On December 30, 2020, pianist Frank Kimbrough
passed away at the age of 64. True to form, 2020 wreaked havoc until the end.
The cause of death was not Covid-19, but the shock at the untimely loss of a revered artist was not any less powerful. Frank Kimbrough had the rare gift of touching lives with much more than his remarkable music.
In order to pay tribute to his legacy, we have collected remembrances, anecdotes and reflections from many of his closest collaborators, students and friends, who, at our request, have also selected music that in their heart immediately evokes memories of Frank Kimbrough [listen to this Mixtape's Part 1
and Part 2
From time to time, Kimbrough would lock himself in a room and play the same composition for hours on end, revealing new angles and aspects at each play. Reading through these many touching tributes one has the same contrasting feelings of both consistency and surprise, as these tributes unanimously describe a man whose true work of art was life itself, while adding individual view points on Kimbrough's legacy. Music was central to this legacy, but music was just a manifestation of Frank's true nature, affable and unfazed, focused but not dogmatic, resolute in his search for beauty even when the circumstances threw him a curveball. With Frank Kimbrough, what you saw, and heard, is what you got.
Living a life like his in these times is perhaps the highest form of counter-culture. In a world that seems to have forgotten what authenticity means, you cannot fake being a Frank Kimbrough. Maybe that explains his disdain for the current state of affairs and why the jazz world gave him much needed respite, or at least that part of the jazz world where faking is not cool.
For his fans, the sudden loss comes with the realization that even though he had been around for a few decades, musically the fun was just beginning and great albums, projects and concerts were certainly in store. For those who were closer to him, his passing took away much more, as the tributes below detail.
He left as he liked to play, without rehearsal, taking a walk from the "now" that he constantly inhabited to the "forever" which will continue to live through his recordings, life lessons imparted to his adoring students, and many stories about him that had already entered in the jazz mythology whose legendary tales he so fondly shared with students, friends and colleagues.
I can picture him up there, with his signature grin, as I'm pretty sure that the irony of this now-to-forever metamorphosis is not lost on such an "in-the-now" musician like him.
The article includes tributes, organized in alphabetical order, by: Carl Allen
; Ben Allison
; Jay Anderson
; Matt Balitsaris
; Jeff Ballard
; Dave Ballou
; Michael Blake
; Ron Brendle
; Katie Bull
; Steve Cardenas
; Patrick Cornelius
; Jeff Cosgrove
; Billy Drummond
; Tim Horner
; Evan Harris
; Jeff Hirshfield
; Ron Horton
; Maitland Jones
; Jimmy Katz
; Landon Knoblock
; Kirk Knuffke
; Elan Mehler
; Jimmy McBride
; Jason Moran
; Riley Mulherkar
; Matt Munisteri
; Ted Nash
; Noah Preminger
; Rufus Reid
; Scott Robinson
; Ben Rosenblum
; Luca Santaniello
; Maria Schneider
; Kendra Shank
; Mark Sherman
; Satoshi Takeishi
; Micah Thomas
; Ryan Truesdell
; Immanuel Wilkins
; Matt Wilson
; Steve Wilson
; Christopher Ziemba
; and Andy Zimmerman
I first heard Frank more than 20 years ago. He was playing at Visiones in New York City with Maria Schneider. There was something about his playing that touched me because it seemed pure. Pure as in coming from an honest place. Even though I didn't know him at the time, I felt that his playing was a reflection of his personality. Once I got a chance to meet him some years later I realized that in fact was the case.
When I became the Artistic Director of Jazz Studies at The Juilliard School in 2008, one of the things that I wanted to do was to create an identity of our own. One that was different from what had existed since the program began in 2001 (which is when I joined the faculty).
Frank immediately came to mind, as I felt that he would bring warmth and compassion for students and the music. That was very much needed, so I hired him and this is exactly what he brought with him. His love for Herbie Nichols
, Paul Motian
and others added a different dimension to our offerings for the students.
Frank was a "different breed." That's something which I teased him about all the time. He didn't have a cell phone and it bothered him that people "seemed to be addicted to them" as he would say. Whenever we would send him out to Japan to do workshops and masterclasses with students from the States, everyone would comment on how caring of a person he was. He cared deeply about the students. He would often take students out for coffee or a meal to just check on them. We would often go for a meal or cigar and have the most enriching conversations about music and life. Mostly about the warmth and character of people and of jazz music.
The jazz scene will be changed forever as there is a hole in our collective soul now that Frank Kimbrough has departed. I will miss him and so will many others.
It's difficult to put into words what Frank Kimbrough meant to me. When we first met in 1990, I was new to the scene and struggling to connect with other musicians. Introduced to each other by a drummer whom we each barely knew, we hit it off immediately, both socially and musically. This began a period of music-making and friendship that stretched over three decades.
In the early years, we played duo gigs around town (often at a restaurant in New York City's theater district called Sophia's), where we worked out hundreds of tunes by artists such as Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk
, Andrew Hill
, Carla Bley
, Annette Peacock
, and Hampton Hawes
. We also brought in our own tunes to try out.
At that time, I was teaching guitar lessons to children at a music school in the East Village. Frank and I regularly got together there with other musicians to work on new music. Anyone was welcome, as long as they brought in something new to play. Out of these early sessions, the idea for forming the Jazz Composers Collective, our non-profit presenting and commissioning organization that ran from 1992 to 2005, began to take shape.
When I first pitched the idea to Frank of formalizing our sessions into something more structured, his initial response was, "I'm not really a joiner." He was fiercely independent by naturea free thinker who was not a fan of anything that even remotely smacked of "institutionalism." But as we got the Collective up and running, presenting concerts, publishing our newsletter, workshopping and premiering new works, and building a community around original music, Frank turned out to be most engaged and committed. He had zero tolerance for bullshit, but he recognized the benefits of organizing if it was done right. This is one of the things I loved about him. Once he was in, he was in. His long-running affiliations with The Maria Schneider
Big Band and The Juilliard School reflect a similar, deep commitment.
Frank had a demeanor at times that might be described by someone who didn't know him as gruff. But underneath, Frank was one of the most giving musicians I've ever known. It's hard to explain to people who don't play improvised music what it means to play with a giving musician. Improvising music is very much like having a conversation. It always feels good when the person you're speaking with is listening to you and is hearing what you're saying. They can show they are doing this by acknowledging you with simple nods or feedback. It's even more meaningful when they take in what you said, consider it, and respond with a new thought that's a product of your ideas and theirs. This sets up a deeper kind of conversation, where beliefs and opinions are shaped, and minds are changed. It leads to an understanding that transcends words. This happened thousands of times over the many years that we played togethermultiple moments of in depth communication. I know many musicians who enjoyed a similar experience playing with Frank.
This was true off the bandstand as well. If you were friends with Frank, you probably experienced "the hang." Hangs with Frank were some of the best and most memorable moments. The "newsletter folding sessions" with him and members of the Collective (we folded, addressed, and stamped our newsletters by hand back then) are some of my favorite memories.
The countless tours and adventures on the road. The long flights and train rides (Frank always with his New York Times crosswords). The stages, clubs, and halls (with Frank usually complaining about the piano). The food (including our regular Kimchi ramen hang). The laughter and inside jokes. The many recording sessions. When my wife and I married, Frank was our witnessit was just the three of us at City Hall that day.
As I'm thinking of all of this now, even in my profound sadness, I also feel great joy that I got to know him. I would not be the musician or person I am today without having met, shared a friendship, and created music with Frank Kimbrough. My thoughts are with his wife Maryanne, his family, his students, and the many musicians who played with him.
I loved Frank like a brother and there's a piece of my heart that's missing now. I'll carry the memories of our friendship and musical collaborations with me the rest of my life.
I have so many dear memories of Frank, it is hard to know where to start.
We met playing random gigs around New York City 30 years ago. Frank was a friend, and huge fan of Paul Bley
. In the early '90s, I had the good fortune to play on five recordings with Paul. Paul invited Frank to the sessions. Frank and I bonded over our mutual admiration and curiosity for Paul and his music.
I rejoined Maria Schneider's Orchestra in 2004. I had played on her first recording 10 years earlier. In the meantime Frank had become her pianist of choice. He brought so much to Maria's music. When I came back, we embarked on what would become a close personal and musical relationship. On the road we would always hang out together... Breakfast at the hotel, a long walk discovering a city, the music, the hang after the gig, the hang after the hang. So many discussions about the gig, the music we shared or discovered together, politics, passing the music on to younger people... Anything and everything. Our discussions about the music were never about the mechanics of it, but rather the history, impact and feeling of it.
I can't think of many people I enjoyed playing with anymore than Frank. Like many of the people he admired (Paul Bley, Charlie Haden
, Herbie Nichols, Paul Motian, Andrew Hill, to name a few) Frank had a certain amount of musical mystery, couched in his Southern way. As a sideman, he was always prepared. But as a bandleader, he required no preparation of his side-people. When we had a gig or recording session I'd ask if there was anything I should have a look at or think about. His response was always "nah... you'll be cool." We did a live recording at the Kitano in 2012. He literally passed me the music to each tune, and then started playing. Andrew Hill, Duke Ellington
, Paul Motian, Annette Peacock, Thelonious Monk, originals, Standards... anything. In two nights, we played 34 tunes and only repeated one. The set music always respected the traditions of Jazz while looking forward. Most importantly, playing and being in the moment. In the studio, there was rarely a second take.
Frank wasn't much of a practicer. It always amazed me. Bass is a very physical instrument so a certain amount of maintenance (callouses, tendons, etc.) is necessary. Frank was creative at the drop of a hat with seemingly no preparation... physically or mentally.
Frank was one of a kind personally and musically. The first one to the gig and the last one to leave. He loved being with the people of Jazz... the staff of a club, audience members, the musicians, critics that happened to be there. He treated everyone the same.
I'm honored to have shared time here with Frank Kimbrough. It's a gift I will always treasure.
Frank Kimbrough was what a musician should aspire to be, but very few are. He played without ego, in service of whatever the music and the situation asked of him. A number of the first records I made with him had unusual instrumentations. Ben Allison
's Medicine Wheel
, and Peace Pipe
bands come to mind. Another pianist might have struggled to find where his space was in those unusual textures. Frank was always in the right place, right on time. Once I sketched the mixes in, I never had to change where the piano sat in those mixes. It was already where it needed to be. I think it was that trait which made him an essential component in Maria Schneider's Orchestra.
We are the same age, both come from the South, and both came to New York about the same time. Long before I met him, I had a gig playing guitar at a restaurant on MacDougal Street, around the corner from the Village Corner, where Frank played solo for many years. We had so much in common, it felt like we began our friendship as old friends. But then, I think a lot of people felt that way!
We made a lot of records together. Four of his trio records (two that I produced, and two that Jimmy Katz recorded and which I mixed), many of Ben Allison's, at least three of Ted Nash
's, one with Noah Preminger
, The Jazz Composers Collective's Herbie Nichols Project, and the epic Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk
, a six-CD box set that was recorded in six days (with Frank, Scott Robinson
, Rufus Reid
, and Billy Drummond
) and which included every known Thelonious Monk composition. I know there are others that I'm forgetting.
