THE NONPROFIT Charlin Jazz Society has set high standards since it was founded in 1978 by Charles Cassell and Linda Wernick.
The cream of the area's jazz talent has been featured in concerts like the Trumpets, Trombones and Troubadors evening of 1981 that showcased horn players Allen Houser, Kenny Reed, and Calvin Jones and vocalists Lisa Rich and Nap Turner.
Tomorrow at 8 p.m. the Society will present Vibes and Violin at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. The headliners, violinist Joe Kennedy and vibraphonist Clement Wells, are both veteran performers who have chosen settled lives and stable careers over the uncertainty and constant travel the jazz life entails; Kennedy is a public school administrator and university professor in Richmond and Wells is with the Postal Service here, where he grew up.
Both number jazz greats among their relatives. Kennedy is a cousin of alto saxophonist Benny Carter and nephew of Theodore (Cuban) Bennett, whom Earl Hines described as "one of the fastest trumpet players I ever heard." Wells is a cousin of Shirley Horn, who was instrumental in introducing him to jazz when they were youngsters. The rhythm section for tomorrow's concert will be pianist Larry Eanet, bassist Tommy Cecil and drummer "Dude" Brown.
Kennedy, not surprisingly, grew up in a family in which jazz was respected, even venerated, but the inspiration to study violin sprang from a concert he attended when he was 7 that featured a teen-age violinist name Yehudi Menuhin. Classical studies, under his grandfather and others, followed.
"During World War II, in the Army, I was around a lot of jazz musicians like trumpeter Harold (Shorty) Baker and guitarist Irving Ashby, and I started to admit to myself that I had a great love for jazz. There were always jazz recordings in our home--classical recordings, too--and I was always close to the music as I grew up."
When Kennedy returned home to Pittsburgh after the war he formed, with pianist Ahmad Jamal, his own jazz group, Four Strings, whose first recording session was supervised by the late Mary Lou Williams, a pianist and composer. It was quite a few years--three decades, in fact--before the sounds of Kennedy's jazz violin again found their way onto vinyl. His association with the Richmond public schools began in 1952. In 1973 he was appointed the system's supervisor of music and in 1976 became its supervisor of secondary arts and humanities. In addition, he is an adjunct faculty member of the Afro-American studies department at Virginia Commonwealth University, and was a resident violinst with the Richmond Symphony from 1963 to 1981.
The busy professional life Kennedy has enjoyed for the more than 30 years since he left full-time jazz playing has not kept him away from music. A Smithsonian audience that included many jazz cognoscenti was startled in 1978 when Kennedy was ushered on stage by Benny Carter, the featured artist, and proceeded to deliver magnificent swing-era sounds updated by a sophisticated knowledge of the harmonic language of modern jazz. That concert more or less launched Kennedy into a new, albeit part-time, career.
He has been touring the past four summers with Carter and others, chalking up appearances at festivals in Europe, Japan, California and Wolf Trap. Some of his long-out-of-print 1940s recordings have been reissued, and he has recorded again here and abroad with pianists John Lewis and Billy Taylor and his own group. Reflecting upon his emergence from the shadows of the jazz world to relative fame, Kennedy explains that "during some stages, even if I didn't make many public jazz appearances, I still stayed in touch with the instrument and continually listened to recordings."
Clement Wells has been a familiar local sight behind his vibraphone since the mid-1940s. Wells, who graduated from the old Armstrong High School, had been listening "from year one" to the jazz records his mother brought home. He also studied trumpet, piano, and marimba before he "saw Lionel Hampton and graduated up to a vibraphone." A few years later he leaped on stage at a Hampton concert and played "Groovin' High" on the leader's instrument as Hampton looked on approvingly. "You know, when you're young, you don't know what you're doing," Wells laughs.
Wells has played a long list of clubs in the area, including the Flamingo, the Hollywood and the 7th and T Lounge, and was on the road for half a year with organist Johnny (Hammond) Smith. He also recorded with Smith and with percussionist Buck Clarke's quartet. He remains active, turning up at Mr. Y's and other venues. Only last Sunday he did a set at a Lettumplay benefit. And while Wells' reputation for polished musicianship and mastery of the idiom may not extend much beyond his home base these days, his compositions are played around the world. Perhaps his best known piece is "You Look Good To Me," first recorded in the 1960s by the Oscar Peterson Trio.