James Kennedy gets by with a little help from his friends – in fact, it is a sentiment attributed to one of the Beatles that he says best describes the bond he shares with his band. At one point, one of the Beatles said nobody knew their type of friendship, but the four of them understood it. That’s the way James Kennedy and Friends works – they’ve all played together so long that they are all on the same wavelength. They’re like a family – it’s just the way it is, according to James.
James Kennedy started playing music when he was 10 years old; he played the trumpet and recorder, but his older sister played the piano. It was the beginning of the Rock n Roll Era and he was hooked by her playing Bill Haley & the Comets. By the time he was 14, Jim decided that playing guitar was way more fun and he ended up forming a band with some other guys – they were just high school kids from Iowa, but they were playing gigs around the ballrooms and music halls back in the day. After high school, Jim studied music in Dubuque for two years and eventually moved to Cedar Rapids where he earned his R & B chops playing guitar in an all-white band that had a black singer – very forward thinking for the racially charged times. He had released a solo of original recordings and started to be drawn more and more toward orchestral pieces – the technical skill involved with arranging the music. Having built a recording studio in Mt. Vernon, Iowa in the early 70’s, Jim was well placed to find instruction at nearby Cornell College, studying with the Head of the Music Department for three years. That relationship eventually developed into a teaching position, where James taught guitar and jazz ensemble at Cornell. He also started their synth music and recording (engineering) programs from scratch, sometimes using his own studio as a classroom for the students. Not leaving all the learning to his students, Jim was also using his time and connections to study music with renowned composer Richard Hervig at the University of Iowa. He spent six years furthering his own education, developing his own style and forming The Heartland Consort – the group that would eventually morph into James Kennedy and Friends.
One of the highlights of The Heartland Consort was when jazz bassist Steve Swallow heard their music and turned Matthias Winckelmann (founder of Enja Records) onto the band. James recorded for Enja and the band was able to go on an epic tour of Europe in 1992 – playing 14 shows in 12 days. They received a standing ovation at the North Sea Jazz Festival, including audience member Bobby McPherrin. The Heartland Consort also played at the renowned Montreaux Jazz Festival on that tour, bringing their original music to the often staid jazz circles of Europe. After leaving college life in 1993, Jim has continued to teach private lessons and he focuses on developing the sound for James Kennedy and Friends. The group is a collaborative effort, with everyone bringing something different to the table. Everyone is encouraged to contribute ideas and arrangements and it serves them well. They’ve released 25 CDs, been submitted for GRAMMY consideration 14 years in a row, and plan to release new music in 2015 in time for the 2016 deadline. James Kennedy may have his name listed first, but he will be the first to tell you that they are all in it together.
Catherine Lawson brings her unique talents on the electric/acoustic violin to James Kennedy and Friends by way of the Chicago suburbs and Cornell College. Catherine grew up in a very musical family – her great grandfather played the zither in Germany and receiving his instrument as a gift from her grandmother was an inspiration for Catherine to play. She started out on piano and violin at about age 3 but picked up the viola at age 14, realizing that the relatively limited number of viola players would create more of a demand for her talent. Catherine also sang most of her life, winning All State and touring Europe as part of a semi-professional group from Wheaton College during the end of her senior year in high school. Having grown up with Classical music, Catherine began to explore other styles and
discovered rock operas and bluegrass music in her teens. She started playing “Black Dog” on her viola and continued to play during her college years at Cornell College where she met James Kennedy. Catherine started out managing and promoting Jim’s band, but soon became a staple with the group – playing her custom built Zeta 5-string electric/acoustic violin. Catherine continues to write with the band and shares her love of all types of music by teaching private lessons.
Matt Alles is a native of Colorado who first started on the piano in the 3rd Grade and moved on to play the upright bass in 6th Grade. Once Matt got to high school and realized he didn’t HAVE to do all that bowing, he picked up the electric bass and became a member of the Jazz Band. He continued his musical endeavors through high school and college (adding tuba to his repertoire) and eventually met James Kennedy at Cornell College, where James taught. Matt started out playing in Jim’s student group in 1990 and has been with him ever since. He boasts a CD collection of “probably about 10,000” that reflects his love of music; there is no particular style that Matt prefers to play. He even spent some time studying the sitar from 2004-2007 to try something different. Matt enjoys his family and gardening, but when he needs a break from the carpool, he can count on playing music with James Kennedy and Friends as a nice escape and creative outlet.
It should come as no surprise that Eric Madison loves all kinds of music – one of the reasons he plays percussion with James Kennedy and Friends is because of the diverse range of music the group covers. Eric grew up in Iowa City surrounded by artists and performers. The college students who weren’t able to go home for the holidays were always welcomed at the Madison household and some sort of music was always present. That spirit of involving family extends into Eric’s own business today – he owns a small music store where he gives drum lessons and beginning piano. When he’s not at the store or teaching life skills to persons with disabilities, Eric can be found playing in various groups, expanding his range to include Blues, Rock and Country. With James Kennedy and Friends on a full time basis since 2009, Eric handles percussion/drums for the band and loves collaborating to come up with his own parts and writing new music.