Master Kenny Kirkland Aka Doctone

Master Kenny Kirkland Aka Doctone – jazz pianist

Sharon Fitzgerald

We may never now if pianist Kenny Kirkland thought of himself as a master. Among jazz musicians, the title is bestowed reverentially, and (unlike ambassadorships or the royal nod) it is assigned by one’s peers and others close to the music. Probably, Kirkland desired only to wait his turn: to make the rounds of smoke-filled jazz clubs and concert stages for a dozen more light-years, until his wizardry had become old hat to others.

During his lifetime, Kirkland avoided the limelight. Instead, we who live to be mesmerized sought him–onstage, backstage, on liner notes, with Branford, with Wynton, with Sting. In the everyday world, we waited for him to show or call and were thrilled when he did as well as when he conveyed his love through a mutual friend. And when he died suddenly last fall at age 44, we shivered outside the funeral home, enveloped by a cold and silent night, praying for one blessed note from a divine keyboard.

Requiem (Sony Music, 1999), the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s first recording in nearly 10 years, is dedicated to Kirkland, who was the group’s pianist, and to several other beloved musicians. The project was begun last October, one month before Kirkland’s death. In December, when the band’s surviving members returned to the studio to complete the work, they realized that it could go no further. “This was Kenny’s last recording, and there was no way to fix it,” explains Marsalis in the liner notes.

The tributes to Kirkland–which should have been decades away–would now begin during what should have been his prime. Sting, with whom Kirkland began recording and performing in 1985, plans to create his next project in Kirkland’s memory. In June, the JVC Jazz Festival held a benefit concert honoring Kirkland; it was the first time the series had dedicated a night of its kind to the life and work of a single artist.

“For some people who are granted the gifts of a genius, the important pursuit is having their abilities acknowledged,” says Kirkland’s longtime friend, guitarist Rodney Jones. “But Kenny Kirkland possessed a quality that was transcendent: the willingness to take his genius and to share it with others.”

Although Kirkland recorded only one CD of his own–Kenny Kirkland (GRP Records, 1991)–both that genius and that generosity were well-known to those creating or following the music. Many of the established cats would have killed to have Kirkland on their bandstand. Jazz novices viewed him with awe. At the onset of a recording session, classical diva Kathleen Battle deferred to his judgment. Loyalists who in fact preferred Nightline spent their first late-night-television viewing minutes watching Kirkland play with Marsalis in the Tonight Show band, hoping that this mainstream gig would for once not cramp his style.

Everything for which he was treasured is connected somehow by two simple words: his touch. As a friend, he was caring, funny, moody, compassionate. At the keyboard, his quiet demeanor, average height and stocky frame underwent a transformation and he became an astonishment–a giant.

“Doctone,” the opening cut of Requiem, bears Kirkland’s nickname and is a tasty, representative treat. A composition written several years ago by Marsalis, it showcases the daring, otherworldly instinct for chord progression and harmony that distinguish Kirkland’s playing from that of other performers who presume to be complicated. Even at the highest registers there is depth. He teases, he trickles, he trucks. There are galaxies at his fingertips. He soars because he knows how to fly.

“He always found the hippest thing to play,” says Eric Revis, the bass player in the quartet. “When he would come up with something, you always had the feeling that that was what was supposed to happen. It seemed like it was just always musically correct, and this happened nightly. I never heard him have a bad night, or even a night that was less than what would be considered stellar.”

Kirkland, who was born and raised in the universe of New York City, began playing piano at age 6. When he entered the Manhattan School of Music, his intention (and the expectation of his Puerto Rican mother and African-American father) was that he would pursue a career in classical music. But one day his world began to revolve around jazz.

“I met this guy the other day on the street who was at Manhattan School with Kenny,” Revis says, “and he remembered when Kenny made the switch to jazz. He told me that Kenny would study so diligently that he’d go home over the weekend and come back having learned five solos of great jazz artists.

“Along with his enormous talent, he was just really well-studied. He could answer any question that you had, especially about harmony. Most people have to stop and think about it, but with Kenny it was always, ‘Oh, you can play this over that’–instantly. I don’t think that he had any hang-ups concerning music. There was nothing that slowed him down.”

Before he actually stepped onto the scene, word was that there was a young lion laired uptown. After graduating from the Manhattan School, Kirkland toured nonstop–with Michal Urbaniak, Miroslav Vitous, Don Alias, Terumasa Hino, Elvin Jones. His flavorful versatility never ceased to amaze. He threw down, no matter if the performance called for standards, Latin or avant-garde.

When Kirkland and Branford Marsalis began playing with Sting, the buzz was nearly deafening. Rock and roll, however, was not entirely alien territory. “Consider the level of musicianship we’re talking about when we talk about Kenny Kirkland,” says Marsalis. “It was not excessively brave for him to play with Sting’s band, because he could. And he knew he could.

“It wasn’t like, `Oh, I’m this jazz musician and I don’t know if I can play this kind of music.’ He grew up listening to that kind of music, and he not only played the music, he enhanced the music with his presence.”

Says Sting: “Having Kenny in the band exposed me to a level of harmonic knowledge that I wouldn’t have come upon by chance. He is from a lineage that had worked at the outer reaches of musical knowledge, which had a profound effect on me, because I realized how limited I was as a musician, and that in order to have a dialogue with people of this level, I would have to learn that language, too.

“In many ways, Kenny raised the bar. Just to be able to communicate and to challenge his abilities, I had to try and get up there, too. Musicians won’t play with you if they’re bored by what you do.”

Bass player Tracy Wormworth was a newcomer when she first met Kirkland and asked to sit in: “I guess I had a lot of nerve, going up in his face and trying to play with him, but he was so cool and so unaffected and so appreciative of other people who had a passion for music. It was no thing.

“Musicians like Don Alias would be there. I remember Mike Brecker was there. It took me years to know what giants a lot of these people were, musically speaking, but it was because there were no airs. Kenny really set that tone. As bad as he was, he never looked down on anyone from a lofty place. As long as you had the passion for it, he would lend you his time and energy. True masters don’t approach life from an egocentric place, and he was definitely like that.”

When discussing and describing Kirkland, Branford Marsalis still speaks sometimes in the present tense. He does not notice it; others do not comment. The adjustment is understandable, of course, but the unfathomable quality of this tragedy makes it seem more telling. “A thoroughly modern musician,” Marsalis declares. “And there are not many of them around. Kenny plays the music, and it sounds modern.

“There’s a lot of music out there that sounds hard, and guys have deliberately tried to make it hard. But for me, the best hard music is that which grows into difficulty from a very simple point of view. You hear guys say, `Oh, I grew up listening to Bartok,’ and, `I grew up listening to Stravinsky.’ Well, that sounds romantic, but I think it’s much hipper when you have a guy like Kenny Kirkland, who grew up listening to James Brown, listening to Aretha Franklin.

“Like Mozart: Mozart listened to the same stuff that all his contemporaries listened to. He just heard something different in it. That’s the testimony of a genius–not that from the time he was 3, he found some extra-ordinary music that nobody had ever heard before.

“Kenny arrived at some stuff. His music at the end is a point of arrival. It’s a point of arrival–not necessarily a point of departure.”

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Visions Media, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group