We also made a solo piano record, Air
, which to me, most closely captures how I think of Franks' playing. I'd just had some work done on the piano (thank you, Chris Solliday!) and I wanted to record it, with the lid removed, and experiment with different mics, and get to know the "new" instrument. I asked Frank to come out, and to experiment with textures, and to play as much as possible exploring the full range of the instrument. We weren't really thinking of making a record at the time. We were just messing around. We had a great day, I learned a lot, and neither of us listened to that recording for a couple of years! When I finally opened those files again I was floored! I got Frank to listen, we agreed to do another date, to add a couple of textures and vibes that weren't on the original date. And that became the record.
It is the sound of the inside of Frank's head. Every note is in service to the composition. There is no artifice, no bullshit. Frank never played anything to show you how hard he'd been practicing, as he never practiced (no, really!). And that was who Frank was. No bullshit. Honest, complex but never overwrought. Nothing for show; filled with integrity.
Nate Chinen wrote a beautiful obituary for Frank, which included the following quote, which I include here, because it is to me the lesson that Frank lived in his music, and which every musician could benefit from: "This is something that I tell all my students: the composition is a gift from the composer, for how you're going to improvise on this tune," he explained. "It gives you information. It gives you motive. It gives you intervals. It gives you rhythms. It gives you all sorts of things to deal with. And if you just throw all that out the window with the first chorus of your soloto just play a bunch of patterns you've figured out in a book, or something that's going to get applausethen I think you're doing a disservice to the tune and to its composer."
That's my friend Frank, right there.
One of the first people I started playing with when I got to New York was Frank Kimbrough. Over those first few years he, Ben Allison, and I would meet once a week and play at a school where Ben was teaching. What we played was normally whatever came to mind. No real tunes per se. Just open playing. Maybe an Ornette tune or Paul Bley or an original of ours, but mostly we played whatever came to mind at the moment. The connection between us was easy and flowing.
I wasn't gigging that much. Not enough to pay rent. So I was working as a bike messenger. At lunch time deliveries were slow so every once in a while I would be able to sneak in an hour or so to go and play with Frank and Ben.
One of those days I was really re-thinking about my being in New York. I had arrived after having played a lot back home, having been able to make a living at it playing good music with very good players. I had toured with Ray Charles
for three years just before getting to New York, so to be grinding it out on the city streets riding a bike delivering photos of models or legal papers up and down the rock Monday through Friday 85, (as cool and adventurous as it could be at times) was absolutely not what I wanted to be doing. On that day, I was really thinking about going back to California. That day I was in a very foul mood. Tired and angry about it all. Ready to switch something up. And that day I had scheduled an hour to go play with Frank and Ben.
I showed up at the school with the bike on my shoulder, a grimy face, black grit under the fingernails (new york traffic dirt) and very a pissed off mood. The guys were there already. I walked in without saying a word. They didn't say anything. I went and threw the bike in the corner, pulled out the sticks from my bag, sat down at the drums and whacked the snare drum very hard, with all of that foul mood and frustration behind it. And then Frank just started to play. And we played.
I don't know how long it was but there came a moment of realization that I knew that what I was doing here, what I was doing right then and there with these guys, was unquestionably worth all of the other crappy stuff I was going through. It was a clear and easy decision to stay and deal after that.
Frank to me embodied that sort of frame of mind. Playing for the sake of playing, for the sake of whatever playing means to each of us. Nothing complicated. It was more important than anything else. We did what we had to to be able to play.
He never compromised this attitude. Never halfway went in. He played his heart and soul for the music as he heard it each and every time.
I will miss him. I'm so thankful to have gotten to know him and share playing with him.
Thank you Frank.
The longer one lives, the more musicians one intersects with. These relationships, forged in the creative act of music making, can be quite intimate, however, it is easy to fall out of contact with as our creative lives evolve.
I was fortunate to be in Frank Kimbrough's orbit for a time in the late '90s. We both played and toured with Maria Schneider; I subbed for Ron Horton in the Herbie Nichols Project; and Frank is a part of my SteepleChase recording Regards
. We talked about music, life and watches (he had a wonderful wrist watch!). His generosity and honesty was refreshing and constant.
As the years went by, we saw each other less, but each time we picked up as if we had only a brief interruption rather than a multi-year break. I'll always remember Frank for his patience, both musically and personally. Musically, he could really stick with the vibe and selflessly serve the unfolding of the music. Never hurried but listening, sometimes waiting. Personally, Frank knew how to listen and when he had something to say, I always learned something.
Perhaps listening is the thing I will remember the most about Frank. He knew how to listen not only to the music but to life itself.
Our community will really miss Frank Kimbrough. My thoughts are with his partner Maryanne and his entire family. Those of us who knew him are grieving and those that knew him through his music are hurting. As sad as this has made us, I don't think Frank would have wanted that. I'm sure he would prefer that we play or listen to some music. For me it was the intro to a song called "Lady Red" from an old album of mine, Drift
Just a few weeks ago Frank emailed me about his Julliard class. He was playing Drift
for his students and told me how much they dug it. I was very flattered by this. In the last years he'd just light up when talking about his students.
When I started to play with him my first thoughts were, "this is a real jazz musician." Plain and simple it was just so obvious that he was in it way deep.
I feel so fortunate that I was able to spend time with Frank. Not only on stage, in the studio and on tour but also just hanging out. Whether assembling newsletters for the Jazz Composers Collective or killing time on tour, he was always a great conversationalist and story teller. I don't know of many who liked being around musicians and talking about them as much as Frank. And it seemed he knew everyone and everyone loved him in return.
He was outspoken at times, mostly about politics. I recall he refused to cut his hair during the second Bush administration. He was repulsed by the current one so I feel some relief knowing he saw that this fool of a President was defeated last fall. Despite his contempt for repressive conservatism, I caught him recently working alongside a musician who didn't hold the same views. Frank didn't seem to care about that and left his politics at the coat check. The stage was an open space for music making. A place where all the outside bullshit didn't exist.
When we gathered to play Herbie Nichols music I'd constantly be struggling on one passage or another. Frank would be patiently waiting for the rest of us to get it together. He could just fall right back into the book, no hesitation or apparent rehearsal or extra effort required. I loved watching him deconstruct and reconstruct Nichols' complex tunes, adapting them to his method without abandoning the essence of the compositions.
Frank was on my ill-fated first tour of Europe, promoting my album Elevated
. Part of the tour was in Poland. On the first Polish gig he played on a decent upright piano, but he wasn't too happy about it. The second gig was cancelled, and the promoter wanted us to drive all day to play somewhere else. I asked for a band vote. All Frank asked was, "How's the piano?." We went through hell after that, including a tragic accident on the road. The gig was cancelled (again) while we all sat in a police station waiting to be released. Frank helped me deal with the shock. He was totally cool and collected through it all. In fact he was just looking forward to the next gig. I know many musicians have heard this story first hand from him. It's become one of those 'worst road stories ever' anecdotes that Frank could tell better than anyone.
Frank brought so much to my tunes. If I wanted a piano part 'like' Ellington or Jaki Byard
he would deliver it, but it always had his vibe. I loved his touch and aesthetics. He was a brilliant and deep pianist. He had abandoned acoustic electronic keyboards years ago. As he told it, after a set he walked out of a bar on Long Island and never looked back, leaving all his gear behind. Fortunately, he did play some Rhodes on Drift
and occasionally on gigs he'd play that or a Wurlitzer. But he was much more interested in 'pushing air' on an acoustic instrument. And the better the piano the happier he became.
One time in Italy the piano went out of tune during the set. Frank's playing became more animated and eventually he was going at it Don Pullen
-style, something you rarely saw Frank do. Bad pianos often brought the best out of him. We'd tell him so, but he'd just scoff and wave it off like an irritating bug.
Frank loved Paul Bley and one time encouraged me to go hear his trio at Birdland. This was many years ago and I was somewhat puzzled by the set. I really didn't get it at all. It was as if they hated playing music together. Afterwards Frank came up to my table and with that trademark smile and light drawl sayid, "That was the shit."
Right back at you, brother.
It's impossible to put into words the way that Frank affected my life. He is one of the most talented and dedicated musicians that I have ever known. I met him in 1975 and he has been my source of inspiration ever since. We learned a lot about jazz together and he turned me on to a world of music that I may have not have ever been aware of otherwise.
He has been my touchstone and brother-in-music for 45 years.
He played on four of my CDs over the years while also establishing his reputation as one of New York City's most notable pianists. The list of amazing musicians that he has played with is mind boggling.
Frank and I talked by phone every month or so. Always talking about new music that we'd listened to, politics, or just about life. I could fill a book with the stories he told me about his experiences gigging in New York and around the world.
Life will not be the same without him.
Many memories are flooding in... In ten years these memories will all be just as vivid as they are now... No Mistakes
"Mistakes? There are no "mistakes." There's what you choose to do, with whatever happens." Frank said this once when we were laughing after a gig about how wonderful the music was when we had failed to follow one section of the charted arrangement. "It came together as it fell apart." Music Theory
I can still see him arriving at my WaHi door in his coat with that scarf and smile. We were working on some of my charts. I asked him if I should increase my knowledge of theory to better notate all the dissonances that I wanted. My chords didn't fit into traditional notation. He just looked at me, paused and said: "better musicians crawl out from under rocks unencumbered by all that weight." That rock imagery... "You could be out there, in a desert, and crawl out from under a rock and have really fresh ideas." He said, "You're living the right waythrough your ears." He said the next generation needs to "get the pods out of their ears," and "listen to life. Music is everywhere, in the sound of everything." And he pointed to the space we were sitting in and said, ..." even in this air." Charts
During the recording sessions for my album Freak Miracle
at Systems Two in Brooklyn, we were talking about charts and I said that I didn't want my charts to be over-controlling and he knew exactly what I meant. "Good. Freedom is better. Let people be themselves." We talked about how charts were more like nautical maps or road maps; they suggest geographies but the players take the trip. He said "Charts are spatial, music is space." Grace Under Fire
We had a CD Release at Smiths Bar for the album Love Spook
and when we got there we were told the jazz room had closed but we could play anyway. They had even moved the piano out. Boom. Frank recommended renting a piano from Rockets; ..."we don't have to cancel." It all went down fast. The rented piano arrived. Meanwhile I ordered the band some corned beef from the bar. I went to the bathroom to put in my contact lenses and there was a drug raid with police pounding on the bathroom door. After the raid was done (they didn't arrest anyone), I took a deep breath and rejoined the band. "You okay?" he asked with sincere concern, and I just laughed. "Yep, at least we know it couldn't get any worse, right?" Then we got up and played such a great set! So free! Fun! At the end Matt Wilson reached up and turned off the Smith's Bar sign with a drum roll! Hah! Can you see it? (The Smith's manager said they were changing up their programming and bringing in Riverdance. He apologized for the mis-communication.) Frank came to me afterwards and said: "What you just did, now that was grace under fire." And he kept saying it over and over again... "grace under fire...." So, it occurred to me right there that he was the embodiment of grace under fire. I realized he valued grace under fire. And really he embodied the integrity of grace, under any circumstance. Fender
At a particular club they hadn't tuned the Fender. The club shall go unnamed but we love the place. He later told me he had spent the night constructing solos around these two particular notes that were flat and also sticking. I knew I heard something different that night. Hah! It's the only time I ever saw him really angry. I liked how he channeled his feelings.
When I joined Ben Allison's new band in 2005, I was aware of Ben's previous bands and the great musicians that played in them, Frank Kimbrough being one of those great musicians.
