When Kirk Lightsey walked into Harlem's St. Mark's United Methodist Church in May, to attend funeral services for his friend John Hicks, it was the first time that most of the considerable cross section of the New York jazz community there had seen the once ubiquitous pianist in more than a dozen years. A native of Detroit, Lightsey had studied piano with Johnson Flanagan (the brother of Tommy) as a youth and attended Cass Technical Institute, where he played clarinet in the school orchestra with Ron Carter and was introduced to jazz by Paul Chambers and Hugh Lawson. His first jobs of note were with Yusef Lateef and Melba Liston. He also worked with Ernestine Anderson, one of the many vocalists who would call upon him for his talents as an accompanist. He finally arrived in New York in the mid '60s after stints in the US Army band at Fort Knox and as a staff pianist with Motown Records.
"I couldn't wait to get out of Detroit and get to New York, Lightsey says emphatically. The pianist was working with singer Damita Jo in the city when their regular drummer fell off the stage and broke his neck. "After that we had to use different drummers. During this period I called Roy Brooks to work in Atlantic City and Roy told me that I had been chosen to do this recording with Chet Baker and George Coleman. The marathon sessions for Prestige yielded five records (including Boppin' and Burnin' with the Chet Baker Quintet). "Every day for a week we were playing the shows in Atlantic City and then sleeping for three hours, catching a bus and coming to New York and doing the records, he laughs. "After we had done the music for these five records - it was tons of music - with the same trio we did two more records with Sonny Stitt and Bennie Green. And that kind of started my whole career playing jazz, especially recording. Those records were the first that got me off the ground .
Maintaining a residence in New York, Lightsey moved to California in 1969, working regularly with soul singer O.C. Smith. It was while touring with Smith that the pianist met Dexter Gordon. "We were there doing this TV show in Stockholm and the producers took us by where Dexter was playing. Dexter wasn't happy with the pianist, so he had told him to stroll for the night. So when we walked in they rushed me right up to the stage. And that's when I first met Dexter. Dexter remembered me from there and [years later] while I was in LA, Rufus [Reid], Eddie Gladden and [George] Cables and Dexter came to the Concerts by the Sea and I went there to hear them and that's when they decided that I was going to follow Cables on the gig because Cables had decided to leave. So that's when I came back to New York.
Working with Gordon increased Lightsey's profile and he finally recorded his first disc as a leader, Lightsey 1, for Sunnyside in 1982 at the age of 45. The fruitful relationship with the label yielded a half dozen more sessions, including the recently released The Nights of Bradley's. Lightsey was a mainstay at the legendary club, working there regularly for a decade while he was also recording frequently with the likes of Ricky Ford, Sonny Fortune, Clifford Jordan and James Moody, as well as with the allstar group The Leaders. Then without warning he moved to Paris.
"It was time, he says. "The government, Rodney King, just put me out of line and I had had a problem with the Transit Authority. The club owners were dying and things were changing in the business in New York and it just wasn't the same feeling. He finally collected from a lawsuit against the MTA and soon he saw the opportunity for a change. "For a year I was back and forth, but then it just became too expensive and too involved, so we just decided to move on out. He worked in Paris at the New Morning and the Duc des Lumbards and in the city's suburbs in an educational program, Banlieue Blues, with singer Joe Lee Wilson. And he continued to tour Europe with The Leaders, the Paris Reunion Band and Roots. These days he works most often with his own trio, using different bassists and drummers in France, Great Britain, Italy and Germany.
This June Lightsey performed his first engagement in New York since moving. The four nights at Jazz Standard with a quartet featuring vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Billy Kilson were exciting ones. One night after performing three sets there he showed up at Sweet Rhythm for a John Hicks memorial and played an early morning "Bradley's set 'til dawn. "Being in New York for that time made me realize why I had to leave. When I did my stress level came down - considerably - and now it's way down. I enjoy it being down like that, but I do intend to visit New York more often. He'll be back Aug. 5th to perform a solo piano tribute to Hicks at Caramoor Jazz Festival. Hopefully it will be just one of many happy returns.