Piano Man

After Jazz pianist Kenny Kirkland was found dead in his Queens, NY, home Nov. 12, 1998, of an apparent drug overdose, his death warranted a couple paragraphs in the obits. I think he deserves a few more.

By William Campbell
October 29, 1999

I met Kenny back in 1993 while I was a student and staffer on my college paper. Catalina Manzano, a friend and a photographer for the newspaper, was dating him. At the time he had a pretty good gig playing piano with the “Tonight Show” band led by Branford Marsalis.

Catalina (we called her Cat) had invited a bunch of us in the newsroom to a taping of the show. Harry Connick Jr. was the special guest. We went and met Jay Leno, Connick, Marsalis, Kenny’s other bandmates, and wandered around the cavernous corridors of KNBC’s Burbank studios pretending like we belonged. It was cool.

Afterwards Kenny, Cat and a couple of us ended up at some Beverly Hills nightclub of the moment, munching on overpriced appetizers and drinking overpriced whiskey sours and greyhounds. Kenny and I struck up a conversation as best we could over the din. He keyed on my love of Joe Williams, Count Basie, Lou Donaldson and the confession that I was a self-taught closet tenor saxman.

He said that the two of us should jam one night. I laughed. He didn’t. He was serious. I was honored — and totally unworthy the offer.

A couple weeks later, Cat told me Kenny would like me to come to the Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood, where Kenny regularly let off some mid-week, post-show steam playing the lounge there with “Tonight Show” band drummer, the awesome Jeff Watts.

That was where I got my first real taste of Kenny’s dynamic playing style. Up close I was mesmerized by how he didn’t just play the piano, he attacked it. The best that I can give by way of description of his talent is that he didn’t just create music. To watch Kenny play was to see and hear him shape music, guide it, steer it, feel it, own it and make it what he wanted it to be. It was powerful stuff to behold.

Six years later, I get chills thinking of him sitting there, face down low near the keys, gifting that underappreciating barroom with his artistry. During a break he sat with me and Cat and I told him he drove the notes of his music like an angry cattleman driving a herd. He seemed to consider that for a moment, then smiled and said “You got it.”

I never saw Kenny again, except when I’d watch “The Tonight Show” and a camera would pick him up most often in the midst of a reaction chuckle to some part of Jay Leno’s opening monologue. A year or so later Marsalis left the “Tonight Show” and Kenny left soon after guitarist Kevin Eubanks took control of the band. I bumped into Cat around that time and she told me that she and Kenny had broken up and it had gotten ugly near the end with threats and drugs and violence. Perhaps that was the beginning of the spiral of depression that took him down to death.

It was an odd happening that spurred me to write this about him. Picking up “The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz” (Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, Oxford University Press, $49.95) for the first time, the book cracked opened to page 388 as if on its own, and there I was looking at Kenny’s entry. It revealed bits of his life, and I was reminded of his talent and his passionate play. I learned he began playing piano at 6, delving into a music education hooked on the classics: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. It mentions his long collaboration beginning in 1981 with Wynton Marsalis, and that he toured extensively with Sting for five years to 1990. And it lists the CDs of others upon which his work appears: Stanley Jordan, Dizzy Gillespie, Arturo Sandoval, Ernie Watts.

So I got on the Web and did a search and found out there was a new album out. Self-titled, it was released on the Uni/GRP label September 28 — his birthday — and is the only platter he made on his own.

When it arrived, I soaked it up right away. Pure Kenny, baby. His music filled the room and the chills came back — and some tears. I could picture him in the studio, intense face down near the keys, fingers dancing over them, commanding those notes like there was no tomorrow.

And now there isn’t. But I’d rather have this compilation of Kenny’s yesterdays, than nothing at all — and I’ll tell you what. Someday, when I hook myself up with another second-hand tenor sax (I had to sell my first one a couple years back to make the rent one month), I’m going to drop his disc in the player and take Mr. Kirkland up on that long-ago offer to jam with him.

And boy will we.

Originally published in the Pasadena Weekly.