The world of music mourns the passing of radio and TV personality Don Kennedy, the host of the nationally-syndicated “Big Band Jump” radio show. Don spent over 60 years in broadcasting, enchanting audiences with his passionate dedication to preserving and promoting the timeless melodies of the big band and swing era. Don Kennedy, born on March 2nd, 1930, left an indelible mark on the radio industry and will be remembered as the voice of an era that still resonates with millions around the globe.
Don’s love affair with music began at an early age when he would eagerly listen to the big band jazz records. Fascinated by the sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman, he soon developed an insatiable appetite for everything related to the golden age of swing. As he grew older, Don’s passion only intensified, and he became determined to share his love for this genre with the world.
Kennedy’s broadcast career began in the late 1940s as a radio announcer on Pennsylvania station WPIC-AM. Then the Korean War called him to service in the Army as a radio studio manager for Armed Forces Radio. After the war, Kennedy relocated to Atlanta, Georgia and was hired by WBGE-AM. Kennedy’s skills were soon recognized by the NBC Radio Network, and he was hired as a contributor to the NBC weekend show “Monitor”, where he developed several features.
By the mid-1950s, Don made the transition to television, where he became known to a generation of young viewers as ‘Officer Don’ on the long-running Atlanta children’s TV show, “The Popeye Club”. Kennedy served as the host of the hit show for 13 years.
Later, Kennedy partnered with two other men to purchase an FM radio station in 1960, WKLS-FM, where he aired easy-listening music and quickly found opportunities to introduce listeners to the swinging sounds he cherished. His charismatic voice and encyclopedic knowledge of the big band era allowed him to climb the ranks swiftly, and in no time, he became a popular radio host, renowned for his captivating storytelling and the ability to bring the past alive through music.
He also started Georgia’s first statewide radio news network and for a time owned independent UHF TV station WATL Channel 36.
In 1986, he began hosting “Big Band Jump”, an internationally syndicated radio show devoted to music from the Big Band era. He later added a second syndicated program, the self-titled “Don Kennedy Show”, featuring pop vocals and instrumentals from the Great American Songbook. “Big Band Jump” would become his legacy and earn him a devoted following of listeners on more than one hundred radio stations. “Big Band Jump” was not just a radio program; it was a time machine that transported audiences to the vibrant dance floors of the 1930s and 1940s.
As the show gained popularity, so too did Don’s reputation as an authority on big band jazz. He interviewed countless luminaries of the swing era, from surviving members of legendary bands to soloists who helped define the genre. Listeners tuned in not only to hear the captivating music but also to learn about the rich history behind each song and the musicians who made them unforgettable.
Throughout his illustrious career, Don received numerous accolades for his contributions to the world of music and radio. He was inducted into the Georgia Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame in 2007, well-deserved honors that recognized his enduring impact on the medium and his unparalleled commitment to the big band jazz legacy. Kennedy was also the recipient of two Emmys and honorary membership in the Di Gamma Kappa Broadcast Fraternity at the University of Georgia. Don’s passion for sharing the music he loved never waned, and he continued to host “Big Band Jump” until just a few years before his passing, a testament to his unwavering dedication and unyielding spirit.
Don Kennedy died June 29th, 2023 at age 93 from complications of dementia following a stroke in 2015 according to his daughter, Rebecca Maple. As news of Don’s passing spread, tributes from musicians, colleagues, and fans poured in from around the swing and jazz world. Countless stories were shared of how his infectious enthusiasm for the big band era inspired countless individuals to delve deeper into the rich history of jazz. The outpouring of love and admiration serves as a testament to the profound impact Don Kennedy had on the world of music and the lives of those who were fortunate enough to hear his voice.
As we bid farewell to this extraordinary radio host, we celebrate the timeless melodies he leaves behind and the joy he brought to so many hearts. Don Kennedy’s spirit will forever live on through the music he cherished and the memories he etched into the hearts of millions.
Thanks to the generosity of the Georgia State University Library’s Special Collections & Archives, Big Band Jump with Don Kennedy can be heard Saturdays at 9AM Pacific/12PM Eastern on Swing Street Radio.
Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Shelp Fields’ bandboy.