Volume 51, Number 30 April 26, 2004
Kenyatta – Keeping the beat alive
Kenyatta, who descends from Choctaw, Creek, Creole and African roots, knows a lot about "the real thing" when it comes to American music. While a fan of every kind, he is a walking, talking discography on jazz, folk and country music. In addition to his responsibilities as director of the Associated Students Performing Arts program, he has taught an open seminar on the philosophy of arts and culture.
The earliest musical memory Kenyatta can recall was listening to the Grand ‘Ol Opry on the radio as his grandmother cooked over a hearth. "I heard George Jones for the first time when I was 8 and by the time I was 11, I had developed my appetite for music."
Though his uncle is a Baptist preacher and most of his relatives sing gospel, Kenyatta, "couldn't then and still can't" sing. He listened to R&B and rockabilly throughout his childhood, particularly Robert Johnson, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino.
Sharing the same hometown as Janis Joplin, Kenyatta can tell you how the young Janis got her nickname. "They called her ‘Suckweeds' because all of us kids in Port Arthur, Texas would chew on sour grass." As a boy, Kenyatta cut the grass at the Joplin home. He also earned money "burning wasp nests, running errands for a local cat house and sweeping floors in honkey tonks.”
"They were rough places," Kenyatta recalls, "Port Arthur was an oil town ... but I liked the music I heard in those places."
A blind man who played saxophone on the Port Arthur streets provoked Kenyatta's desire to be a musician. "I heard that man play and I just wanted to be in a band ... I tried to get into bands before I even picked up an instrument."
A move to the San Francisco Bay Area when Kenyatta was 11 sealed his fate. He took up the sax and by the time he graduated from San Mateo High School in 1969 he had been a member of the school's jazz and marching bands as well as a drum major.
Strong mentors and the opportunity to witness historical performances shaped Kenyatta's formative years. His high school music teacher, Henry A. Use, remains a good friend and helped Kenyatta win a scholarship to the Gifted Musicians program at University of California, Berkeley. At the Monterey Jazz Festival he caught the 1967 performance that made Jimi Hendrix famous and was present at the 1966 MJF live recorded performance of "Forest Flower" featuring Charles Lloyd, Cecil Mc Bee, Keith Jarrett, and Jack DeJohnette.
In Monterey Kenyatta met saxophone great and SFSU alum, John Handy who encouraged Kenyatta to apply at his alma mater. Kenyatta received a bachelor’s degree in music education and composition in 1978 where he found another mentor in Edward Kruth.
"It was a demanding program," Kenyatta remembers, "I was required to learn every instrument." Upon graduation, Kenyatta planned to land a job as a high school music teacher, but Proposition 13 ended the kind of music programs he had enjoyed as a youth.
Kenyatta loves producing and managing events at SFSU. "We've always got "four or five fires going at one time." Right now he and his staff are in the midst of a hip-hop festival, film screenings, several concerts and the spring crafts fair featuring a live performance by John Handy.
He says that he's lucky to have a job where he's "always learning" from students and the many artists, scholars and celebrities that he's brought to campus over the past 20 years. A good many of these people, including Pete Seeger and Ralph Stanley, have become Kenyatta's personal friends.
Stanley, who Kenyatta calls "Uncle Stanley," helped him plan a bluegrass festival at SFSU. Coming up next year is a music festival to mark the birth centennial of folk and country music innovator, Bob Wills. Kenyatta is already in touch with Wills' family regarding archival materials for the event including 15 films that Wills made with such western stars as Bill Starrett and Tex Ritter.
"Wills was greatly influenced by African music," Kenyatta says, "his music encompasses frontier, blues, jazz and country but he just never gets enough credit for that."
You can bet that Kenyatta will host this exciting event in his Stetson.
1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco,
CA 94132 415/338-1111