I didn't get to know Frank until a year or so of playing with Ben. When we finally did meet, we expressed an interest in playing together someday. Thankfully Ben made that happen, and on more than one occasion, Ben's Layers of the City
is among those times. I didn't have nearly as much history playing with Frank as many other musicians, but the few times we played together had a profound effect on me. He was one of the few pianists I've ever played with that made me forget I was playing with a pianist at all, but just a great musician who put the music first. On top of all of this he was such a wonderful person, straight forward with a wry sense of humor. My kind of guy.
Just a couple of years or so ago, Frank and I had the opportunity to contribute short interviews in film maker Michael Kelly's documentary of the great drummer, Paul Motian. We had each played with Paul and each had been big fans long before those playing opportunities arose. I mention this because of the drive up to Michael's place a little north of town, the hang and the drive back. That was the only chance I got to spend a significant amount of time alone with Frank outside of playing. I'll be forever grateful for that day as I now know exactly what Frank's oldest friends mean when they say he was the greatest hang. He made you feel like you'd been friends forever.
In every respect, Frank was genuine. He treated first year Juilliard students with the same kindness, respect, and regard as he did seasoned professionals. Like countless others, I know this from experience!
Yes, he was a brilliant and unique pianist. Yes, he was a thoroughly invested and nurturing educator. Yes, he had a thousand hilarious stories from a lifetime in the trenches. Most of all, though, he was cool and he was kind. To everyone. He was never arrogant or pretentious (though God knows he could have been, considering his body of work.) He never coddled, never condescended, and never blew anyone off, no matter how young or inexperienced. And he was generous with his time, knowledge, and spirit.
Despite his decades in New York, I like to think that his personality retained a healthy measure of Southernity. He had a slower-paced easy-goingness to him in everyday life that reminded me that the bustle and cynicism of "The Scene" only takes you over if you let it. Getting to know him over time reminded me that I still had a piece of that in me. It showed me that making that understanding the bigger part of how I view my music and music's place in my life would make me happier, and more at peace. As I move through life, this example resonates with me more and more.
Two maxims I learned from Frank at different times go together quite well, I think. When I was a student at Juilliard, he once told me in a rehearsal, "This tune isn't about your solo, man. Your solo should be about this tune." Years later, hanging after a gig at the hotel he told me "Be careful not to make your life about music. You'll be happier if you make your music about your life." These have been guiding principles for me ever since.
I'm grateful that I got to know him. I really wish we could get to see him again once this pandemic is over. The first hang would have been so great. We'll miss you, Frank.
I first met Frank in 2001 when I worked selling ads at JazzTimes magazine. I didn't know who Frank was, he was just on my list to call. He picked up the phone and we talked and talked and talked. We talked about records, especially Andrew Hill's Black Fire
, which I bought that same day after our conversation, and music and jazz education. From that first conversation, I was inspired by Frank Kimbrough.
I started to find Frank's records which contained some of my favorite musicians and I took notice of his compositions. He wrote great tunes. Whenever I wanted to play his tunes, he sent me the lead sheets. I've performed many of his compositions over the years and had long planned to do a recording of his music. He used to joke about it in his very dark sense of humor, he would say, "do it once I'm gone, maybe then someone will want to listen to it."
Frank went out on a limb for me many times, introducing and vouching for me with many musicians. He indirectly introduced me to Paul Motian and really encouraged me in completing my Motian Sickness
project. When I was looking for a bassist for that record he suggested John Hébert
. When I called John, he said Frank had already called him and he was in... I was floored that Frank would help me out in such a huge way and he had never heard me play! Frank's approval was all that many musicians needed to play with me. I would not be in the same place musically without him.
We only did one record together, Conversations with Owls
, and it is a highlight for me. The way that Frank and Martin Wind
created songs from thin air that were beautiful, fragile, jagged, and emotional, inspired me to such great lengths. Frank made everyone comfortable on that date. I was an inexperienced bandleader, we were playing with zero planning, and we had never played together. Frank helped pull it all together. We played a couple of nights later with Ed Schuller
and Noah Preminger, both of whom took the gig on Frank's recommendation.
I found myself laughing thinking about having a conversation with Frank in 10 years. Him talking about "cats getting squirrely once the beat gets wide," or why people need to have cell phones, or his very Frank political views. He was one of a kind and I will miss him very much.
Thank you Frank. Thank you for the music, the support, your sound, and your friendship.
Frank Kimbrough was a colleague both as a musician and educator. My last gig in New York City at Mezzrow as a leader included Frank as the pianist and of course he played brilliantly.
He was musically so open and could operate in many different situations and that's one of the things that made him so enjoyable to work with.
I'm very proud to have been asked to be a part of the Thelonious Monk Project that he led. Frank made a very challenging endeavor flow like water.
As as an educator, let me just say that the students absolutely adored him and he was very passionate about sharing all of his knowledge with them. We in the Jazz Community will miss him terribly.
My condolences to his wife Maryanne and his Family.
Frank became one of my long time close friends and musical partners after moving to New York City in 1980. We played sessions and gigs together, we traveled, we had record dates, we shared six years every Monday night performing at Visiones, in Greenwich Village, with Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra, we played in Ted Nash's many groups, The Jazz Composer's Collective... it was a large body of work together. We also knew each other in a certain way because we both grew up down South, Frankie in North Carolina (or as we would say "No Car") and me in the Southwest part of Virginia, probably three hours to where Frank was from.
Frank was one of the most "in the moment" musicians I have ever played with. He could and would always play the music that was flowing through him without pretension. It really hit me as we were on a tour with Maria Schneider and there were several non-playing days at the beginning of the tour. Everyone was practicing where they could except for Frank and myself as we had no piano or drums to get next to. By the time we hit our first concert, Frank didn't play as much, very reserved but the music, his playing was so intense. The next night there seemed to be more activity but it wasn't better or worse than the night before, it just sounded like Frank. The following night he built more as he was now playing three nights in a row and you could see the development, yet all three nights were so different, all great, all sounded like Frank Kimbrough.
I made note of this to him and he just said, "I'm making music with what I have, what I hear and what I own" and that he did day after day.
He lived his life that way as well.
I met Frank on the day of my audition at Juilliard five years ago and was taken aback by his warmth and youthfulness. He wore his heart on his sleeve.
That day we chatted about Sydney. He told me he loved a yum-cha restaurant near central station called the Golden Century and would often bring it up; he had some sort of life-changing dumpling there night after night. He also told me how, while on some sort of extended tour in Sydney, he ran Juilliard Jazz from an internet café next door to his hotel for a number of weeks. I didn't fully appreciate how funny this was at the time, since I hadn't learned that Frank never owned a cell phone, instead he preferred to exist "in the moment."
I was fortunate to take Frank's jazz piano class, and also studied with him one-to-one as a private student. I liken studying music with Frank to playing in a sand boxhe'd set you up with the tools you needed to build your own sand castle and explore your imagination through experience and trial-and-error, with thoughtful guidance that was never dogmatic.
Frank's class took place in what will always be known to me and my classmates as "Frank's room," on the end of the fifth floor at Juilliard, looking out over Broadway and Columbus Avenue. It was an idyllic room to begin with, and an incredible spot to learn from Frank. I used to get to class early and sit and listen to Frank working his way through Scriabin or playing through something he'd been "working on," meaning he'd been "thinking about it" while walking in Central Park or walking his dogs. There'd always be a blue cup of coffee from the food truck on 65th street in hand, and his messenger bag slung over the shoulder as he walked the corridors, always ready to chat. It was bliss listening to him demonstrate some musical concept or hearing one of his countless stories about the music.
Frank was a very tranquil person, someone who had come to terms with the world and his place in it. He was always gentle and treated everyone with the utmost humility. He had many earnest words of encouragement, but none more iconic than his "yeah man." Frank taught us more than how to play piano or music, he showed us how we could live our lives and he did so in leading by example.
He always kept in touch, even after school was done for the semester, or you'd graduated, and was always willing to lend a listening ear or offer his wisdom. My classmates and I had a semi-regular meal habit with Frank. He'd come around, we'd cook dinner and he'd relive stories or tell us which track to play through the speakers, and so his lessons were never confined to the classroom. He was always vibrant, with a quick wit, an infectious chuckle and would light up the room.
Frank became family, especially over the past however many months. It meant so much to get an email checking in, always signed "Best, FK," sometimes with a recipe or a Youtube link, a book suggestion or an article. Frank deserves a medal for going from no cell phone to Zoom wizard in just a month, earlier this year.
While Frank's passing comes as a great shock, I'm grateful that Frank continued to live in the moment, as he always had, until he left us.
I love you Frank, and you will be sorely missed.
Everyone's relationship with Frank was different, mine grew from our years playing together. The special thing about him was that he made everyone feel and think they were close to him, me included. It's difficult to put into words all of the memories, thoughts and feelings about my time with Frank, but like Frank would say, these are my thoughts in the moment:
- The music was always spontaneousin the moment.
- His agenda was to listen and have fun.
- Always relaxed, un-hurried.
- Always creating a mood for a vibe and a feeling to happen, it didn't matter what kind of song or style.
- Never felt contrived, never overly organized or arrangedin a good way.
- He was always cool about the musicI always felt I had his trust.
- He evoked empathy in the music and in his life as well.
- He made it so easy to be with him and the music.
- For all the sensitivity, things never felt precious.
- He didn't like pretentiousness and he was no bullshit about the music.
- His life reflected how he lived, his integrity, his depth and how he played and interacted with music.
- His concern and caring of people.
- Always felt like we were sharing the music, he never controlled it.
- Listening, spontaneity, integrity, mood, feel, empathy, trust, relax, passion.
- I'd ask "when's the record date?" ...he'd say, "Friday and Saturday, rehearsal is on Sunday."
I first heard about Frank while I was attending Berklee in Boston around 1979. A high school friend was living in Carrboro, North Carolina, and used to see him play with his Hands Trio at a local club there called the Cat's Cradle. A little while after that, my friend at Berklee, saxophonist Scott Robinson, told me that he had played some gigs in Washington D.C. with Frank, who had just moved there from North Carolina.
I am from Bethesda, Maryland, and had decided to take a semester off from school to live with my parents. Around September of 1980 I met drummer Rich Rosenzweig, who was playing in Frank's trio, who invited me to come by their apartment and play a session. We ended up playing, hanging out and listening to records together, almost daily, for the next year until they moved to New York. During that time, bassist Ed Howard
, guitarist Paul Bollenback
, drummer Steve Williams
and several others were all hanging out, too.
I would never have been bold enough to move to New York on my own, but when Frank and his trio moved to New York around September of 1981, I followed close behind, around three months later.
We all spent a few years scuffling, picking up gigs here and there, but always hanging out, listening to records, and playing gigs and sessions whenever we could. Around 1990, Frank told me that he had been playing some gigs and sessions with a young bassist named Ben Allison. I joined some of their sessions, learned some of their music, and around 1991, Ben's own group was taking shape. It included Frank, drummer Tim Horner, saxophonist John Schroeder
Ben and Frank started planning the Jazz Composers Collective around 1992 and we began performing a few concerts a year at the Greenwich House Music School. Ted Nash was also one of the original leaders and fellow composer. Later, Michael Blake would perform with the Collective and also become one of the composers. Around 1996, we were invited to do our concerts at The New School. We performed each other's compositions and also explored music of other composers that we admired, such as Herbie Nichols, through "The Herbie Nichols Project," and Andrew Hill.
Frank was friends with Andrew Hill and was instrumental in putting me and Andrew together when Andrew, was forming a new group called the "Point of Departure Sextet." The "Collective" continued to perform, tour and record until 2011 or so.
