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Frank Kimbrough: A Remembrance

The pianist Frank Kimbrough died suddenly on December 30, 2020.

I first recall Frank from Cannon Music Camp at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, where he was an instructor and I was a student, in the summers of 1996 and 1997. Frank scared me a little, to be honest, probably because I did not know how to meet his intensity yet, and beyond that I found him to be musically overwhelming. Frank was not an overly technical player. But what happened when he sat down at the keyboard was completely his own, in a way that I had only heard on records at that age. The instrument just sounded different when he played it. I could not understand what was happening, or how. Musicians understand and learn by listening, though, and so I did, and I still do, often. For years, my alarm was set with an iPod that played the title track from “Lullabluebye,” the lilting trio rousing me in the dawn. Some damned thief stole that iPod, and I hope, for the good of his soul, that he wakes every morning to that same sound.

Frank back in 1996 had a little chip on his shoulder, too, or at least that’s how we perceived it. The story was that Frank had left school – perhaps had been invited to leave, I was never sure – over a semesters-long disagreement with the piano professor there. He wanted more European literature, Frank wanted more Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. Conservatories and music schools have never been the places to get immersed in Monk anyway, so Frank left. Things worked out pretty well, given that Kimbrough was on the faculty at Julliard for the past 12 years.

As an undergrad at Appalachian, I kept hearing one particular lesson from those summers with Frank in the back of my head. He had talked about time. In musician-speak, talking about “time” is trying to describe how the notes you play relate to the pulse of the music, or the “beat.” The options, he told us, were not just playing in time, like Charlie Parker, or out of time, like Cecil Taylor, though you need to be able to do those things. But you could also play “through” time, he said, in a way that acknowledges the time without becoming captive to it. Or something like that, because words never quite work with music. You have to hear it. So Frank would do it and you would know instantly what he meant.

Near the end of my third year at App, a new CD came through that became the talk of the building. It was Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Allegresse, a record that was turning the jazz world on its ear. Saxophone professor Dr. Bill Gora – himself a close enough friend that Frank came to Boone a few ago to speak at Gora’s memorial service – was smitten with the record, and tried to convince Frank to have Schneider re-orchestrate the second track, a piano feature, for wind ensemble, with Frank as our guest. I don’t think that ever happened, but the idea itself was a testimony to the transcendent playing and the incredible composition of the album.

I left App headed to seminary. I never left the music behind – playing the saxophone still pays my bills, or at least it did before the pandemic killed all my gigs. While immersed in ancient documents, I could hear those old words still ringing through time, speaking of a way that looked like an improvisation toward liberation. Most preachers don’t play saxophone, but the music had a hold of me similarly to how the Bible did, and neither of them has yet let go. I started trying to write about the interrelations between improvised music in the so-called ‘jazz’ tradition and the themes of Christian theology. I talked the seminary out of some money to work on a thesis, including a chance to travel and talk with a few musicians.

That fascinating semester landed me at the church of St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane in San Francisco and in the various clubs and halls and sanctuaries of New York City. I was hoping to interview people, to listen, and to try to put words to what was so obvious to me – the convergence of hope and lament, the communal project of improvisation, the importance of legacy and ancestry – about the music, but which defied simple description. You can’t talk about it so much as you talk through it, in a way that acknowledges that the structures of language make meaning possible, but also result in limitations and boundaries that you must finally tiptoe over and around and under, but can never escape. You cannot get free of the conventions of language, but the masters of argument find ways to move through word-worlds in ways that still manage to surprise.

When you tackle a big project like a thesis, you start with what you know and who you know. So I procured Frank’s number from a former professor, and I called him. (I also wound up, by another path, calling Sonny Fortune, and sitting in his living room for a couple of hours. Another story for another time.) We met at a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan and got lost in a conversation that touched on whole slew of subjects, almost none of them theology. Afterwards, we walked across the street to Tower Records, and got lost in the stacks of CDs there, until it was time to venture on. The thesis, like the restaurant, was forgettable. But what followed from that was far better – a friendship. Not one that was particularly close or frequent, but one that was easygoing and built on a generous affection for one another.

The usual pattern of that friendship involved a series of a few emails, at most a handful of times in a year. I try to make it to NYC with some regularity, so I would always send a message a few weeks before – where are you playing? Think you might have time for lunch? We would commune for a little while when we could make it work, and then check in by email again a few months down the road, usually to talk politics.

The personal connection meant a great deal to me, but so did the music. Two incidents stay near the front of my mind. In 2018, Maria Schneider’s band stopped in Durham, NC, not far from Frank’s hometown of Roxboro, NC. My oldest son and I were able to visit backstage for a little while, and were then treated to an unbelievable concert. My kids still pick at me, reminding me that they were bored, but they looked over and saw me in tears a few times. But words fail. Sometimes the band just plays through your soul, and what else are you supposed to do?

The other time was during one of the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s annual Thanksgiving week residencies at the recently-closed Jazz Standard in Manhattan. I had already been to several sets that week, and this would be my last before returning to North Carolina. I did not know what was happening to me, and in that room, until the end of that set. Frank’s piano was sounding the last chords of “Hang Gliding,” from that important Allegresse record, and I noticed myself barely breathing. So taken was I into the world of the music that the experience felt like what the mystics of Christian tradition might have called ecstasy, which is a way of saying, “standing outside oneself.” There were a hundred strangers stuffed into a New York City basement, and the heavens were being ripped open right there for all of us to see. The moment felt lyrical and eternal and impossibly gorgeous and every single person in the room, horn or no, go to participate. Those who can facilitate such moments through the work of their hands offer to us a world charged with incredible beauty, and time to walk through it among friends.

Rest in peace and beauty, friend.

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