For Charleston Sax Man, George Kenny – The Music’s In His DNA

By Barney Blakeney   

I’ve been trying to pull together a story about Charleston musician George Kenny for years. The 84-year-old saxophone player was my high school music teacher and marching band director. Last week some of my old schoolmates from the gone, but not forgotten Charles A. Brown High, put something on Facebook about Kenny’s birthday. Boy did that spark a lot of conversation.

First of all, the guy who posted the thing said Kenny told him he (Kenny) was turning 69 that day last day, whenever it was. I’ve learned Kenny will be 85 next month. The post drew at least 100 responses – most wishing the old man a happy birthday, but some disputing his stated age. Heck Kenny was 69 when I was in his 8th grade band class!

Well, as fate would have it, I ran into Kenny last Sunday at the 90th birthday celebration for former Bonds-Wilson High School Band Director and Charleston County Council Chairman Lonnie L. Hamilton. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and the City of Charleston threw a bash for Hamilton, whose birthday is Nov. 14, at the City Art Gallery.

Kenny was there playing with Steve Simon and the Kings of Jazz. I catch the band sometimes at a downtown Charleston restaurant.

Ever since my old high school days back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I realized George Kenny was a helluva musician. He had to teach all of us kids to play various instruments. That meant he had to know how to play them. He insisted we play them well!

I was a drummer. I knew that Kenny’s instrument of choice was saxophone. It amazed me how a horn player also could be versed in playing drums. But Kenny not only would tell us what he wanted from us, he’d demonstrate the technique.

I came through the marching band during racial segregation in public schools. Bands at Black high schools had a style that not only included marching to music, but incorporated dance and other movements. We called it ‘clowning’. I didn’t realize it then, but our band directors were much more than music teachers. They taught us stuff we didn’t know we were learning. We had to play, remember positions and incorporate the orchestrated dance moves. On top of that, some band members would incorporate their own unique moves! It was glorious!

Every band member from every school, no matter which, would profess his band and director was best – and went to extremes proving it. There was a lot of pride. And there was a lot of contention about which band could out-march, out-play and out-clown the others. All of that started with our band directors. They gave us the skills to do all that. I guess most of us don’t think about it, but those skills helped propel us to whatever successes we achieved.

I was one among hundreds of kids George Kenny pushed through his bands and high school. Elinor Coaxum said, “Love me some Mr. Kenny!” Denny Meyers-Worix said, “Mr. Kenny still looks awesome for 69 . 🙂 LOL “and another former student said, “George Kenny – 69!!! Yeah, right!!! He’s one of the best musicians Charleston’s ever produced. In return, he’s produced many more good musicians. He plays frequently at Barsa at King and Line streets on Thursday from 8-10 p.m. in addition to other gigs” and Leola Quarles Smith, said, “I’ve known Mr. Kenny since 1963. I was 13 in 8th grade. I know he was not 17 year old then. Please get the man’s age right. I am 67 years old now, it’s impossible for him to be 2 years older than me.” We all have gone on to do different things in life. But we’ve carried with us what George Kenny gave us.

At Sunday’s birthday party Kenny played alongside another saxophone player: Leroy “Smiley” Smalls, who recently retired as a Charleston County School District band director. Smiley’s played with Kenny in different combos over the years. I asked what he thinks of the man.

“As a kid, I watched him,” said Smalls who graduated from Burke High School in 1971 and went on to a career in music. “At 63, I still feel like the kid in the group.” Smalls says Kenny has served as a musical mentor through the stories he shares and his inspiring musicianship. “I give him the utmost respect. What I’m amazed by most is his awesome memory. He knows so many songs! Sometimes I have to go to my iPad to play a song. George Kenny knows them from memory. He’s got it in his DNA. At 84, it’s amazing how many songs he knows and remembers. It blows my mind!” Tecklenburg said, “George is a great educator, a great mentor, and the smoothest tenor sax man around. Even more, he’s a great friend — and it’s a genuine pleasure and honor to know him.”

Sunday’s celebration was filled with musicians who included singer James Edwards, pianists John Tecklenburg and Oscar Rivers and others whose names I don’t know, but whose faces I’ve seen behind instruments all over town. All were there to pay homage to Hamilton. So was I. But I couldn’t help focusing on George Kenny. As usual, I walked over to tell him thanks for all he’s given me and so many others. He looked up from the bench on which he was sitting during a break, and repeated his usual response, “You all weren’t just our students, you were our kids.”

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