Life in the Key of K

Kendall Feeney dazzled audiences with her passion for eclectic music. Off stage she was just as inspiring.

My favorite memory of Kendall Feeney is from a bowling outing, one that now seems like a lifetime ago.

It had to have been in the early 90s and the three of us—she and I and my then-spouse, Connie—must have wanted to get out of our heads for a while. So, here was this restless musical scholar and wisp of a phenom—in four tone, rental bowling shoes. Her eyes were crossed and her tongue was sticking out of her mouth as she pretended to be drunk after rolling a gutter ball. It was deliriously funny. She could be that way.

photo courtesy Patricia Ratcliffe

I wouldn’t be the one to even try to summarize K’s extraordinary musical legacy. I’ll just inject that if there were any questions about her talent, her passion, and her insatiable explorations, she answered them many times over with the aptly named “Zephyr” project she created and sustained in Spokane for over a decade, until 2002.

Even so, there was so much more to her career as an artist and teacher. For those reasons, it was more than fitting that the first person to speak publicly about Kendall’s passing was fellow musician Verne Windham who, for a generation, has also been the voice of classical music for Spokane Public Radio. With perfectly eloquent silence, Verne said nothing at all to start his tribute to her. He simply allowed her piano to speak in Bach for two and a half minutes before softly informing his audience of her passing and talking wistfully about her life and her formidable contributions to the Spokane music scene. The 17 minute piece includes a fairly recent recording of Kendall teaching Bach and in it we hear the energy and fluctuations in her voice as she writes out loud about how the composition unfolds. It is the voice of a woman who would not be extinguished. She led an indelible life.

I don’t know how to write this well. She was only 58 when she died earlier this month. That feels so much like a theft, on so many levels.

It wasn’t music that brought she and I together as friends. I remember seeing her for the first time in a crowded chapel in 1985. She and her then-husband, Spokane physician Gunnar Holmquist, were part of a local and regional movement that took aim at the Hanford plutonium factories upwind of Spokane. Gunnar was part of Physicians for Social Responsibility which worked side by side with the Hanford Education Action League (HEAL) the emerging citizen group that had just hired me to be its staff researcher. Kendall would become a HEAL board member and that’s how we came to know one another, in the work that ultimately led to the shut down of Hanford’s plutonium mills.

I don’t even remember when I learned she was also a top drawer classical musician. But I clearly remember the poignancy and intensity she brought to her activism. The discipline she commanded as a musician and teacher fit perfectly with what we were trying to do with science-based but aggressive challenges to Hanford’s hidden legacy, its official but shameful secrecy coiled like barbed wire around classified radiation releases and other toxic nightmares. HEAL’s founder was the Rev. Bill Houff, a former industry chemist, whose “Silent Holocaust” sermon in 1984 was a broad moral challenge and truly the beginning of Hanford’s unraveling as a fixture in the nuclear weapons complex. It was a remarkable time.

Kendall with Tango Volcado accordion player Patricia Bartell during a 2013 performance.

As her friend, I can’t say enough about her warmth and humor. She had ways of teasing me about my preference for jazz, and my preference for cats. This included putting a pearl necklace on her beloved black Labrador, Hoagy, when Con and I would come over for dinner.

“See, she loves you Tim.”

For several reasons our friendship became more important to both of us in recent years. By then she’d already willed her way past one lethal cancer prognosis and was utterly determined to move on with her life and her art. Her passion for music never waned and now she had something else to live for. It was the love her life, her second husband, Tony Flinn, an English professor at EWU, where Kendall joined the Music faculty a quarter century ago.

I don’t know how to write this well. She was only 58 when she died earlier this month. That feels so much like a theft, on so many levels. But the fullness of the love she and Tony shared was a jewel to behold. I’m so grateful, as her friend, that she and he got to experience a deep and true love for one another. An added element of grace is that she and her first husband, Gunnar, were very close friends at the end of her life.

Over the past five years, we tried to meet for lunch every month or so, usually at “Taste” on west Third. She was still able to travel to New York and Los Angeles for family and work, but eating was a challenge, and most often it required a punctual exit which she handled with a sprinkle of humor and earnest affection. Unfailingly, she would always start our conversations asking about how I was doing, and how my friends and family were doing. The lives in my sphere are tumultuous, to be sure, but our challenges pale to what Kendall and Tony were having to work through in the long shadows of cancer.

Three years ago, on a late winter day at lunch, she conveyed a remarkable proposal. My son Devin had begun making strides as a promising saxophonist. As I’d shared Dev’s progress with her, she was all over it, offering suggestions, arranging concert tickets for us, and gently coaching me on how to parent a musician. But now she offered to accompany him, to play a piano/saxophone score alongside him in Musicfest Northwest. I was speechless at the table, and near tears on the way home, just contemplating the gift she was offering and what it would mean for my son.

The piece she had in mind was “Romance,” a classical duet by the late William Grant Still. It is a challenging piece for any saxophonist, and Dev was only 16 at the time, and a late starter besides. There’s no place for a musician to hide in “Romance.” Every note and breath are exposed. There were also technical challenges for the saxophone fingering in the latter half of the piece, so Dev’s teacher, Chris Moyer, came to Kendall’s studio with us later that spring to help Dev parse them out. Kendall knew the piece would push Devin’s playing to a new level and at one of their early sessions  she made clear that she would treat him just as she would treat any of her collegiate musicians at Eastern.

Because life is always more complicated than we can imagine, their project illuminated both of them in ways I’ll never forget.

In August 2014, on the day set for their first full run at the piece, something had broken loose in that part of our lives that has nothing to do with music. It was quite sad and Dev, who rarely struggles outwardly, was shaken. I remember watching him unpack the alto from his case as Kendall took her seat at the piano. She had no idea what was going on with him, and he would not have wanted me to share it with her, to even suggest she cut him some slack.

He nodded silently when she asked if he was ready. And then they played.

I wouldn’t say it was perfect, and neither would he, nor she. But I learned something about my son that day, in the way he was able to channel his emotions into the music. He not only landed it, he reached a new level as a musician and put his signature on it. It tingled.

And, honestly, that’s what Kendall lived for—the moments of putting her talents and her mentorship into just this sort of growth and creation.

My memories of her inspired performances are eclipsed by my memories of her as my good friend, one who helped me through the most difficult period of my life.

In a matter of weeks came the worst possible news. Her cancer had returned and had spread to her lungs. It was shocking and disheartening. Yet, within weeks, she let me know she was still planning on playing with Dev at the festival. She was utterly determined, and I could tell from her voice that I was not invited to argue with her. When the day for the festival performance came, the following May, she was so weakened we were unsure she could make it. But she did.

My son has flourished since, and the week Kendall passed he spoke to me about how she inspired him, and how her challenge to him was crucial in framing him as a musician. He says it taught him to expect much more from himself. I’m so grateful I got to watch that happen.

Through the “Zephyr” series our community experienced the joy of getting to know her by the way she engaged her audiences in words and music. I’ll never forget the night she stepped away from the piano to play the theremin, an instrument you literally don’t touch and which creates undulating electronic sounds associated with low budget science fiction movies. And of course she pulled it off with equal parts humor and finesse. That’s just who she was, and I so miss her for that.

But even these memories are eclipsed by my memories of her as my good friend, one who helped me through the most difficult period of my life. She was funny, she was brave, she was chock full of grace, and she blessed my life in ways I can never repay.

–Tim Connor

2 thoughts on “Life in the Key of K”

  1. Beautiful Tim. Kendall was a treasure to everyone who knew her and to those who didn’t but heard her music. May she be at peace, free from cancer and enjoying in the pastures of heaven.

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