To see Sonny Kenner play his weekly gigs at Mill Creek Brewery or The Levee was to witness a legend in action, a rare luxury enjoyed by local music fans for more than a decade. True, nationally acclaimed artists such as Jay McShann and Kevin Mahogany maintain a Kansas City connection, but these performers don’t keep regular office hours — instead, they treat jazz students to one or two showcases per year. Kenner was a constantly available resource, an accessible link to the city’s famous past and an inspiring reminder of its present musical vitality.
Had Kenner merely chosen the less strenuous role of esteemed resident, taking in the occasional show as starstruck jazz scholars offered knowing nods, it still would have been an honor for Kansas City. But instead he played on — converting casual bar patrons into fans four nights a week — and he taught, both by example and at classes sponsored by the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation. As a result, Kenner’s influence spread far beyond the already broad reach of blues and jazz, eventually encompassing hundreds of area rock musicians and fans as well. When Kenner passed away on Tuesday, January 23, the news reached all corners of Kansas City’s music scene. It produced an immediate emotional response and a lingering sense of loss that hovered over live-music venues in the days that followed.
“He touched a lot of young people,” says Mark Nolan, a bartender at The Levee, where Kenner played regularly for eleven years. “We always have students from the art institute in here, and he talked to the people, made them feel welcome. All of the bands here know him. He was just a great man.”
“He was an extremely kind individual,” concurs Roger Naber, owner of the Grand Emporium. “At his jam sessions, he would encourage young people who weren’t all that skilled to try to get up on stage and improve themselves. He knew a lot of these kids weren’t any good, but he’d still allow them to get on stage and share time with him. That was his way of trying to nurture young people. He wouldn’t discount anybody, he always listened and he always offered to help.”
By offering lessons to young players, Kenner traveled full circle from his childhood, when he and his lifelong friend and future bandmate Luqman Hamza used to spot Charlie Parker and Big Joe Turner strolling through the 18th and Vine neighborhood in which he was raised. “We lived in the Gem Theater,” Hamza told Living Blues last year. “We started taking in, by osmosis, all that we heard in this area.”
Soon, Kenner was using more direct methods to improve his skills. He picked up the guitar at age 9 and was performing in clubs by 14, having played with Louis Armstrong a year earlier in an impromptu after-gig jam arranged by his godfather, George Golden. Kenner first went electric at age 15, and later that year, with his band The Five Aces, he played a show hosted by Bob Hope at Municipal Auditorium. The Aces scored a weekly radio show on the Independence-based KIMO, and the group soon took to the road.
After quitting high school because of travel requirements and the grind of playing locally until 4 a.m. several times a week, Kenner moved on to his next band, The Red Hot Scamps. This lineup once backed Charlie Parker for two weeks, an experience Kenner likened to “playin’ with God.” Before he was 20, Kenner had shared stages with B.B. King and Fats Domino, backed up Lula Reed and Sonny Thompson, worked as a session musician for King Records in Cincinnati and befriended rowdy comedian Redd Foxx (“I learned a lot about entertainin’ from him,” he told Living Blues). In 1956, Kenner started a two-year stint in the Army, but even consignment didn’t stunt his musical growth: He played Viennese waltzes and polkas with a band while in Germany.
Kenner then bounced between Kansas City and Los Angeles for several years, participating in all-night jam sessions at which he met such luminaries as James Brown and Sam Cooke. Kenner worked as a session player with labels such as Mercury and Capitol, bolstering the list of artists with whom he’d recorded (Little Richard, Jimmy Witherspoon and Little Anthony and the Imperials among them).
Although he kept a steady stream of high-profile gigs during this period of his career, Kenner told Living Blues a year ago that “the busiest I’ve ever been is right now.” After relocating to Kansas City, Kenner eventually solidified his schedule at The Levee and Mill Creek Brewery, then augmented these weekly constants with an array of other obligations that had him playing two times a night on some occasions. “All my life I’ve worked day jobs,” Kenner said. “I’ve done had just about every kind of job you can think of…. We musicians believed in what we call ‘creative employment.’ We’d be walkin’ down the street, somebody’d be paintin’ a house. We’d say, ‘Give us $150 and we’ll finish the work.'” Kenner’s constant diet of gigs allowed him to record self-produced CDs (Never Give Up on Love; Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; Peace, Love & Happiness) instead of seeking impromptu freelance painting assignments.
Despite his interaction with world-famous musicians and his hectic early-career touring schedule, Kenner’s fame remained largely contained within Kansas City’s limits. “Sonny was really one of the most unheralded and overlooked Kansas City musicians,” Naber says. But in his hometown, he was its most loved musician — and one of its most honored. His many awards included the Kansas City Jazz Commission’s Heritage Award and the Gentlemen of Distinction Cultural Arts Honor, and he was inducted into the Kansas City Jazz Hall of Fame and named an Elder Statesman of Jazz by the Kansas City Mutual Musicians’ Foundation. He also took home the Klammy for best blues/R&B artist every year since the award ceremony’s inception. Last year, he performed at the Klammies, commanding respect while leading the audience through a breathtaking rendition of “Minnie the Moocher.” Later that evening, his daughter Romaine picked up his trophy for him. True to his reputation, Kenner had departed after his brief set to play another gig the same night.
Kenner’s family needs funeral-related financial assistance. Fundraisers are Friday, February 2, at The Upper Room and Friday, February 9, at the Gem Theater. Both begin at 7 p.m. These benefits bring to mind an evening that honored another legendary talent — Speedy Huggins — and Naber remembers that night at the Grand Emporium well. “A lot of musicians donated time, but Sonny also donated CDs so that the CD sales would go to help pay for Speedy’s burial. He gave above and beyond what was expected and needed out of him.”