Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Kirkland, Kenny (Kenneth David)

Pianist Kenny Kirkland's skillful, accurate comping and blistering melodic explorations provided a solid foundation for the early work of both Wynton and Branford Marsalis. While he was equally innovative in both jazz and pop, and at one point played in the most successful groups in both genres, his musical contributions have faded from view since his untimely death in 1998.

Kenneth David Kirkland was born on September 28th, 1955 in Brooklyn, New York. He began taking piano lessons at the young age of six. "Back then, you know, to get a piano was expensive, so once I started playing I couldn’t quit,” he said in an interview. Kirkland’s first exposure to jazz music came through his older brother, who later earned a PhD in philosophy. Kirkland said that, “My brother turned me on to different jazz people, such as Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and then I started loving getting into jazz.”

After attending a Catholic high school, he enrolled at New York’s Manhattan School of Music. While here he studied classical piano. Kirkland’s first major breaks came with several well-known European musicians. The first came with violinist Michal Urbaniak and the next came with former Weather Report bassist Miroslav Vitous. Kirkland appeared on two recordings with Vitous that were released on ECM, First Meeting and The Miroslav Vitous Group.

Kirkland began to make a name for himself on the jazz scene at the same time as two brothers from New Orleans, Wynton and Branford Marsalis. By one account, Kirkland first met Wynton Marsalis while touring Japan with trumpeter Terumasa Hino. Regardless of how they met, their five-year professional relationship began when he joined Wynton on the trumpeter's self-titled debut album, on which Kirkland shared piano duties with Herbie Hancock.

As Wynton Marsalis rose to prominence, jazz tastes shifted towards his classic sound with its strong emphasis on the technical virtuosity of the bebop tradition. Kirkland offered welcome colors to this context, as his playing was more of a throwback to 1960s pianists like Hancock and McCoy Tyner. This potent combination can be heard on Wynton’s influential 1985 album Black Codes (Songs from the Underground), which included the songs “Chambers of Tain" and “Delfeayo’s Dilemma.

Kirkland was also the pianist on saxophonist Branford Marsalis’s initial releases on Columbia Records. In fact, Branford provided Kirkland with the steadiest work of his career, as the two played together almost in every capacity up until the early 1990s. Kirkland is heard on Branford’s albums Scenes from the City, which was released in 1983. Kirkland also appeared on trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s 1984 album New Faces, which teamed the bebop pioneer with younger musicians who included bassist Lonnie Plaxico, drummer Robert Ameen, and Branford Marsalis on tracks such as "Tenor Song."

A major shift in this landscape occurred in 1985 when Branford Marsalis left Wynton’s band to join pop star Sting’s touring band. Kirkland followed Branford with Sting, and Wynton publicly denounced the two for eschewing jazz. Kirkland stayed with Sting for more than ten years and helped the bassist and singer consolidate his solo career in the late 1980s.

In the early 1990s, Kirkland joined Branford when he took over as musical director for NBC’s Tonight Show. While the pair enjoyed the steady work, they also became disenchanted with the lack of creative expression that the job entailed. "I got into it, but I thought I would do it maybe for one year," Kirkland said later. "And then it got really comfortable, you know; a steady paycheck, the benefits and everything, you know. Which is just great for a 'road' musician, that you get a steady paycheck. But I was not really happy doing that.”

He also had a problem with the lifestyle in Los Angeles, where the show was based. “You make your money, and you look like you're popular, and that's the whole thing," he said."You don't really have to strive to do any music and stuff. So I was getting really unhappy doing that. Branford too.”

After years of playing behind other musicians, in 1991 Kirkland released his self-titled first album as a leader for the GRP label. The previous year, he collaborated with hip-hop group Gang Starr on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s 1990 film Mo’ Better Blues. Kirkland also contributed piano and keyboard tracks to Branford’s hip-hop fusion group Buckshot Lefonque, whose first album featured production by DJ Premier from Gang Starr.

As the 1990s rolled along, so did Kenny Kirkland. He continued to perform with Sting, but his health began to rapidly decline. In the summer of 1998, while working on drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts's debut album, he was informed by doctors that he had congestive heart failure and that he didn’t stand a good chance of survival even after surgery. On November 7th of that same year, Kirkland attended Branford Marsalis’ wedding in New Rochelle, New York. On November 13th he was found dead in his apartment in Queens. He was only forty-three years old. While the cause of Kirkland’s death was ruled as heart failure, it is likely that drug abuse accelerated his decline.

Despite this untimely death, Kirkland left a rich recorded legacy. He started off extending the branch of old pianists, but developed his own sound as his career continued to evolve. History might not yet properly remember him for his contributions but his work is strong enough to endure the test of time.

Select Discography

With Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis (Columbia, 1981)

Think of One (Columbia, 1983)

Hot House Flowers (Columbia, 1984)

Black Codes (Songs from the Underground) (Columbia, 1985)

With Branford Marsalis

Scenes in the City (Columbia, 1983)

Renaissance (Columbia, 1986)

Random Abstract (Columbia, 1987)

Crazy People Music (Columbia, 1990)

With Sting

The Dream of the Blue Turtles (A&M, 1985)

Bring on the Night (A&M., 1986)

….Nothing like the Sun (A&M., 1987)

Contributor: Jared Pauley