During that time, I asked Frank to record on my CDs (Subtextures
, 2002, and Everything in a Dream
, 2005). Beginning around 2002, Frank and I performed and recorded with his wife Maryanne DeProphetis. We continued to do so, in various formats until just last October. In 2009, drummer Tim Horner and I co-led a tentet that included Frank.
I met Frank when I was 20, and he was a huge influence on my musical development for the next 40 years.
I will miss him terribly.
I think the first time I heard Frank live was in April of 2005, playing duets with Joe Locke at the Jazz Standard. Much of the music they played came from their earlier CD on Omnitone, Saturn's Child
. There was Frank's "Waltz for Lee," Joe's "Saturn's Child" itself, and, of course, some Monk, "Trinkle Tinkle." Like most live performances of recorded work, the evening outdid the CD, with Frank and Joe playing percussively off each other. I loved it, and about a year later they reprised that evening in my JazzNights series of house concerts. At dinner afterward, talking over endless bowls of soup dumplings, I got to know them both, and that led to hearing countless gigs in New York and Frank's 10 appearances at JazzNights.
It's hard to pick a single favorite of Frank's performances, but one that stands out for me is a solo evening at Smalls in April of 2010. My notes say that the piano was not in great shape, but that as the evening continued, Frank found workarounds and the sound improved. How do musicians do this? I don't know but obviously Frank did. Frank played 45 minutes straight, moving without breaks from one tune to another, with quotes from Dizzy and Monk and Bill Evans
, and with songbook standards aplenty. Then he returned in a second set to do it again, 25 minutes of almost all standards this time. Finally a third set, Frank's "Quickening" I believe. It was an absolute tour de force, more than an hour of brilliance and beauty.
Another was his duo piano gig with one of his heroes, Paul Bley
, at Merkin Hall in May of 2006. My notes are hard to decipherit was darkbut I can make out more than one "stupendously brilliant!" and another "Charles Ives lives." Standards, bop tunes, and a finish with Annette Peacock's "Mr. Joy." A glorious evening by two pianists of great skill and the same mind.
Finally, may I mention October 17, 2017, again at the Jazz Standard, with Frank leading his quartetScott Robinson, Rufus Reid, and Billy Drummondin a tribute to what would have been Monk's 100th birthday (OK, it was a week late). I was knocked out. The music was great, Monk-like yet fresh, respectful of history, but in the current moment. After the first set, I screwed up my courage (if not now, when?) and asked Frank whether he would consider recording all 70 of Monk's tunes. Somewhat to my surprise, his response was not, "Are you crazy?" but, something like, "Well, let's think about it." Well, he did and about six months later the group reconvened at Matt Balitsaris' Maggie's Farm studio and produced the spectacular six-CD box set, Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk
None of these thoughts speaks to his humanity or of his humor, or of his intolerance of nonsense and worse. I remember the day he cut his hair, having refused to do so as long as George Bush was in office. It is a pity he can't be here to see the next Great Exit from Washington. Nor does it adequately credit his devotion to teaching and to his students at Julliard.
Frank was a true American original, a genius pianist, a lovely gentleman, and a dear friend. I miss him intensely.
Frank was a great person and a great artist. After Frank's gigs at the Kitano Hotel I would often just hang out with him for three hours on the sidewalk before we would head home. We often discussed the state of jazz and the young musicians that we both had heard. He was always polite but also said that most of them were just starting their journey as musicians.
One night he was really excited and told me that he had two students at Juilliard that were just incredible. I was surprised at his amount of enthusiasm and I said, "Really they are that good?" He said yes, sometimes when they come for their lessons I just listen to them play because they are so original. "You have to check them out!" he said.
Of course, Frank was talking about Micah Thomas
and Immanuel Wilkins
. He adored them and said they were poised to do great things.
Frank was the coolest. Everyone thought so. I felt cooler when I got to play with him or hang out with him. A guy you would want in your corner if you ever had any trouble.
I first met Frank on the street in Rotterdam in 2006. It would be a few years before we played together after that meeting but he immediately left a big impression on me. Matt Wilson and Kim Taylor had the idea to put Frank and I together in a duo and we had a wonderful time. After that meeting we did other duo concerts as well as trios and quartets, at the Kitano and other venues. We made a yet to be released trio recording with Masa Kamaguchi as well.
We never had a rehearsal. Frank wanted the playing to begin when the gig started, and you could always trust him, as he always made you sound better. Everything was always fresh.
I also got to play with Frank in Ben Allison's group. I remember one solo he played at Smoke with Ben's band that basically stopped everyone else in their tracks, you almost couldn't play after it!
There are many broken hearts about Frank because of the person he was, and he was a musician's musician, you wanted to hear him and be around him. When we didn't have a gig I would bug him to have lunch just to hang out.
I also love listening to his records. The Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk
box set belongs in every collection for pure enjoyment as well as study. His solo album Air
and Trio release Live at Kitano
are always getting played in my home.
Here's one of the life lessons I learned from Frank. I arrived to play duo with him and saw the piano on my way in. Let's just say it looked pretty funky. Frank was already there, (Maria Schneider said he was always the first to arrive, another lesson). He was relaxed and cool. I hurried to get set up and I asked a little nervously "did you check out that piano?" He paused, had a sip of coffee and leaned in saying quietly, "I wouldn't dare. If something is wrong with the piano what are we going to do about it now? Just play."
And play he did. Frank had a Sound!
Frank was first my teacher, and then my friend and mentor. I met him over 20 years ago, when I was 18 and about as green as anyone could be. I have all these fleeting memories of Frank that jumble together, like grabbing a slice at Joe's on 6th, or randomly hanging out in front of Smalls. I remember the first time he put a hand-written Andrew Hill chart in front of me ("Ball Square"), and when he played me Keith Jarrett's "Survivor Suite." I remember seeing him play with Noumena, a band with Scott Robinson, Ben Monder
, and Tony Moreno
, at a newly-opened Jazz Standard. I remember sitting in his apartment in the mid-aughts, looking out the window at a distant view of lower Manhattan as Frank described what it was like watching the towers fall from that very spot. The protest ponytail, the political rants, the cell phone hold out, the sound of his voice, I remember all these things. And I remember the music.
I read on Matt Wilson's Instagram that Frank "felt his legacy would be the opening of the spirits and the sounds of young musicians." This is absolutely Frank's legacy. He was the first person to truly show me what it meant to have a life in music. To be organic, to have a voice, to listen. Even as Frank showed me the contrarianism of Paul Bley, he was full of encouragement and support.
I once asked Frank if he had any advice on how to sustain a musical career in New York City. He said all I had to do was refuse to go away. Thank you, Frank. I will carry everything I've learned from you, and your memory, with me for the rest of my life.
My deepest sympathies to Maryanne and all of Frank's family.
I met Frank Kimbrough at NYU, where I attended the Jazz Program from 1997 to 2001. When you walked with Frank Kimbrough through the halls you walked slow, I swear he had a different handshake for everyone that he came across.
Frank was the prankster king of the NYU jazz scene. There were guys there that you could learn a lot from but Frank was the guy you wanted to be. Frank's been in New York for decades but he held on to his Carolina tempo and he let you know it. He didn't hustle with the flow, everything else flowed around him. His playing was like that too. I'm not saying he was one of those old-school be-boppers who hold down the time and dictates the swing; just that he was not going to struggle against the tide; he was going to ride it, and somehowit would always take him where he wanted to go.
Despite the certainty that you had when you were hanging out with Frank that he was cooler than you, you would never meet someone with a bigger heart. Which of course is the key to the whole thing. In an environment that's trying to nurture creativity in the context of competition, the coolest thing you can do is be genuine in your own love of the music and the musicians. Sounds easy enough, but Frank might be the only person I met, in an environment that was too often toxic, who could pull that off.
I have a vivid memory of the first time I met Frank, which was before I moved to New York. I was still in high school and was lucky enough to get to perform at the Monterey Jazz Fest in September 2008, as part of a conglomerate big band called the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. Frank was also playing at the festival that year with Maria Schneider. A bunch of us went to hear their set and afterwards, we went backstage in hopes of meeting some of the musicians. Maria's band was one that I had listened to and admired growing up and so I was a bit nervous to talk to any of the band members. But Frank immediately came up to a group of us and introduced himself. At the time, he was wearing his hair in a long ponytail that almost reached his butt. Someone in our group asked him about his hairdo and he told us, straight up, he hadn't cut his hair since Bush was elected and he wouldn't cut it until he was out of office! I thought that was amazing and as I got to know him after I moved to New York, I realized that interaction with him was so emblematic of his personalitywarm, funny, generous with his time, and non-judgmental. He was willing to take time to talk music and laugh with some high school kids he'd never met, just because we were passionate about the music. I immediately felt comfortable in his presence.
During my time in school, there was ample opportunity to hang with Frank outside the classroom. He'd often be hanging out on the street smoking a cigarette and we would joke that running into him was like entering a time warp, because you'd end up shooting the shit with him a lot longer than you anticipated. But it was great, you could always count on his humor, his unique takes on life and music, his sharing of knowledge and one-of-a-kind stories, and his willingness to listen to you too. I think that's why every student who crossed paths with him loved himhe totally did away with the sometimes-uncomfortable gap between teacher and student that could make students or young people feel small or insignificant. He made me realize that at whatever point in life or level of experience one was at, we were all striving to achieve the same mastery of our craft and that our love for music and life didn't diminish with increased age, fame, or status.
I always think that one's character comes through in their music whether they try and hide it or not. And all these great qualities about Frank that I described came through when he sat at the piano. He was real, vulnerable, unpolished in the best way, and open to making music with and listening to anybody. I was able to share the bandstand with him a few times after graduating and I always felt that same comfort and ease with him that I had the first night I met him.
I thought he would be around forever, kept going by his love for music and sharing that love with others. I will miss him dearly.
Frank was a most heartfelt pianist, always tender, always searching. I'm not sure of when we first met, but upon arriving in New York he sought out Andrew Hill. Our mutual love for all things Andrew and Herbie Nichols kept us close.
I was always thrilled to see or hear him on records. He found an organically soulful approach to the piano and wove the history with loose thread. He was a fixture in the scene, always finding the home in it all.
We were trading messages recently as he was laying praise on two of his Juilliard Jazz alums, Immanuel Wilkins and Micah Thomas. He listened to Immanuel's debut recording which I produced and was giving the grads the glory.
Frank taught a generation of musicians that are now here tilling the field. His work on and off the piano will be felt for decades to come.
I'll miss his sly way of talking shit and am thankful for the hugs and life talk with him, a true citizen of the music.
Frank was a champion of all of us coming through the jazz program at Juilliard, and in so many ways was the antithesis of the traditional conservatory way of thinking. At a time when I was spending all of my time in the practice room, he turned me on to one of his tried and true practice methodsheading to Central Park, finding a bench, and sitting by himself to read scores or let ideas marinate.
In classes, he opened our ears to folks like Andrew Hill, Shirley Horn
, Paul Bley, and Paul Motian, whom he brought into school one day for a masterclass. And when end-of-the-year juries came around, I remember walking into the room trembling with nerves, only to look at him amongst the panel of faculty and see that he believed in me more than any grade could express on a piece of paper.
