School just isn’t for everyone, and for Philadelphia guitarist and composer Kenny Rosario-Pugh (aka KennyRP), his guitar was solace from his woes in the classroom. “I’ve always found school boring as a child and couldn’t wait to get home to practice playing my guitar. It took me to another world and I decided back then that music will be my only avenue to success in life,” he says.
Rosario-Pugh is Philly-born-and-raised in Fairmount and Olde Kensington. As a child of 12, he played Guitar Hero for endless hours. He says it gave him “an appreciation for rock music legends like Slash, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin. That wasn’t a genre that was played in my home so I probably would not have heard their music until my adult years if Guitar Hero wasn’t invented. Jazz also wasn’t a genre I really heard or listened to until my late teen years after I entered the University of the Arts. I believe the jazz music scene in Philly needs to grow and be everyday popular like Rap, Rock, Country, and R&B are for all people.”
The Philly School of Rock, where he kept honing his chops as part of the “B Team Houseband,” was also part of his education before he went on to the University of the Arts. Since then, he’s played for a host of singer song-writers and others, and he’s now interested in turning more of his attention toward jazz. Kenny released his debut single in April 2021, a song he co-wrote with Cordell (Justin McCord, a fellow UArts graduate). The single is called “One More Chance.” He’s also the guitarist for the Peter Frank Big Band Orchestra. “Peter and I graduated in 2019 from the University of the Arts. He’s a very gifted musician and composer. His band is the only formal group where I get to use my jazz guitar skills once every month, other than sometimes participating in jam sessions at Chris’ Jazz Café and at Time,” says Rosario-Pugh.
Rosario-Pugh is part of Jazz Philadelphia’s inaugural cohort of the CORE Cooperative, where he hopes he can start making headway into the next phase of building a sustainable music career. “My vision for myself is to grow as a young jazz guitarist. I enjoy playing gigs around the city, but a few of them amount to strumming jobs,” he explains. “I don’t feel like I’m using or developing my full potential as a musician. For me, the money isn’t as important as getting the experience of playing jazz and working closely with other experienced professionals and being mentored by them to build my confidence and career. That’s priceless,” he says, “because that would give my career the boost that it needs so that it can lead to a more reliable source of income to meet my everyday needs without worrying about how I can continue to pay my bills.”
“For me, the money isn’t as important as getting the experience of playing jazz and working closely with other experienced professionals and being mentored by them to build my confidence and career. That’s priceless.”
Like many artists, he’s juggling many side gigs and hustling as much as he can, but sometimes it’s still not enough, and he wants to work toward a day when he’s feeling more secure. “When I can lose the ‘starving musician; label, then that would mean financial success to me,” he says. “I can also at the same time help my community develop an appreciation and love for jazz by bringing it to them as a professional musician.
“I believe the CORE Cooperative can make that a real possibility by helping me market myself and expand my reach with different audiences. I love playing Jazz and the unique freedom improv gives me. I also want to be an important part of helping the Jazz scene in Philly to grow,” he says. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join a music community that will help me grow as a jazz musician and business entrepreneur.”
He’s got the right attitude to succeed. When he thinks about leadership, he rattles off a list of what he tries to model. “Coming up with creative ideas for a project, being a good listener, working hard to improve my jazz playing skills, playing well with other musicians, accepting good criticism and advice, and being easy to get along with.”
Rosario-Pugh admits that while he’s armed with music training, a strong sense of community, and an inclination to be a builder and leader, he knows he also needs to learn a whole new set of chops as an entrepreneur. “I really have no idea how to successfully make the business side of it happen, but I do know that collaboration is a big part of it,” he says. “If I can meet and work with diverse professionals in the music industry who can mentor me, I’ll feel more confident about making a real living doing what I love.”
He knows that just getting to this point had a lot to do with his community, and he wants to keep that in tact. “My community is where I currently live. My community is the church where I worship. My community is where I have lived in the past,” says Rosario-Pugh. “I grew up in the Fairmount section of the city back when it was considered a ghetto area. There aren’t many opportunities for musical growth in those communities. Jazz, classical, and opera music aren’t part of the mainstream there.”
“My community is where I currently live. My community is the church where I worship. My community is where I have lived in the past.”
That should change, he says, and would bring more people together. “Bringing the jazz scene to these types of communities could be a good start since the upbeat rhythms and freestyle in jazz can be more relatable to the youth and enjoyable for the adults, too.”
“Right now, I don’t think that we can say that jazz can be heard all over the place in Philly like it is in New Orleans,” he says. “I personally believe that that could be because sometimes there is the perception that jazz is for the elite, like classical and opera music seem to be. These genres seem to be more associated with the older, sophisticated, well-educated, and well-off class of people. The CORE [Cooperative] can help to remove that stereotype by increasing the number of professional Jazz musicians in the city to help put jazz on every street corner and in regular takeout and dine-in restaurants in Philly so that everyday people of every race, age, and economic background can enjoy it live.”
When he needs inspiration, it’s close to home. “I listen to encouragement from my parents,” he says. “I’ll look at stories about other artists who struggled in their humble beginnings and never gave up. I have to remind myself to be patient and always to try to keep the end goal in mind.”
Follow him on Instagram at @kdawg180
Jazz Philadelphia is proud to have Kenny Rosario-Pugh in the inaugural cohort of the CORE Cooperative, an entrepreneurship, leadership, and wellness program for jazz artists and advocates. For more information, visit Jazz Philadelphia.
“If I can meet and work with diverse professionals in the music industry who can mentor me, I’ll feel more confident about making a real living doing what I love.”