Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Kirk, Willis, drummer; b. Indianapolis, IN, 1928. He began his musical education studying percussion instruments at P.S. #37 as a fifth grader under Norman Merifield and Russell Brown. He played in the band and orchestra a Crispus Attucks High School. By age 14 he was playing professionally in and around Indianapolis. Having grown up with the Montgomery brothers - Wes, Monk and Buddy as with members of the Hampton family- Luckey,Maceo, Slide, Duke, Aletra, and Carmelita, Willis was challenged early in his musical life. He and his friends set standards for others to follow such as Slide Hampton, David Baker Freddie Hubbard, Larry Ridley, James Spaulding, Virgil Jones, and Melvin Rhyne, all from Indidnapolis.
Willis Graduated from Butler University in 1956 after a 1953 tour with Lionel Hampton where he met and played with Quincy Jones, Clifford Brown, GeeGee Grice, Art Farmer, Monk Mongomery, and other great young players unknown at the time. Kirk played at many venues in and around Indianapolis while teaching instrumental music in the public schools there. He received his Masters degree in music from Butler University in 1964 and a Doctorate in 1975 from Waldon University. He worked with many bands and also worked with his own trio in various clubs. At the Embers, an upscale night spot, his trio backed acts such as, Mel Torme, June Christy, Peter Appleyard, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, Brabara McNair and Julie Harris. After moving to San Francisco in 1968 Willis became active in the musical life of the City. He worked shows with Tony Bennett, Jon Hendricks, The Ebony Fashion Show, the Marines Memorial Theater, and also recorded with the San Francisco All stair Big Band featuring John Handy, Michael Howell, Tricky Lofton, under the leadership of another Indianapolis native, David Hardiman.
From 1969 Dr Kirk worked at City College of San Francisco becoming President there his last two years before his retirement in 1991. During his time in San Francisco Willis has served as Vice President of the San Francisco Arts Commission serving two four year terms under two different Mayors. He also served on the board of the Friends and Foundation of the S.F. Public Library serving as secretary for one term. In 1982 Dr. Kirk wrote an instruction book on brush playing called "Brushfire". It is published now by Hal Leonard Publications. "Rejoice! Rejoice!" is an African -American Music Worship service composed, arranged and conducted by Dr. Kirk. He calls it a Jazz Oratorio. This one and one half hour work features a 50 voice choir and 10 musicians and was performed before the International Association of Jazz Educators in New York City in Jan. 2002 and again for the IAJE in 2003 in Long Beach, Ca. He has also recorded with Earl 'Father' Hines in Sal Paulo, Brazil. He presented a workshop on his book "Brushfire" in Brazil during his stay there in 1982. Kirk has stayed active throughout the Bay Area playing with various Jazz groups and working shows like the Ebony Fashion Show in San Francisco and Oakland. He is in demand as a spokesman for Jazz throughout the Bay Area community and has been called to the State Capital as a panelist to discuss the art and the history of Jazz in America. Willis is currently writing music for various groups as well as his own small ensembles. As a young musician he was influenced by saxophonist Jimmie Coe from Indianapolis and trombonist J.J. Johnson. He was highly influenced by Charlie Parker, who he worked with 'subbing' for Max Roach in 1949. Max Roach has always been his idol from the first time he hear him with Benny Carter's Band in late 1940's Duke Ellington and Count Basie. were also two of his idols. Willis lived a few doors from Joe Henderson who he came to know before his death. "Joe's style his writing and his approach on the horn has been influential on my musical outlook in these later years."
Some of the musicians he has worked with over the years includeWes Montgomery, Buddy Montgomery, Monk Montgomery, Joe Pass, Joe Wiliams, Mel torme, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, J.J. Johnson, June Cristy, Lionel Hampton, Clifford Brown, Carl Perkins, John Hendricks, the Mills Brotheres, Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Henderson, Tony Bennett, Benny Golston, John Handy, Paul Weeden, Jimmie Coe, Everett Greene, Melvin Rhyne, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Scott, and Earl 'Father' Hines.
S.F. All Star Big Band Recording; Earl Hines Recording; David Hardiman Band: Tribute to Joe Henderson, Tribute to Dizzy Gillespie; David Baker Religious Work - Butler University Recording
Interviews: " Jazz Oratorio" by Chuch Workman July 2001; Lany College "Brushfire" with Betty Wright; "Rejoice! Rejoice! - About the Oratorio - Larry Ridley; " Goals of the College "- March 1989 San Francisco - College Reporter; Friends and Fooundation S.F. Public Library - Interview for it's publication.