Word leaked over the Internet before any official sources were heard. But in the end, the stories were the same: Pianist Kenny Kirkland was found dead in his Queens home on Friday, November 13. He was 43. At press time, no apparent cause of death was revealed.*
Kirkland came of age in the 1980s in Wynton Marsalis' band. He played on Marsalis's first four albums, up through the electrifying Black Codes from the Underground, an album that powerfully evokes the storm with which Marsalis and his bandmates took the jazz world. Black Codes set the popular standard for mainstream jazz in the mid-’80s, and Kirkland's contributions as pianist and composer were sizable and eloquent.
"When I first got to Juilliard," Marsalis remembers, "vibraphonist Mark Sherman played these really difficult chords for me, these complex bi-tonal chords. I was about 17 at the time. He said, 'You dig these chords? These are Kirkland's chords. You've got to hear Kirkland.' So when I met Kenny later, I already knew I wanted to play with him. We would rehearse at his house. He had great ears, he could really hear. And he had a truly deep grasp of theoretical knowledge, a great sense of harmony, a sophisticated sense of rhythm. You only had to play something for him one time and he got it right away. And he was the best soloist in the band; each note had a vector, its own direction, all leading somewhere, and everything swinging. We learned a lot from him, my brother and I."
Kirkland recorded and toured with Branford Marsalis throughout the ’80s. When the saxophonist joined Sting for his Dream of the Blue Turtles album in 1985, Kirkland accompanied him and went on to continue working with Sting for some eight years and four further albums.
Kirkland made only one album as a leader, an eponymously titled release for GRP in 1991. It was as a versatile and dependable sideman that he left his mark on music. When Branford became musical director of the Tonight Show in 1992, Kirkland joined the band. In 1997, he returned to Branford's quartet (with drummer Jeff Watts and bassist Eric Revis) for well-received live performances and for the recording of Branford's next album, due for release in March.**
Tonight Show bandmate and current musical director Kevin Eubanks summed up the esteem in which Kirkland was held by his peers: "In my heart, I've always felt that Kenny Kirkland really embodied the essence of a generation of musicians, bridging the past and the future while taking no bows. He always left us wanting more."
My first article for Jazziz, from 1999. Not the most pleasant subject with which to start a new career path, but a serious assignment – and the only time to date that I've interviewed Wynton Marsalis. The official cause of Kenny Kirkland's death was congestive heart failure, though some obituaries reported that drug paraphernalia was found when his body was discovered. Requiem, the final Branford Marsalis album to feature Kirkland, came out in March 1999.