There are many times I had with Frank that will stay with me, but one time I keep thinking about isn't a moment in a classroom or on the bandstand, but a long walk we once took through the Village. As always, he was fully presentno cell phone, no distractions, totally in the moment, just like how he made music. We walked for hours, on streets I thought I knew well until Frank shared with me the history of them... which jazz club used to be where, who used to play in what club, where the hangs until sunrise were... down to the detail of what the set times were, where the band would set up in the room, and which clubs had good pianos. That kind of generous love for the music, for his mentors before him, and for his students after him, was unmatched.
He was one of a kind.
The passing of Frank Kimbrough has changed me. I am not the same. There is a piece of me that is now missing, and I feel it every day.
I first met Frank when I pulled up in front of his Long Island City apartment building and he climbed into my Honda Accord for a thirteen hour ride to Cincinnati to begin a two-week tour with my quartet. When we finished the gig at the Blue Wisp that night, I knew I had found a musical soulmate.
Over the following more than thirty years we have been collaborators on dozens of concerts presented by the Jazz Composers Collective. We have made music together on many recordings, including albums by Ben Allison, The Herbie Nichols Project as well as several of my own releases.
Frank was extremely intelligent and sensitive. He could get dark at times, which is understandable given the state of the music industry, especially for someone who wasn't looking for commercial success but instead searched for truth and honesty in his music and in his relationships. He was very opinionated and politically aware. He refused to cut his hair for four years in protest of a particular occupant of the White House. At the end for those four years, when the administration changed hands, Frank watched the outgoing POTUS board Marine One and take off from the White House, and then went to get a hair cut.
About five years ago Frank and I were hanging out at the bar at the Jazz Standard, listening to a group of six young musicians, mostly in their twenties, and I noticed that three of the musicians were sporting cute hats. I turned to Frank and whispered "what's up with the hats?' He took a moment without looking at me, and then responded "ya gotta earn the hat!"
I noticed something during the past ten years: that Frank's tendency towards darkness lessened. Frank joined the faculty at Juilliard a dozen years ago, and through his teaching and mentorship I really believe he found deeper meaning and purpose. Since Frank's passing I have heard countless students describe how Frank made them feel they were special and important. After classes or lessens Frank would walk with them for hours in the streets at his unhurried, North Carolina pace, talking music and many other things.
One thing is clear: Frank earned his hat and much more. While maybe not a household name, those who knew his music all agreed that he was one of most important pianists and composers of our generation. He has taught and inspired more people than he probably realized. I know I am a better musician and a better person because of Frank Kimbrough.
I only worked with Frank a handful of times, but I was so saddened to hear of Frank Kimbrough's passing. Frank showed me a kindness that was clearly second nature to him, but in my experience is actually pretty rare among jazz musicians.
The few times we played together were in concert and club situations where we were presenting new music, and I was playing many more written parts than I'd ever had to. I assumed for years that other musicians understood what I meant when I told them I didn't read, so it took me a very long time to grasp that the message wasn't getting through. They really had no idea what I was talking about. For the record, I'm a little better now, and I can certainly write much more fluidly than I can read (though, still the next day I sometimes can't de-code what I wrote), and the notes no longer appear to be going down while the pitch is going up, and vice versa (well, not always), but things were not always thus...
When you learn to play on your own, as a child, maybe after a friend shows you a little something to get you going, and then for 20 years you have music pouring out of you, while you're simultaneously busy constructing a framework for music in your headyour own web of meaning through which you can process your ideasI think the neurons must just get aligned differently. That ink all over the page has absolutely no resemblance to the matrix you've built in your head. But then suddenly people are putting pieces of paper in front of you and expecting you to at least *make some sense* of iteven after you've diligently tried to make them understand that you can't, and in plenty of instances even asked them to call someone elseand at that point, physical symptoms start to present. I'd break out in a sweat, get fall-outta-my-chair dizzy, nauseas, start to float outside and above myself, and even experience actual bouts of a kind of blindnessseeing either the tiniest bit of light in a swirling black fog, or shards of jagged light which no image could penetrate. So, desperate now, you go and call on your brainthat part of you that you flogged so mercilessly in every other part of life, but left under a palm tree to enjoy a mai tai when you got to split and make musicto come to the rescue. And your brain says "uh...not me Jim! I didn't sign up for this shit!" and checks out, goodbye.
It's usually at this point that you wake up to the roaring in your ears and become aware that the room has become silent and 8-10 much better musicians are staring and wondering how the fuck they got roped into a session with the guy who's right now sitting in your chair.
Anyway... even the first time we ever played one of these thingsover 20 years ago?Kimbrough quickly picked up on what was going on before it ever had a chance to really get going, and he kept it up, being very attuned to everything that was happening on the bandstand, in rehearsals and then during the concerts. He knew when I might start struggling, and he'd VERY quickly, and VERY quietly, toss off just enough of my next cue on the piano so that my musical memory could kick in. He never looked at me, he never asked me if I needed help, and I never saw him give a "knowing glance" to anyone else in the band. If the bandleader ever instructed him to perform this service, I certainly missed it (and generally, in my experience, bandleaders make sure you don't miss those instructions). My memories now of these shows are mostly of the moments of immense relief that he provided, and of my then glancing sideways at him in the hopes of conveying just a small expression of gratitude, only to catch a quick glimpse of him with his head slightly cocked, his eyes fixed on a far corner of the ceiling hovering out over the audience.
I'm grateful to be reminded now of the power of this kindness. My sincerest condolences go out to his family and to my many friends who knew him much better than I did and who are now experiencing a terrible emptiness.
I met Frank Kimbrough when I was 20 and we immediately jived together. It's easy when you have similar taste in musical style and appreciation for originality, mutual hatred for the political system, and so on.
I will never forget this one instance where I've never deep-belly laughed so hard in my entire life. We were guests working with a college big band and they had invited us to watch their annual jazz concert on the night we arrived to town. Frank and I heard that they had killer natural resources around there, so we went for a pre-concert walk and then headed into the auditorium to watch the band. First tune was sort of like a funky jazz groove thing and we were just zoned in on it until the bari player walked out front to solo.
This guy had a beard down to his belly button, straight off the Viking ship sort of a vibe. He walks up to the microphone and just rips the loudest low Bb honk you have ever heard, shaking the entire room. For the entire solo! Frank and I looked at each other and laughed harder than a person ever thought they could laugh. I mean, for the remainder of the concert we were crying in laughter. It was such a silly moment, but we had a good amount of those and I truly loved spending every moment with Kimbrough on and off the bandstand.
I am still in shock of the knowledge that my friend and musical colleague, Frank Kimbrough, is no longer with us. I knew and admired Frank's musical abilities as a member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra long before we actually met. There was always something in his playing, whether he was soloing or comping, that engaged me.
When we actually met, it was like we had known each other a very long time. Frank's musical scope was huge. He could play anywhere the music was going. He loved Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk, and Andrew Hill, to name just a few. He always commented on the albums I recorded with Andrew Hill. I think that was a link that began to bond our friendship. We were always talking about a particular record or a tune that intrigued us. There were a few years of just hanging out before we actually played together.
I got the opportunity to perform with a trio for Vespers at a church in New Jersey. I called Frank to ask if he would do it with me and he said, yes. I also asked violinist, Sara Caswell
, who also had not played with Frank. I sent each my music ahead of time. The afternoon was special and confirmed that Frank, Sara, and I connected beautifully. That was the beginning!
I recorded two albums on Newvelle Records because of Frank, who was the first to record on that label. He called me to play one night at the Jazz Standard celebrating Thelonious Monk. Little did we know that was the birth of the quartet with Scott Robinson, Billy Drummond, me, and Frank eventually recording all of Monk's music. I was always astounded how Frank and Scott rendered these unique melodies as if they were one! The four of us became closer from this particular project, which I am deeply proud.
Frank Kimbrough kept the bar "high" no matter what music he was playing. Frank Kimbrough's personality was low-key, but incredibly focused. For me, Frank was a musical journeyman that was always there consistently keeping it all moving. He should have been more widely known for his music and piano playing, but he didn't concern himself about any of that stuff. But the players he played with in New York City, knew how "heavy" he was and already miss him, big time!
I feel blessed to have wonderful memories making music with the special individual, Frank Kimbrough. May he rest in peace!
It seems that 2020 has checked its watch, and realized it better hurry up and get its last licks in. So far, this heartbreaking year has taken about a dozen of my colleagues by means of the COVID virus, and about as many more by various other causes. That's a couple dozen people I've played music with, and never will again. Other friends have survived COVID, but with lasting damage. Another dear friend has been put in a mental hospital. And now, in the waning hours of the year, comes one more, particularly devastating loss: Frank Kimbrough, one of my oldest friends in this art form.
When I got the unbearably shocking news of his death yesterday, I just sat on the couch and cried. Then I hid under a blanket. After a couple of hours of this, I tried to watch an old movie. Finally, unable to avoid it any longer, I went out to my Lab, at around 4 AM, and recorded a solo tenor improvisation for Frank. When I can bear to listen to it, I'll put it out there somehow.
I knew Frank before there was a Maria Schneider Orchestra. Before either of us moved to New York. Ron Horton just reminded me that I told him about Frank, and suggested they get in touch, back when Ron and I lived in Boston (years later the two of them became co-founders of the Jazz Composers Collective). So Frank and I go way back. Neither of us could remember exactly how we metprobably at some Washington, D.C. jam sessionbut it was some time in 1979 or 1980. He always spoke fondly of our first gigs, at the Boar's Head Inn somewhere in Virginia, where I would show up in my 1949 Plymouth loaded with instruments.
After we both ended up in New York, he landed a steady piano gig at The Village Corner on Bleecker Street ("At the Corner of Walk and Don't Walk"), where he held forth for years, playing solo for an assortment of drunks, characters, andsometimesmusic fans. I used to pop in there and see him, and we would chat. He had an edge in those days, an irritable side, that noticeably mellowed out when he married his wonderful Maryanne. He seemed a much happier person after that, more relaxed about life, although he kept his BS-meter finely tuned and always at the ready.
I can't recall if I had a hand in bringing Frank to Maria Schneider's attention or not, but he became a tirelessly loyal collaborator for some 30 yearsas indispensable to her music as Hodges was to Duke. I have so many pictures in my mind of the two of them hunched over the piano, figuring out how to stop the strings and where, and with what materials, to get the many otherworldly effects heard in the Winter Morning Walks
project with Dawn Upshaw.
Frank did everything his own way. He never owned a cell phone. He never practiced, believing in "saving it for the gig." Frank's political views were decidedly liberal, and some of the ways he expressed those views were legendary. Few of us in the band will forget his refusal to cut his hair for the entirety of G.W. Bush's eight-year tenure in the White House. But his outrage at its current occupant was beyond even the ability of such an act to express. I regret that Frank did not live to see "that fool," as he often called him, thrown out of there.
When I built my studio, ScienSonic Laboratories, Frank was one of the first people I invited to come out and record an album of improvised duets. Normally very fussy about pianos, Frank readily agreed even though I only had a medium-size piano ("Hey, it's still a Steinway")... and he even consented to play some electronic instruments like Hammond and Farfisa organs, something he normally would not even consider (I recall him leaving a rehearsal once when the only available instrument was an organ of some kind). So in August of 2010 we spent a day in the Lab and recorded our album Afar
, which is something very different than anything else we had done together. Most of our live duo performances consisted of tunes, and we had developed a way of moving in and out of tunes which involved a very special kind of communication which I can honestly say only happens with a very few people. That's part of what hurts so much: I've not only lost a friend, but I've lost that musicthe music that only happens when I play with that person. Unfortunately, those very special tune-based duet evenings were never really documented, although we had talked of recording one.
