arold McKinney was a noted jazz musician who is widely credited with keeping jazz in the forefront of Detroit's music scene. He was a pianist, oboist, vibraphone player and composer who, over his long career, played with many of jazz's greatest artists. As an educator McKinney taught generations of aspiring jazz musicians, helping turn Detroit into a hub for jazz education where the greats passed on their lessons to their students.
Harold McKinney was born on July 4, 1928 in Detroit. His mother introduced him to music at an early age and by his teenage years he was playing with local jazz bands. After graduating from Northwestern High School, he attended Morehouse College but left before graduating because he became disenchanted with the schools' focus on European music. Upon his return home to Detroit, he attended Wayne State University and immersed himself in the Detroit music scene. By the 1940s he had embraced bebop, a form of improvisational jazz that was gaining popularity. McKinney served in the United States Army in the early 1950s, leading a jazz band that performed for the troops. During this time he began to write his own music. He went on to write more than three hundred original compositions. In much of his work McKinney incorporated elements of African-American musical traditions. As a musician he traveled the world playing with many of jazz's great artists such as Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. Closer to home, McKinney regularly produced and played for the Detroit International Jazz Festival. Over the years, McKinney produced several recordings including "Harold McKinney and Voices of Rhythms of Creative profile," "Harold McKinney and the McKinney Reunion," "Rush and Hustle," "Something in the Wind," "Gemini II," and "Keep on Dancing."
McKinney's legacy to Detroit goes far beyond his individual performances and compositions. For years he dedicated himself to educating young musicians. He helped make the Detroit jazz scene one in which established musicians freely gave of their time to help rising artists. Many credit him with keeping jazz alive in the hearts and minds of Detroit's young people at a time when jazz's popularity was falling. In 1993 McKinney established the Detroit Jazz Heritage Performance Lab Workshop. Every Thursday, young musicians came to Detroit's SereNgeti Ballroom to work on their music and learn from McKinney and other established performers. McKinney's daughter, Gayelynn McKinney, a pianist, has maintained the workshop after his death. McKinney also taught music workshops in the public schools and in community arts programs. His legacy will also live on in his family, many of whom have been musically active.