013, his career was over. He was living in a nursing home in New York City, where he had moved during his early 20s.

He died Thursday (May 28, 2015) at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, his family said Wednesday. He was 58.

“He was the soul of the Pizzarelli Trio,” said Donald Wolff, a lawyer and noted jazz expert who hosted his own radio show. “His classical recordings at the end of his career along with his brother are nothing short of outstanding.”

Mr. Kennedy was known for his finger technique and his ability to swing and improvise versions of well-known jazz works. In St. Louis, he played at Jazz at the Bistro and the Sheldon.

Mr. Kennedy performed with many other top jazz artists, including Nat Adderly, Buddy DeFranco and David Sanborn.

Raymond Huston Kennedy Jr. grew up in the music business. His father was a trumpet player, vocalist and band leader in St. Louis during the 1930s and ’40s. His parents owned and operated the Kennedy Music store and school in Maplewood for 45 years. His mother worked in the store and took all three children to music lessons.

Mr. Kennedy was a natural musician who was said to have perfect pitch. Growing up, he listened to musicians and absorbed their ideas and techniques. He was mentored by pianist Herb Drury and hung out whenever he could with touring trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, whom he idolized.

At 13, he formed his own jazz group, The Ray Kennedy Trio. Brother Tom played bass, Steve Cherry played drums, and sister Wanda was vocalist.

They played together for about five years before each took off on his or her own musical endeavors. Mr. Kennedy played with other musicians who came through town before he moved to New York.

He learned all the songs in the repertoire known as the Great American Song Book so he could play almost any request. Soon, he was playing clubs and private parties for Bill Cosby, Mary Tyler Moore and other celebrities.

Unlike many musicians, who moonlight other jobs to make ends meet, he was always able to make a living as a musician, recalled his sister, Wanda Kuntz of St. Louis.

“All three of us have always worked as musicians and nothing else,” she said of the siblings.

Mr. Kennedy never forgot his St. Louis roots. About 12 years ago, he recorded an album called “Sounds of St. Louis.” The songs included “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and an audio clip of Cardinals great Stan Musial playing his harmonica.

Mr. Kennedy’s last appearance at Jazz at the Bistro was in December 2007 with his brother, bassist Tom Kennedy.

With the Pizzarelli Trio, Mr. Kennedy played for segments of TV’s “Sesame Street,” with the New York Pops and the Boston Pops orchestras, toured Japan, and played on Broadway and off-Broadway productions.

He recorded for the sound track of “The Out of Towners” movie with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, for soap operas and was a favorite at New York’s Birdland jazz club.

He was nominated for a Grammy award for his jazz solo improvisation work on the song, “Yours is My Heart Alone,” on the album “Body and Soul.”

“He was a great pianist and a beautiful human being,” said Gene Dobbs Bradford, president and CEO of Jazz St. Louis.

Memorial services will be held in St. Louis and New York. The St. Louis service will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Salem Evangelical Free Church, 2490 Pohlman Road, Florissant. The New York service will be at 5 p.m. June 14 at the Fourth Universalist Society, 160 Central Park West, New York. His body was cremated.

In addition to his sister, survivors include his wife, Eve Langner of New York; two daughters, Lauren Kennedy and Brielle Kennedy, of New York; and his brother, of New York.

Michael D. Sorkin • 314-340-8347
@ByMichaelSorkin on Twitter

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