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DOCTONE: An oral history of legendary pianist Kenny Kirkland (1955-1998)


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In chapter 2 of my book Doctone, I interviewed drummer Billy Hart and we discussed his interaction with Kenny Kirkland as he emerged in the 1970's fusion scene, his unique personality, the "Kirklandese" language and Kenny's legacy as one of the great pianists and composers in this music

Noah Haidu: What were your first impressions of Kenny?

Billy Hart: I don't remember the exact first time I met him. Because of our age difference, I saw him as a young musician coming up on the scene. He was always a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Sometimes when you'd hear him laugh, it was surprising he could be that open, that outward.

NH: Did you think he was introverted?

BH: Yeah, sometimes he was quiet and introverted, but then he would laugh and be the head of the party for a minute. He was innovative, and some people, myself included, compare him to Lester Young, because he had his own vocabulary, he would make up words for certain situations.

NH: Verbal vocabulary?

BH: Yeah, to this day, some people still use his vocabulary when speaking about things. I'm sure if you talk to Jeff Tain Watts, he would. Do you know Adam Nussbaum, the drummer? He would. I know they got that way of speaking from Kenny Kirkland. So, if they got it, many other people got it. He was that kind of guy. A sort of happy go-lucky genius.

NH: Was he already going by the nickname Doctone?

BH: No, because this was way before Wynton Marsalis and all of that, and if that kind of name came up, that's the kind of thing he would have thought of or said. He liked parties, and he was happy around partying. That's how I thought of him.

As we started to interact in more projects, I got closer to him because I began to love his playing so much. Kenny Kirkland is one of my all-time favorite pianists. Every now and then I would try to analyze what it was about his playing that I liked so much, and I think part of it was that his mom was Puerto Rican, and he was so aware of that culture. He hung out with a lot of Latin guys like Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, and he was so familiar with that music in a way that you can't get from studying. It was part of him.

NH: You recorded Kenny's composition "Chance" on your album Oshumare. Why that tune, and what was it like to record?

BH: Well, Steve Coleman wrote a tune, Dave Holland wrote a tune. I asked Kenny to write a tune because I liked his concept of music, but he didn't even write "Chance" until it was time to record. He had written another tune that I really liked, and I thought he'd give me that one, but then he said, "I have another one." I said, "Okay, let me hear it."

NH: He was still working on the tune at the recording session?

BH: Yeah, everybody went out for lunch, and he finished writing and notating it then.

NH: You and Kenny played with lots of different groups, acoustic, electric, avant-garde. Can you talk about the different contexts where you either heard Kenny or played with him?

BH: His age group at that time was producing more pop-oriented musicians, so that's the way I thought of him. That's when pop music became more prevalent in the studios. Like the fusion music. He grew up in that era, the Brecker Brothers and Spyro Gyra and Buddy Williams. He played with the kind of guys that were considered innovators in a new kind of music, and that had a lot to do with the actual recording of that music. You had to have expertise with recording, you had to know about electronics, you had to know about acoustics, just because of the nature of that music.

NH: Speaking of the electronic and fusion movement, Kenny basically got into jazz through fusion and particularly Herbie Hancock's music.

BH: That's what he told me.

NH: Would you say there's a connection between Herbie's music and Kenny's?

BH: That's the way I feel about it.

NH: You were a part of Herbie's transition into electronic music, as well.

BH: Herbie Hancock, by the time I met him, had already composed a hit melody called "Watermelon Man." It was Donald Byrd who took Herbie Hancock to play with Mongo Santamaria, which was one of the very top Afro-Caribbean bands in New York at the time. That Latin influence made Herbie a star in his own right. I'm sure that's one of the reasons Kenny could relate to him.

Another thing about Kenny, I was interested in his playing because of his knowledge of what we were calling avant-garde music at the time. His way of looking at it came from an understanding of European classical. Berg, Webern, Stockhausen, Messiaen—he was very familiar with those, and so was Herbie.

I would ask Kenny, "Man, how did you get that, coming from your upbringing?" He said, "My mother pushed me in that direction, and after a while, I started liking it." That's another thing that connects him and Herbie Hancock, they both have this blues element, but also this uncommon knowledge of contemporary European classical music. Not Bach and Beethoven and so on, but contemporary. I found that very interesting. Very inspiring.

NH: What was it like to interact with Kenny socially?

BH: He was a guy who'd stay up late. He'd be up at four or five o'clock in the morning, hanging out and playing, what young men do. He was attractive, an exciting young guy. He partied a lot, and that made him one of the boys. It almost got to the point where we'd wonder how he got to be such a great pianist. Seemed like with that kind of talent he would have been spending all his time practicing instead of hanging out at clubs, not just the jazz clubs but the Latin clubs.

I assume he must have been going to some kind of symphony concerts, also. Yeah, he was a bon vivant kind of guy, the kind of guy people wanted to hang out with. I didn't hang out with him so much, because I was older, but we would run into each other.

NH: Why do you think people like Wynton Marsalis, Charles Fambrough, Miroslav Vitous, Jeff Watts and yourself are recording Kenny's compositions?

BH: Because his musicianship and his compositional concepts were extraordinary, not unlike McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, or Herbie Hancock. This man, if he could have lived longer, would have gained that kind of status. He was a brilliant, brilliant composer. I saw a movie with Sting in it not too long ago, and there was some rhapsodic music being played, and I remember thinking, boy, that's beautiful. I had to wait until the whole movie was over to see who the composer of the music was. It was Kenny.

NH: I'm hoping this project will bring greater appreciation for Kenny's compositions. He's not generally talked about as one of the great composers.

BH: He should be. I really enjoy your appreciation of him, because I appreciate him just as much. It's nice to find somebody else like that.

NH: Talking to you about him makes him feel closer. When I studied Kenny and learned about his life, I felt like I wanted to be around him. I want to keep it going, keep learning his tunes and studying his playing. But I didn't know him. I missed his whole generation. Branford told me there would be players hanging out, and Kenny would encourage them so much that even if they weren't such great players, by the time Kenny got done building them up, they were ready to jump on the bandstand with Branford and start sitting in. Branford was like, "No way, you're not going to sit in with the band! Kenny, what are you telling all these guys?" Kenny thought it was funny.

BH: The thing that came across about Kenny—he was a nice guy, a really nice, sweet guy. I'm just remembering another time I saw him towards the end. I remember saying, "Kenny, I'm really getting old." He said, "I can't wait until I get to be your age. I want to see what's happening when I'm your age." I said, "Oh man, come on," but he said, "No, I'm really serious."

I can still see Kenny's smile. I never saw him when he wasn't smiling. I never saw him unhappy. I've talked to Jeff Watts about him, of course. Jeff and I talk about his ability to

swing, to get that swinging emotion. Because you don't say swing when you talk about straight-eighth pop music, but it's the same emotion.

NH: What was your reaction when you heard about Kenny's passing?

BH: I was in a recording studio. Besides being shocked, I was hurt, because outside of Herbie Hancock, Kenny was the man for me. If I was going to have a band of my own, he would have been my pianist.

I was hurt, disappointed, and shocked. I loved him as a friend. There was a gathering, not a wake because I went to that, also. This was just some people getting together to talk about him. He meant a lot to a lot of people.

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