Nina Kennedy Directs the Fisk Jubilee Singers in Master Class

Matthew Kennedy directing the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1971

In the 1960s, Matthew Kennedy arranged the spiritual "Steal Away" for the Fisk Jubilee Singers to perform. He served as director of the group intermittently from 1957 - when he was appointed by then director John W. Work III to succeed him - until his retirement in 1986. His arrangements of "Steal Away" and "Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit" were publish by Abingdon Press in 1974.

Nina performing in the Jubilee Heritage Awards Concert
This month Kennedy's daughter Nina traveled to Fisk University to perform on the 4th annual Jubilee Heritage Awards Concert on October 5th. The concert was scheduled to coincide with Jubilee Day on October 6th, which marks the anniversary of the day when the original Fisk Jubilee Singers set out on their first concert tour to raise money for the school. Every year on that day, current Jubilee Singers, alumni and staff go on a pilgrimage to the graves of some of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. One of the most moving moments of the weekend was when the current group of singers gathered around the grave of Ella Sheppard, matriarch of the original group, and sang a spiritual in her honor.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers at Ella Sheppard's grave
When Nina asked current director Dr. Paul Kwami to allow her to come into a rehearsal to give the students some pointers on her father's arrangement of "Steal Away," she had no idea at the time that the experience would make such an impact. "It was one of the highlights of my musical life," she said about directing the singers. "They were so responsive. It felt like I've been doing this my whole life."

Nina Kennedy directing the Fisk Jubilee Singers
Indeed, she has been preparing for this moment for all of her life. "One of my first memories is sitting in a Fisk Jubilee Singers rehearsal on my mother's lap. I traveled with them, sat in rehearsals and in the audience for their concerts. My job was to collect extra programs after the concerts." She is certainly more familiar with the repertoire performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers than most. When the class was finished, the students broke out in spontaneous applause.

The students showing their appreciation
Nina Kennedy studied piano in Nashville at the Blair School of Music. She went on to study at the Curtis Institute of Music, and earned a master's degree at the Juilliard School in New York City in piano performance and orchestral conducting. She has performed as a recitalist and as piano soloist with orchestras across the globe.

While in Nashville, Kennedy met with representatives from the new National Museum of African American Music, which is scheduled to open in 2020. She plans to donate some items from her father's estate for the Fisk Jubilee Singers exhibit.

Nina in front of the portrait of the Fisk Jubilee Singers of 1873, commissioned by Queen Victoria. (Ella Sheppard is seated at the keyboard.)

INFEMNITY Productions was on hand to film the Jubilee Heritage Awards Concert, as well as the rehearsal with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the pilgrimage to the grave site, and Nina sharing moving stories about the original singers and the founding of the school.


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