When Frank tapped me to record, with Rufus Reid and Billy Drummond, a mammoth six-CD set of all known Thelonious Monk compositions, I was stunned. What an incredible opportunity to learn, grow, and play great music with great people. We had an amazing six days of music and camaraderie out at the recording studio "Maggie's Farm" in rural Pennsylvania and managed to get good takes of all 70 tunes. The hang and the vibe were as good as the music. I will always be grateful for that experience. One of my favorite tracks from the project, though, is one of the few I don't play on: "Functional," a little unaccompanied blues piano gem. I was moved to write to Frank about it: "I don't know too many cats who can play like that. Has that hint of stride feeling, but very relaxed... completely unhurried, creative and beautiful. I honestly don't know too many pianists who could pull something like that off."
There are so many regrets when someone like this leaves. The unsaid words. The unfinished projects... the ones discussed but not yet begun. The missed opportunities that now will never come again. One of those that will haunt me for a very long time came when the Monk group was scheduled to perform a livestream from Smallsas my own quartet had done a couple months before, in an empty club, for Monk's birthday in October. Three weeks before the gig, we were told there would now be an audience of 20... and I got nervous. Much as I desperately wanted to play, I asked the others if this was really a good idea. Rufus seconded my concerns, and nobody wanted to do the gig if I wasn't comfortable about it. Frank took a raincheck from Smalls, telling me, "Don't give it a second thought. We can do it at another time, a better time... a safer time." Then we were offered another date in late November, again with the audience, and the COVID situation wasn't any better. This time I was really in agony over it, and suggested that maybe they should just do the gig with another horn player. Frank wouldn't hear of it. "We can't do it without you," he said. "I can't imagine you not being there." So those gigs didn't happen, and despite his optimism, now they never will... and I must live with the fact that my fears of COVID took away my last two chances to ever play music with Frank Kimbrough, and with that wonderful group.
Now, as I look out the window and watch the sun finally set on this year of heartbreak and death, I find it is my unhappy turn to say, after 40 years of friendship and music, "Frank... I can't imagine you not being there."
One of my dearest friends and mentors passed away, the legendary pianist Frank Kimbrough. It's hard for me to describe adequately what a loss it is, and what an empty space I feel thinking that I won't ever hear him perform again, or hear his stories again... all of his incredible anecdotes about the people who mentored him and the experiences he had on the road, many of which I heard multiple times but always enjoyed just as much every time. I think everyone who spent any time at Juilliard was moved and shaped by Frank.
So many anecdotes come to mind. The first is his advice on practicing. He said to many of us students that he didn't practice, he played. "Playing was his practice." This advice was delivered to me in a particularly memorable way when, a couple years after graduating Juilliard, I went to one of his shows and mentioned to him that I was feeling like I didn't have time to practice as much as I wanted to. To which he replied emphatically, "man, you don't need to practice!," as if I had suggested the most insane thing imaginable. I think he felt that too many people were not practicing in the same way they were going to play on a gig. So in that sense, they weren't spending time actually working on the skill that they were going to need when performing. Any time Frank played, he played as if performing, with his whole being, so honestly and beautifully. When he suggested in our lessons that I spend hours at a time with a single ballad, it was to get to know that ballad intimately in the way that one gets to know a song when one has performed it hundreds of times, and explore every corner and bend in it thoroughly, from the inside out.
He would spend hours at a record store looking through albums and buying them on a whim just to see what they were about. He told me about the recordings that he held dear, and also the ones he destroyed. Somewhere I have a notebook full of recommendations that he made to me over the years.
Frank had so many stories that he loved to tell, both about his experiences on the road and about his mentors, specifically Andrew Hill, Shirley Horn and Paul Bley. He loved Paul Bley stories in particular because of Paul Bley's bravado and arrogance, which was always delightfully juxtaposed to Frank's humble but confident demeanor. So I remember stories about Paul Bley telling a jazz club usher who didn't recognize him, "Oh, I don't pay covers. I'm Paul Bley, pianist extraordinaire." Or the story about Paul telling Frank that he heard him on Marian McPartland's show, and then asking Frank why he played with her, rather than playing against her.
Frank also told a story about Paul Bleys's wife playing to him a recording of Paul Bley with Paul Motian and some other musicians that had passed before him, and telling him that those musicians were waiting for him. When the record ended, the door swung open suddenly, startling Paul's wife, and when Paul's wife looked back, Paul had passed. Frank interpreted it like Paul's soul rushed out of his body, because it was time to be reunited with the musicians he so loved to play with.
The other thing to mention about Frank is that he was "always there." He was the only teacher I've had that consistently would come to my performances. I know he was one of the only teachers at Juilliard that was at almost every student's senior recital. After a concert I played shortly after graduating, Frank told me he intentionally came in a few minutes after start time so that I wouldn't notice that he was there. He didn't want me to play any differently because he was watching. He wanted to see me play honestly and the way I wanted to play. I think this taught me a lot, not only about how I should play, but also that Frank understood the impetus to want to play differently for people listening.
I learned so much from his music. Every time I saw him I gained some new insight into what I needed to work on, and what was truly important. His musical voice shined through so honestly and clearly. He played in a way that got right to the heart of the matter. No extra notes, no pretense, nothing that distracted from the pure and raw emotion of the musical statement he was making. The music mattered so much to him.
I always think of Frank as one of the most self-assured pianists. He would play exactly his signature style of piano in every circumstance, so the thought that he understood what it was like not to have that mindset really has given me hope that one day, I can be as self-assured and confident in what my voice is as he was. I try to improve in this regard every time I sit down at the piano.
I met Frank my first semester at Juilliard as a student. I knew of him before, through his association with Maria Schneider and as a band leader, but i did not really associate his name with any face.
The first impact was nice, gentle and welcoming. He was very interested in who I was, where I came from and various aspects of my Italian culture such as food, clothes, a romantic approach to life and, of course, my musical background.
Coming from a small provincial city himself, he was immediatley interested in finding a common ground with me, a young jazz player from an equally small provincial town in the south of Italy, Campobasso.
I would always meet him in his office at Juilliard hanging out, talking to some students about music, life, giving advice on how to move forward while facing the problems and challenges that young jazz musicians in New York may face in their academic life. Or I would find his complicit look when we had a break between Juilliard Jazz auditions to go and have a smoke outside and talk some shit! He had no filters when it came to dealing with BS, very straight up on giving you his opinion about things that weren't right or appeared bluntly unjust.
If, on the one hand, he was always trying to support to a younger musician like me by showing the wise side of his personal experience, on the other hand, he was not scared to also show his fears and weaknesses when faced with hard music or life challenges.
I was once talking to a staff member in the Juilliard Jazz office that I had't seen in a while and, as I was about to say goodbye to her, I said "See you soon Rebeca. Think about me sometimes...," he walked in just at that moment, a big smile appeared on his face and he said "Aaaaaaah Luca, I like that, I am going to write it down to use it later. You Italian men!." And that's what he started telling me after we would meet "Luca, think about me sometimes (smile)" .
Yes Frank!. I will. Count on it.
Frank's life is an example to us all. His art reflected his life, and his life reflected his art.
He was always operating on a "relaxed" mode that I so wished I could find for myself. If there ever was someone who savored the "here and now," that was Frank.
Though he was insanely knowledgeable, his artistry was led by some kind of incredible trust in what each moment would bring to the music. Over the years, I've heard him invent hundreds of intros from that magical place, on the fly, that were as sophisticated as any Debussy prelude.
I've heard him play endless transcendent solos, and heard how exquisitely he accompanied others, listening with his incredible ears and with his very big heart. His respect of bandmates was unmatched, his skills in listening were profound, and his joy in making music was beyond evident.
Whether you were making music with Frank, or sitting in the audience taking it in, Frank exuded love and joy: for the music, and for those moments of deep connection with musicians and an audience.
Frank was a blessing for the music community, and inversely, Frank's life was clearly made full by the incredible like-minded artists that he also got to make music with.
What a privilege it was to have been one of those musicians lucky enough to have shared music and friendship with him.
It's hard to fathom a world without Frank Kimbrough in it.
To me he was band mate, friend, mentor, inspirer. 28 years of playing and recording with him helped shape my approach to music. Keeping it fresh, allowing the music to unfold organically, with in-the-moment "arrangements" formed spontaneously on the bandstand, conversationally. Deep listening and connection, absolute trust of everyone in the band, embracing the unknown, taking risks, playing space. On a ballad it felt like he knew what I was going to sing before I sang it, laying out beautiful harmonic stepping-stones in my path, or extending a musical hand for me to grasp, inspiring note choices I otherwise might not have accessed. A conversation, a dance, tender, sensitive.
I learned so much from Frank and I'm so grateful and fortunate to have had him as a musical partner and friend. We met in 1992 when Shirley Horn brought us together to play a short set between hers at the Village Vanguard, along with Ed Howard. It was my first time in New York City. I was extremely nervous and Frank was so kind.
Years later, in another moment of nerves, Frank said to me "It's just music, nobody's gonna get hurt" and "There's a reason it's called PLAY-ing!"that lightened me right up. So many wonderful memories of gigs, moments on the road, stories he told, his sense of humor, are flooding my mind. Too much to tell.
I will miss him terribly, but I will carry his spirit with me.
The passing of Frank Kimbrough came a shock to us all. In addition to playing with Frank many times in my own quartets and in other groups, like the Ron Horton tentet dedicated to the music of Andrew Hill, and on many other Juilliard events, I taught in the next room to Frank at Juilliard Jazz for 13 years. Talking music, students, and politics with him was always enlightening.
Frank was the ultimate purist in our music. To reflect his dedication and purist approach to the piano and the music, I share a story Frank told me that is quite amusing and reflective of just how dedicated to the piano, and the music Frank was.
In his words...:
"When I first came to New York I arrived with no piano. Someone gave me a Fender Rhodes electric piano to use. On my first gig I got in New York I dragged the keyboard to the gig. After the first set, or maybe it was the end of the gig, I was outside smoking a cigarette thinking about how much I hated playing the electric piano. It was at that point that I just said to myself... 'Fuck this' and I left and went home.
Basically Frank left the Rhodes at the venue and never came back. Most people would value the Rhodes for the money it costs, and some like playing it. Not Frank... he hated anything but the "real" acoustic piano.
His purest attitude shines through in the huge body of work he has left us, culminating with the box set Monk's Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk
, an incredible documentation of Monk's music. In addition, Frank loved, and was loved by, all his incredible students of which many have come to the forefront of our music.
It is with great sadness that I say "another great one has translated..." RIP my brother Frank. You will be missed forever.
Sometimes, a small gesture can leave a deep impression that will last forever. It's like a seed of someone's soul which remains inside of you and helps you remember the essence of that person.
One day, after a gig we played together, Frank came over and gave me a heartfelt hug. And in that simple hug, he left something in me that I continuously think about. About how we treat each other as musicians and as human beings.
Frank was not only a great musician but a kind, humble and soulful man. He treated everyone with respect and love. And above all, he shared his wisdom with many of us who came in contact with him, compassionately and gracefully.
With that hug, he left me not only a warm memory of him but also a wisdom that I will continue to strive for...
I'll miss you Frank...
I'm trying to think of some great single story to tell, but whenever I think about Frank, a lot of little moments come to mind instead.
