A meeting with Raz Kennedy can feel a little like going to see the wizard. There’s no specific address for his Berkeley studio, so to find him you search for the long silver gate on Jefferson Avenue, call the designated phone number, and wait for him to appear. With his head-wrap and long braids spilling over his muscular shoulders he’s not inconspicuous, but for more than three decades he’s been an essential behind-the-scenes force on the Bay Area music scene, a vocal magician who has contributed to numerous hit albums and coached an array of stars.
After some 30 years devoted to bringing out the best in other artists, Kennedy is stepping back into the spotlight Saturday at Freight & Salvage, his first gig under his own name since the 1980s. He’s gathered together an eclectic cast of masters, including Berkeley electric bassist Kai Eckhardt, guitarist Matthew Charles Heulitt, LA drummer Dave Tweedie, vocalists Sandy Griffith and Leah Tysse, and pianist/vocalist Victoria Theodore, a product of UC Berkeley’s lamented Young Musicians Program who’s spent serious time on the road with Stevie Wonder.
For Kennedy, flexing the long-neglected band-leading muscles in preparation for the show has been a pleasure.
“I’m digging the process,” he said over a chai latte at Catahoula Coffee. “I might want to continue cultivating this. Things take time to develop, and we’ve got a really eclectic song list, from AC/DC to Eddie Harris, from Marvin Gaye to Prince, with some Rick James and Jeff Buckley too.”
Kennedy’s roster of clients is similarly diverse. From Grammy Award-winning norteño legends Los Tigres Del Norte to popster Hilary Duff, from Berkeley punk icons Rancid to Talking Heads drummer Jerry Harrison, when musicians run into trouble with voice, Kennedy is often the person they turn to for help. Narada Michael Walden calls him “the premiere vocal coach in the Bay Area,” while multi-instrumentalist Joe Bagale, who produced the recent UnderCover Presents production of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the UC Theatre, described Kennedy as “one of the greatest vocal directors and teachers. He saved my voice back in 2008 when I had polyps. I never got surgery. I went to Raz and he taught me to sing properly.”
In some circles he’s still best known as a founding member of Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra, the extraordinary vocal ensemble-cum-aural laboratory that also featured singers such as Rhiannon, Nicolas Bearde, and David Worm. He was already a veteran performer, but joining Voicestra in 1986 was “like getting paid to be in music school,” says Kennedy, who spent seven years in the group. “Bobby was a genius and spending all this time with these singers with these specific gifts you’re learning not just from him but from everyone around you.
“I think the most important thing is that he taught me how to listen. I thought I was listening, but no. He taught not just how to use my ears, but how to feel sensation, how to go inside and listen. We worked with John Williams, Dianne Reeves, Liza Minelli, Yo-Yo Ma, Take Six. It turned me on to so much, and made it possible to do what I’m doing now.”
Kennedy grew up in Los Angeles, surrounded by musicians. His mother was a music business pioneer as one of the first women of color to attain an executive position at a major label, working at Epic Record under Clive Davis. He soaked up the sounds of the 1960s, playing in various R&B bands in high school when an encounter with an album by the late LA-reared reed master Eric Dolphy turned his attention to jazz.
He moved north to study voice at San Jose State in the early 1970s. He entered a seminary for a year and thought about taking orders as an Eastern Orthodox monk, immersing himself in Byzantine music. But he ended up leaving the seminary, jumping from cloistered spirituality to down and dirty R&B, singing in some East Palo Alto funk bands.
He ended up in broke in Berkeley in 1975. Working at the Tower Records on Durant as a jazz buyer, he found he had a knack for booking concerts and artist promotion, representing musicians like Patrice Rushen, Stanley Clarke, Chuck Mangione and McCoy Tyner. He even briefly considered giving up performing entirely “but I had a motorcycle accident,” Kennedy said, pointing to a long scar on his shoulder. During his convalescence, he had time to reflect on the path he wanted to follow, and he realized that creating music had to be part of the destination.
“I started taking voice lessons, trying to get gigs, volunteering at music camps,” he said. “One thing leads to another. My wife was an educator who started an alternative school for high school kids in El Cerrito. She had academics covered and she recruited me to run the music program.”
Kennedy launched a thriving career as a music teacher, working in Parks and Rec afterschool programs in Oakland and Contra Costa. He landed a position as a voice coach at Fort Mason and taught at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond. It was at EBCPA that the vocal ensemble Jazz Mouth came together in the early 1980s. The group connected Kennedy with a number of future Voicestra mates, such as Molly Holm, Joey Blake and Nic Bearde.
While Jazz Mouth never released an album, the group performed regularly at Erle’s Solano Club in Albany, Freight & Salvage, and Kimball’s East and West. Around the same time, Kennedy started a new wave band Adam and Raz that attracted the attention of Bill Graham before it imploded.
Rather than assembling another band, Kennedy turned his attention to coaching, teaching, studio work (and Voicestra). His recording and concert credits include collaborations with Narada Michael Walden, Al Jarreau, Todd Rundgren, Whitney Houston, The Bobs, Mickey Hart, Kenny Loggins, Sting, Earl Klugh and many others. It’s been a long time coming, but he’s ready to step back into the spotlight, and he’s got musical stories to tell unlike any other singer around.
Recommended gig: Pascuala Ilabaca and LoCura
A talent-packed double bill Sunday at Ashkenaz pairs Chilean singer, songwriter and accordionist, Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna with Oakland-based pan-Carribean musical mesitzos LoCura. Ilabaca is on her first US tour and is making her Bay Area debut. Rooted in traditional Chilean sounds, she draws upon jazz, pop and rock, and influences gathered during her travels from Mexico to India.