Kenny Kirkland

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Kenny Kirkland
Kirkland in 1991
Kirkland in 1991
Background information
Birth nameKenneth David Kirkland
Born(1955-09-28)September 28, 1955
Brooklyn, New York City, U.S.
DiedNovember 12, 1998(1998-11-12) (aged 43)
Queens, New York City, U.S.
GenresStraight-ahead jazz, jazz fusion, big band, post-bop
Instrument(s)Piano, keyboards
Years active1973–98
LabelsA&M Records, GRP Records

Kenneth David Kirkland (September 28, 1955 – November 12, 1998)[1] was an American pianist and keyboardist.


Early life[edit]

Born in Brooklyn, New York, United States,[1] Kirkland was six when he first sat down at a piano keyboard. After years of Catholic schooling, Kirkland enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied classical piano performance, classical theory and composition.


Kirkland's first professional work came with Polish fusion violinist Michal Urbaniak, touring throughout Europe with his group in 1977.[2] Coincidentally, his next high-profile gig was with another Eastern European jazz émigré, Miroslav Vitous. Kirkland is featured on Vitous' ECM recordings First Meeting[3] and Miroslav Vitous Group.[4]

In 1980, while Kirkland was on tour in Japan with Terumasa Hino, he met Wynton Marsalis, which began his long association with both Wynton and his older brother Branford.[1] On Wynton’s self-titled debut album, Kirkland shared the piano duties with one of his musical influences, Herbie Hancock,[5] but was the sole pianist on Marsalis's subsequent releases Think of One,[6] Hot House Flowers[7] and Black Codes (From the Underground).[8]

In 1985 Kirkland (alongside Branford Marsalis) joined the Blue Turtles, the jazz-pop studio-and-touring backing band put together by Sting to perform the latter's post-Police solo work and which can be heard on his first two solo releases The Dream of the Blue Turtles and Bring on the Night. Although the Blue Turtles would be a relatively short-lived outfit (performing two or three years of high-profile touring before Sting opted to continue with more traditional pop lineups), Kirkland would maintain his musical relationship with Sting afterwards, performing various piano and keyboard parts on subsequent studio albums.

Following his time in the Wynton Marsalis band, Kirkland's main musical collaborator would be Branford Marsalis, whose quartet he joined in 1986 as a founder member.[9] He is also featured on Branford’s funk band album Buckshot Lefonque.[10] When Branford Marsalis assumed the high-visibility role of bandleader for NBC TV's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Kirkland became the band's pianist.[11]

In 1991, he released his debut as a leader, Kenny Kirkland, on GRP Records. Thunder And Rainbows (1991, Sunnyside Records), by "Jazz from Keystone", is a trio album with Kirkland, Charles Fambrough, and Jeff "Tain" Watts.[12]

Leading up to and on June 1–3, 1998, Kirkland worked with long-time associate "Tain" Watts on the drummer's debut recording Citizen Tain. According to producer Delfeayo Marsalis, "He was clearly not in good shape." When asked about going to the doctor, Kirkland responded, "After the session. If I go now, they'll make me check into a hospital." On June 4, doctors told Kirkland he had a congestive heart condition that required an operation. He attributed his poor health to twenty years of touring without adequate vacations and exercise, and deemed his chances of surviving any surgery 50/50 or less. Fearful of having a cardiac procedure, Kirkland accepted his fate and was soon on the road with Branford Marsalis again. On November 7, 1998, Kirkland attended Marsalis's wedding in New Rochelle, New York. Kirkland was found dead in his Queens apartment on Friday, November 13, 1998.[13]

The official doctor's report listed his death as due to congestive heart failure.[14] He was survived by his mother, brother and two sisters.


In a video interview with Sting published on Aug 29, 2020 as part of the Doctone Project, Sting relates about Kirkland’s playing philosophy as follows: “I learned a lot from him—that way of approaching harmony where there are no wrong notes, just the note that you follow with... there are no mistakes in a Kenny Kirkland solo. What you think is wrong momentarily is suddenly put right by a choice, so that philosophy was something I learned at his feet... You can bring that into life, too. We all make mistakes, [but] it’s how we cope with them or how we react next, so that for me is the essence of jazz. You take a risk and you’re rewarded by your subsequent choices.”[15]


As leader[edit]

As sideman[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Obituary: Kenny Kirkland". The Independent. November 18, 1998. Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  2. ^ "Michał Urbaniak - Urbaniak". Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  3. ^ "First Meeting - Miroslav Vitous | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  4. ^ "Miroslav Vitous Group - Miroslav Vitous Group". Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  5. ^ "Wynton Marsalis". Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  6. ^ "Think of One - Wynton Marsalis | Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  7. ^ "Hot House Flowers - Wynton Marsalis | Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  8. ^ "Black Codes (From the Underground) - Wynton Marsalis | Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  9. ^ "Requiem for a Heavyweight: Marsalis Bids Kirkland Farewell". April 5, 1999. Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  10. ^ "Buckshot LeFonque - Buckshot LeFonque | Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  11. ^ Watrous, Peter (May 3, 1992). "Here's Branford". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 18, 2017.
  12. ^ "Thunder and Rainbows [Sunnyside] - Jazz from Keystone | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved July 29, 2021.
  13. ^ Christian, Nichole M. (November 15, 1998). "Body of Jazz Pianist Is Found; Police Seek Cause of Death". The New York Times. Retrieved July 29, 2021.
  14. ^ "Kenny Kirkland's Unanswered Promise". Retrieved July 29, 2021.
  15. ^ "The amazing Sting discusses his pianist and keyboardist of 11 years: the one and only Kenny Kirkland". Retrieved May 31, 2022.

External links[edit]