I think about him coming to so many of my gigs and, whenever a particular band or gig excited him, sending me an email that night or the next day telling me how much he enjoyed it and how we should continue playing together. He would also tell me, in our lessons, whenever he had heard another Juilliard student play something he really loved. He hired many of my classmates for his own gigs, and while these were of course mentoring opportunities, it also felt that he genuinely just liked their playing so much that he really wanted to play with them. He was also quick to complain about whenever he found something pretentious or superficialhe longed for honesty in music and in life always.
I also think about our lessons, which were often me playing tunes for him and us talking about it afterwards. He acted like my conscience and would tell me when the way I played something was or wasn't up to par with what he believed my standards to be. Sometimes he would suggest a specific solution for improving my performance, but just as often there was an eventually implicit understanding that the solution to playing a tune better was often simply spending more time with the tune or understanding it better in some way that I would have to find myself. Even though he's gone, I can still hear him approve or disapprove of what I'm doing in my head, and I trust his voice more than most people's because we shared many of the same musical values.
It's hard for me to think of a particularly interesting story about Frank because Frank thrived on simplicity in every aspect of his life. He walked slow, talked slow, and played slow. One of his favorite things to talk about doing was to go to the park, take his shoes off, and lie in the grass. The people that he adored and talked about so often, like Shirley Horn and Paul Bley, were often people who lived crazy lives, and he loved telling exciting, often scandalous stories about them. He really liked the opportunity to say something or advocate for something that was contrary to the ideological environment he was inhe was something of a rebel by nature. But, while he had so many crazy stories about other people, he seemed to purposefully keep his own life as simple as possible. A quiet rebel.
I sent him my album to listen to while I was deciding whether or not to release it. He told me that often, when he was listening to music in his house, his wife Maryanne would come and listen to a song or two and then go back to whatever she was doing before. He noted that when he played my album, she listened to the whole thing. It was really touching to see how much Frank respected her opinion and looked for it. Their kind of relationship, from what I knew about it, was something that I would want for myself and my partner one day. Frank plays her composition "Solstice" on his album by the same name, and it is one of my favorite tracks he ever recorded.
The memory that I think of the most is the day that he finally let me pay for his meal, instead of him paying for mine like he used to do whenever we went out to eat. It was my last year of college, and we had been spending more time together than usual because he was helping me through the process of preparing for the release of my album. Our conversation was different than usual, less of a teacher-student quality and more of a peer-to-peer quality, and he even noted that this was happening. When he allowed me to pay for his meal, it felt like we had finally become friends. I wish I could have spent more time with him as I continue to grow up.
For the more than seventeen years that I was fortunate to know and work with Frank, we amassed countless stories together. Whether we were on tour, at a session or a gig, or just hanging out discussing music and beyond, time spent in Frank's presence was always special and memorable.
As I've reflected on our myriad experiences together, one memory that continues to bring me comfort, is from my first tour as road manager with the Maria Schneider Orchestra in 2008. My first time traveling with the band was a pretty intense tour all over Europe: 12 concerts in 14 days over seven countries. The tour started out just as many musicians would expect from this type of "road story." Everything that could have gone wrong, did: lost luggage, instruments, and music; airlines going on strike; stranded musicians; needing to find temporary replacement musicians in small cities in France at the last minute; difficult promoters... you name it. As the tour manager, finding solutions to these issues rested squarely on my inexperienced, 28-year-old shoulders. It was stressful, I didn't sleep much, and my confidence in my ability to successfully manage the tour (already shaky at best) was diminishing with each new curveball.
Around the half-way point on the tour, we arrived in a small German town for a concert that evening in an outdoor park pavilion. In keeping with the theme of the tour, this particular gig provided yet another batch of unexpected challenges. It had been a long and grueling tour for everyone already (great music, though! Those kinds of tours always result in the best performances) and as the day progressed, I could feel myself reaching a mental and physical breaking point.
When I got back to my room after the gig, I remember sitting on the foot of the bed for a moment in the dark, doubting my abilities, and questioning whether I had the strength to get through the rest of the tour. Right then, my room phone rang and it was Frank. Of course, my tour manager mode was triggeredassuming something was wrongbut Frank just said, "How you doing?" followed by, "You wanna go for a walk?" We were both exhausted from traveling, Frank had just performed, and we had only a handful of hours to sleep before we had to be back on the bus for the next gig, but at that moment, I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do.
We leisurely strolled around that old, quiet town for well over an hour. Maybe more. We discussed the concert that night, and other amazing musical moments from the tour. We talked about life and politics and a variety of other non-music related topics as well, though I don't specifically remember what exactly. What I do remember is the feeling of my stress lifting as we walked. Inadvertently and unintentionally, Frank was pulling me out of my head, out of the stress and anxiety of the first part of the tour, and into the present moment. Everything else seemed to just fall away, and the only thing that mattered was this walk and this conversation with Frank. As we made our way back to the hotel, without prompting, Frank told me what a great job he thought I was doing on the tour, and that he was proud of me. I remember trying to brush it off in the moment, saying that I was just trying to do my best, but Frank was insistent: he even recounted specific situations in which I had handled myself well.
That night, I slept better than I had in weeks. I had no idea when I accepted Frank's invitation, what a lasting effect that walk would have on mein the moment and in the future. Whatever we talked about that night, what stuck with me was the knowledge that Frank Kimbrough, a musician I idolized and whose friendship I cherished, was proud of me and what I was doing. That is a feeling I'll hold close for the rest of my life.
In the years since that tour, and throughout the various projects we've done together, Frank's support of me has been unwavering. Whether it was planning and managing other tours, time spent producing in the studio, writing my own music, or leading the Gil Evans Project, he was always there for me, both personally and musically. There is no other pianist out there like Frank, and I can't begin to describe the gift that he has given the world with his music, but I truly believe his most meaningful legacy will reside within walks like the one we took together in Germany. He was endlessly inspired by the young, eager students that surrounded him at Juilliard, most of whom I guarantee have been on similar walks with him around the Upper West Side or Queens. I don't need to know what they talked about to know that they left each hang with Frank feeling the full support and pride he made you feel in his presence. Anyone can teach you how to play a tune or show you how to voice a chord, but few people are able to selflessly raise you up, support, guide, and inspire you the way Frank did. He was that person for me from the beginning (though I might not have realized it till that walk in Germany) and will continue to be that for me for the rest of my life. I hope he knew how much I cherished that late night walk in Germany, and every walk that followed.
Thank you, Frank, for being the mentor, the foundation, the friend that I needed, and for the beautiful, unforgettable music you brought into my life.
Frank Kimbrough was my teacher at The Juilliard School. He was like an uncle to me and deeply cared for all of his students. He believed in me often in times where I felt like an outsider, and he was a wealth of knowledge.
A lot of what makes jazz music special is the oral tradition of passing down stories. Frank loved to tell me hour long stories about Paul Bley, Andrew Hill, Thelonious Monk. I fondly remember him once telling me he had just finished playing "'Round Midnight" in a practice room for 12 hours straight.
Me and Micah Thomas would always joke about the crazy things he would tell us as we'd often play in each other's lessons with him. He introduced me to everybody on the jazz scene and he's responsible for so many of the relationships I have today. Frank was generous.
Every time I would see Frank he would always say something about the shoes I had on and we would often talk about clothes. The last time we spoke on the phone it was him calling to tell me about this baaaddd coat that Andrew Hill had given him and how proud he was of me.
When I look back on our relationship, I think about the boundless support he gave me in all aspects of my life, I hope I continue to make him proud.
"How Ya Doin'?"
Frank Kimbrough and I became close friends and colleagues soon after I moved to New York in 1992. In addition to our strong musical bonds, we shared another interest, talking. On the phone, on the road, in planes, trains and automobiles, Frank and I loved to visit and tell stories. We would get deep about music, teaching, life and then share an anecdote that would have us bursting into laughter. His stories flowed just like the beautiful music he offered us.
I often would give a ride home to Frank after a gig in New York City. We would talk all the way to his place and then often sit in the car and talk for another hour (or more). My nights were pretty short back then with four young children but I do not regret taking the time to share our human moments.
Frank and I had a bit that when we saw each other our salutation would be "How ya doing?" in a very clipped and over the top Brooklyn accent. A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC and someone came on and greeted Mr. Lehrer with a classic, "How ya doin'?."
I immediately called Frank. We visited for awhile but he had a student. We ended our visit the way we always did, by saying, "I love you."
When I received the call yesterday from Ted Nash, I just broke down. Frank was dedicated to the music but, more importantly, he was devoted to the people of his community. He cared. Frank really cared.
Frank conveyed to me one night in one of our talks in front of his apartment, how much his students at Juilliard meant to him. He expressed that he felt his legacy would be the opening of the spirits and sounds of young musicians. I believe he did that for all of us in his orbit.
One night we were playing and we were seriously in the flow zone of offering and receiving sounds and spirits. Frank told me afterwards, "Matthew, it is one thing to share sound together but to share space? That is the magic." Frank Kimbrough shared sound and he shared space in music and in life. I am grateful for his influence in my life.
I am glad I called with the "How ya doin'?" and we shared another, "I love you."
Thank you Frank Marshall Kimbrough, I love you.
Frank was the embodiment of integrity. You always knew where he stood on any subject or issue, and he was uncompromising in his artistry and humanity.
Frank would just informally go about his way of creating and playing the music that he believed in without any pretense, fanfare, or self-aggrandizement. He could take the simplest theme and transform it into the most incredible sound mosaic, and do it differently every time.
He hated to rehearse for his own datesjust relished being in the moment with musical partners that he loved and trusted. One of my favorite tunes is his "Kudzu" (which we recorded on his Quartet
album on Palmetto) which is a soundscape of the Southern roots that we shared, and it hits you just right in your soul.
We will miss his originality, spontaneity, kindness, and heart. Though he has left us with a substantial body of work to enjoy and admire Frank's spirit always will be with us in real time.
Frank Kimbrough was truly one of those once-in-a-lifetime type of figures. The sort of person who could leave an indelible impression on anyone he encountered. I had the great fortune to be counted among Frank's piano students during my two years at Juilliard, and for me, he made so much more than an impression. In fact, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that knowing Frank so thoroughly and positively influenced the course of my life that I simply can't imagine what an alternate, Frank-less reality might have looked like for me.
Where would I be? What would I be doing? I can't imagine. If I had never met Frank and taken that trip to New York City to get a one-off lesson with him, I never would have thought I could get into Juilliardwho knows, I might not have moved to New York City at alland certainly wouldn't have had any of the opportunities that came as a direct result of having him as a mentor (my first gig at so-and-so club, recommending me to play with such-and-such big name player). Sometimes I even wonder if I would still be a jazz pianist today! Frank played a huge part in shaping the course of my life, and I won't get to tell him how immeasurably grateful I am.
Such a loss cuts deep... the loss of a close friend or family member. Frank felt like both to me, and in the wake of his sudden passing, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are now, all of us, Frank-less. However, in hearing and reading tributes, memories, and anecdotes from his other students and colleagues, I've found that the grief has been softened by a confident faith that Frank lives on!
Such a singular personality touched so many lives so deeply, that we all now carry him with us. I think I can probably speak for all of his students when I say that Frank's essence continues on in our hearts and minds: his opinions on music; keen observations on politics; his stories about the New York jazz scene from decades past; crotchety words of wisdom passed down from his own once-mentor, Paul Bley; his dark humor. In short, Frank had already become a legend before his time on earth was through! This, of course, says nothing about his vast recorded oeuvre, as full of breadth and depth as any artist could hope to leave behind.
