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Thu, 03.10.1921

Matthew Kennedy, Choral Conductor born

Matthew Kennedy

*Matthew Kennedy was born on this date in 1921.  He was a Black classical pianist, professor, choral director, composer, and arranger of Negro Spirituals.

Matthew Washington Kennedy was born in Americus, Georgia, the fourth child of Royal Clement Kennedy and Mary Magdalene Dowdell. His father was a postal worker and died of a heart attack when Matthew was 15 months old.  Matthew’s mother was born to Joseph and Maria Dowdell in Sumter County, Georgia. She was a public school teacher. A child prodigy, he picked out the melodies on the piano of hymns and Spirituals he heard sung by his mother and composed his first piano piece called “The Bells” at age six.  

The star of his radio show at age 11, he played the organ to accompany silent films at the segregated cinema, where he was given the stage name “Sunshine” and was dressed in a bellhop uniform. In 1932, Matthew and his mother sat in the segregated balcony for a live concert by Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff in Macon, Georgia. He was frustrated with the Jim Crow South and his decision to move to New York City with her son.  There, Matthew auditioned at the Juilliard School and was admitted. He simultaneously studied and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and earned a diploma in piano from Juilliard in 1940.

His teacher Lois Adler advised Kennedy to return to the South for his college degree and arranged for him to study on scholarship at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1940, Mrs. James A. Myers was director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and she asked Kennedy to serve as a piano accompanist for the group. From Fisk, Kennedy was drafted to serve in World War II and was sent to North Africa and Southern France. After returning from the war, he graduated from Fisk University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1947 (cum laude). Kennedy earned his Master of Arts degree from Juilliard in 1950 and completed coursework toward his Ph.D. from George Peabody College in Nashville. 

Employed by Fisk University as an instructor in 1947, Kennedy became an associate professor in 1954. In 1956, he married pianist, Anne Gamble. Kennedy was appointed director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1957 and mentored hundreds of young students for the next twenty-three years.  In 1958, Kennedy made his solo piano debut at Carnegie Recital Hall.  Kennedy toured globally as a concert pianist and director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  He was appointed acting chairman of the Fisk University Music Department in 1975.

He retired from Fisk University in 1986. Kennedy had served on resource panels for the Tennessee Arts Commission and boards of the Nashville Symphony Association and the John W. Work, III Memorial Foundation. He received the Achievement Award from the National Black Music Caucus of the Music Educators’ National Conference.  Also, the distinguished service awards from the National Association of Negro Musicians, the Fisk University Alumni Association, and the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

Kennedy held lifetime memberships with the NAACP and the Fisk University General Alumni Association. He was a member of the Nashville Fine Arts Club, where he served as President. He was also a member of the Nashville Symphony Guild, Gamma Phi chapter of Omega Psi Phi, First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, and an inductee into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon, Georgia. At Fisk, he was inducted into Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity. In 2003, Kennedy released his first album, Familiar Favorites.  

In 2006, he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Fisk University.  In September 2006, The Honorable Jim Cooper, representative of Tennessee, entered a statement honoring Dr. Matthew Kennedy into the Congressional Record, which took place during the Proceedings and Debates of the 109th Congress, Second Session in Washington, DC.  Kennedy continued to play the piano for the congregation at First Baptist Church Capitol Hill in Nashville after he was into his 90s. He died on June 5, 2014, at the age of 93.

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