One of the things that made Frank so special was his willingness to impart himself to others. Wisdom about music, wisdom about life. Lessons with Frank took place as much at the piano as they did away from the instrument... and when we were away from the instrument, we were walking and talking. Even when I was out of school, the walks always started outside the main entrance to Juilliard on West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. (As I'm writing this, I'm picturing the way I'd almost always find him: standing right at the curb in front of those doors, often sporting a trench coat or leather bomber when the weather called for it, a colorful button-down, always with those dark circular spectacles, a lit cigarette at hand, and a nonchalant posture that said he knew just how damn cool he was. He was also almost always found engaged in conversation with another passerby; Frank's cool guy vibe was an outer shell for a warm and inviting soul.) Walks would go up, down, left or right, but there would be some usual destinations. Most often, we'd go for the sushi lunch special at Amber, up on the corner of 70th and Columbus. (Frank was such a regular here that all he'd have to do was walk in, and the servers would all greet him by name. He even had a "usual" that he ordered!) Just a few short blocks, pretty much as short as a walk was liable to get in New York City, and yet this walk would become a journey in itself.
With Frank, walks were never a means to an end, they were as much an integral part of the hang as the time spent sitting at the table. These walks were not typical to the streets of New York, either; there was no rushing, no jostling, none of the usual vying for position at crosswalks. Frank didn't play that game. I always got the sense that Manhattan was moving around and in spite of Frank, and that he was determined to only ever go at his own natural pace. It was a slow pace! Possibly a holdover from his North Carolina upbringing, but it was also more than that. Simply observing Frank during these walks, I quickly learned that here was a man who had decided to be fully committed to the present. He was in the moment, and so immovably in the moment that whoever he was with was forced to enter this same moment and share in its significance with him. When walking with Frank, I noticed things more. The blinders came off, and this allowed the sights, smells, and sounds to make themselves known.
On one of my very first walks with him to Amber, he hipped me to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, or fleeting glimpses of beauty to be discovered in the transient imperfection of nature. (This could apply to anything... a particular pattern of footprints in the snow, the way leaves might swirl when caught up in a gust, or even the way the sun might reflect off of a group of yellow cabs waiting at a light). You couldn't find it if you were searching for it, but you had to be open to noticing it when it was there. With this in mind, I learned that even walking to the end of a block could become an opportunity for revelation and inspiration.
I realized then that Frank was "on another level," that Frank had somehow figured out the secret to living and experiencing life to its fullest. He just had an undying positivity, an ability to always find the bright side, to see the larger picture, to not let himself be bogged down by petty concerns... and to walk with Frank was to become infused with this same spirit! My concerns about navigating the bridge to a certain tune, finding work as a new guy on the scene, playing poorly the night before (definitely a recurring frustration of mine), whatever new bad geopolitical thing I read in the news... with Frank, these worries all were framed differently. I could approach these issues with a healthy perspective, because Frank taught me not to dwell on the problems. I had determined almost immediately to make myself more like him, to soak up as much of his vibe as I possibly could... one walk with Frank was apt to inspire me for weeks on end. (How lucky I was to be able to a weekly dose when I was in school!) I'm not sure if Frank ever realized how much help he was to me, or just how much of a guiding light he could be to those who had not yet achieved his ability to float above the storms.
Other common destinations with Frank were Central Park, where we'd find a bench on which to just sit for a while and watch things go by. Frank revealed that he sat on benches a lot. "I never practice," he would say. The bandstand would just render irrelevant and useless any of the constructs of the so-called practice room, anyway. All the preparations he needed to make were done in his mind, on a bench surrounded by trees, squirrels, distant city noises. When Maria Schneider sent along a piano part for a new tune, he'd take it to a bench and read it over and over until he knew it. He also came up with entire compositions, or arrangements of standards, in the park. One that I'll never forget is his twisted take on Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are..." Somehow, he realized you could play the second eight bars first, followed by the first eight bars, then the second half of the bridge followed by the first half of the bridge, and then the last section as is. Only a few connective chords were needed and he had found a brand new take on one of the most well-worn vehicles in the jazz pantheon.
In an effort to be more like Frank, I started seeking out some spots of my own to take a break. Though I never quite got to his level of sitting and simply thinking or being, I made a point to listen to full albums all the way through and had begun to learn to focus my attention for extended periods. At times we went to one of the last remaining true record stores in Manhattan, Academy Records & CDs on West 18th. They have a jazz section that would take more than an hour to browse through, and Frank would pick out some obscure recordings that I'd never checked out or even heard of, and you'd better believe I bought them then and there.
During these walks, it felt like Frank had welcomed me into his sphere. I always sensed in those moments that I was special, that Frank had wanted and allowed me to share in the present with him. And I think that this was true; conversations rarely felt as meaningful, or as sincere, or as thought-provoking as those with Frank. I knew that he sincerely cared about my development as a human. This is the sign of a truly great teacher. I've heard these same kinds of things expressed by some of his other students as well. He devoted himself to us. He was able to make each one of us feel important in the moment, and feel the importance of the moment. He had many current and former students to walk with, yet Frank always found time for everyone, and he never brought anything less than his whole presence to each person. He was, simply put, as real as it got. I will always marvel at his ability to be completely and undeniably himself at any juncture, in person or at the piano.
A new chapter began in my life when I moved away from New York City, after six wonderful years spent in and around that scene, to Washington, D.C. I am lucky to still be pursuing music (and jazz, at that), though the move itself and having made the choice to head away from the epicenter of my art had the predictable effect of causing me to question my choice.
Inspiration was no longer as easy to come by, because I couldn't go to a Smalls or a Village Vanguard on a whim. Frank became a lifeline for me. Every few months, I'd give him a call at his home and we'd catch up as if no time had passed. I'd fill him in on what I'd been up to, he'd tell me about where he'd been playing, how his current students are, we'd complain some more about the political environment. Eventually I'd bring up how I was struggling to stay inspired, how my playing had taken a hit, how I just felt off since leaving the City. Frank, true to form, would always call my bluff. He broke down the BS in my head with a healthy dose of perspective. "Remember, you're the only person that's ever heard 100% of what you played." Or, "When you walk out on that stage, you have to tell yourself that you're the baddest motherf*cker that ever played. That's what I do." Or, "As soon as the gig's over, forget about it. It has nothing to do with the next one."
Sometimes he'd reference the period when he'd just gotten to New York, had few possessions of his own and was practically squatting until he got the call from Maria. Sometimes he'd recall that gig where he lugged his Fender Rhodes into a cab, brought it down to some club, played the first set and decided he'd endured one too many injustices to merit continuing. (He quit after the first set, left his Rhodes there and never looked back.) Sometimes he'd tell that story about getting to a gig and the bassist had gotten so hopped up on substances that he had climbed a tree outside and refused to come down to play.
Even months apart as the phone calls were, I would hang up feeling completely refreshed and rejuvenated, as if I had just had one of those weekly lessons followed by salmon avocado and shrimp tempura rolls. I always meant to bill him an invoice for the therapy he was unknowingly providing. When the pandemic hit, and I found myself without an outlet for the thing I had trained my whole life to do, Frank was there for me still, floating above it all and seeing the whole picture. About a month in, our first talk had centered around the new gig-less pandemic landscape, about which I was recognizably dark and had been on the verge of falling into a "what's the point" mindset towards practicing or even listening to music. Frank had again turned me around, pointing out that it would only be temporary, and recommending that I re-read one of his favorite book recommendations: "Free Play" (by Stephen Nachmanovitch, about kindling and maintaining one's innate spirit of play).
We spoke once again, and for the last time, in October. He'd left me a voice message to check in, to see how things had been faring. We chatted for close to an hour, and he said he'd been continuing to enjoy his walks in the park and spending time with his wife Maryanne. I distinctly remember his sign-off: "Okay, love you, man, take care of yourself. Talk to you again soon." I couldn't have known that would be the last time I'd get to speak to him.
So, to Frank: Thank you. Thank you for your music, your piano playing, your compositions. Thank you for your many words, in the form of piano lessons, life advice, jazz lore, jazz departmental gossip and dark jokes. Thank you for always, always being willing to make time for a hang and a walk. Thank you for fostering my love of sushi. Thank you for being so generous with passing my name around town when I first got there. Thank you for supporting my development and then being a trusted ear for my concerns. Thank you for showing me that it's all about taking the journey, and that the perceived end goal is never as important as it may seem. Thank you for teaching me how to appreciate life. Thank you for everything.
Frank was one of the main fixtures of my time as a young man in New York learning to play jazz. He was someone that you would run into seemingly everywhere you went, around the halls and practice rooms of the music building, or outside the building on 4th Street where the jazz kids would congregate and smoke, or over at Tower Records at 4th and Broadway on a dark Tuesday evening, or even at more random locations around Manhattan.
Wherever it was, it was never a surprise. More often than not those chance meetings turned into hour-long discussions about music and musicians. Frank always had time to talk to us. He would indulge us with story after story about gigs, recordings, musicians, food, whatever. He was one of the great keepers of jazz mythology and he didn't miss a chance to pass it on to us. And we ate it up. His pacing, his accent, his expressions, his absolute conviction. The way he would deliver that last line of the story and then slink away with that cat-like grin, that knowing stare, that funky strut.
Very early in my time at NYU I had to take a piano class that was required of all non-pianists. It took place every Friday morning at 8 AM and the teacher was none other than Frank Kimbrough. I was 19 years old, completely naive, and completely unable to get myself out of bed for this class. I went to the first two sessions, but after that I didn't return until the final exam, which was simply to play any jazz tune on the piano in a room alone with Frank. I stayed up the entire night before the exam learning the Monk tune "I Mean You," which I ended up completely butchering because I was exhausted, nervous, and unprepared. I don't think I finished playing the tune. It was more like I reached a point where the feeling of shame eclipsed whatever little forward motion I had and I just stopped. Frank immediately layed into me with a speech that I'm sure other of his students would recognize, that I'm not in Missoula, Montana, shaping myself into a fully formed jazz musician. I'm in New York fucking City where you can't afford to make a bad impression because people are watching, important people who know what a half-assed effort looks like.
Nearly two decades later I was given an opportunity to spend a couple days in the studio making a record with Frank. We would record some of his tunes and maybe a couple standards. There would be only one rehearsal. The sheet music would be emailed to me just days before that rehearsal. Other than Frank I had never met anyone else in the band. These were not my preferred conditions. My anxiety grew and grew, and even when we were well into the first day of recording it was apparent that I wasn't relaxing into the experience, rather I was reverting to that nervous, unprepared, shameful state of mind that he had witnessed long before and that he very easily recognized. We were working through a tune of Frank's called "Elegy for PM," a ballad with a tempo that quickened and slackened with the arc of each melodic phrase. It was clearly a situation where I had the melody and I had to take the lead and drive the phrase forward, but I was failing to do so.
"Take the lead and sing it out, Andy. You're Caruso," he said to me in between takes.
"I don't know," I replied. I didn't feel very Caruso-like.
"You're a bad motherfucker. You're a bad motherfucker from Chicago," he said, adding some extra North Carolinian drawl the second time. And there was that cat-like grin, that knowing stare, the funky strut, and that absolute conviction in what he said.
It was enough conviction for both of us.