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Frank Kimbrough 1956–2020

The pianist, composer, and educator was a longtime member of Maria Schneider’s orchestra

Frank Kimbrough 2018
Frank Kimbrough at the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay, Calif., July 2018 (photo © Brian McMillen [brianmcmillenphotography.com])

Frank Kimbrough, a pianist and educator who was celebrated for his tasteful, luminescent touch on the piano, died December 30 at his home in Long Island City, Queens. He was 64.

His death was announced on social media by his brother, Ed Kimbrough, a real estate broker. His wife, vocalist and composer Maryanne de Prophetis, told WBGO radio that the likely cause of death was a heart attack.

Kimbrough was probably best known for his long association with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, in which he had held the piano chair since 1993. He was also a member of Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project and enjoyed lengthy collaborative relationships with de Prophetis, drummer Matt Wilson, and bassist Ben Allison, in whose Jazz Composers Collective Kimbrough was a charter member.

However, Kimbrough also led a robust solo career, recording 16 albums under his own name and helming duo, trio, and quartet projects. Among his most acclaimed works were 1999’s Dr. Cyclops’ Dream, 2004’s Lullabluebye, and 2018’s Monk’s Dreams, his final recording as a leader, on which he and a quartet assayed all 70 known compositions by Thelonious Monk. He was remarkably at ease in any style of jazz, turning on a dime from blocky and dissonant clusters to bebop workouts to ethereal subtleties. In all cases, his impeccable touch was balanced by a strong undercurrent of rhythm.

Kimbrough was also held in high esteem as an educator, holding a faculty position in jazz piano at the Juilliard School since 2008. Above all, he was known for his personal warmth and kindness. “It would be difficult to find a teacher who truly cared so much about his students,” Jonah Moss, a trumpeter and one of Kimbrough’s Juilliard students, wrote on Facebook.

“A genuinely good guy looking out for people in a town that has mentors like that sometimes in short supply,” wrote trumpeter and vocalist Benny Benack III.

Frank Marshall Kimbrough, Jr. was born November 2, 1956 in Roxboro, North Carolina, a rural town on the periphery of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle. Although his mother was a piano teacher, his first experience in music came from picking out hymns that he’d heard in church on the piano at about the age of three. He later trained as a classical pianist before discovering jazz in his early teens. “It was on PBS: the Bill Evans Trio,” he told JazzTimes in 2004. “I remember it like it was yesterday. Because there it was, the discipline of the classical stuff that I’d been working on, and the freedom of improvising and just playing.”

A college dropout, Kimbrough began his professional career in nearby Chapel Hill, where he lived briefly before moving on to Washington, D.C. and then, in 1981, to New York City.

Although he won the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in 1985 and held down a lengthy solo residency at the Village Corner in New York, Kimbrough’s reputation didn’t really begin to blossom until 1991, when he met Allison, joining the bassist’s Jazz Composers Collective soon after. Among the outgrowths of that collective was the Herbie Nichols Project, led by Kimbrough in an acclaimed and successful tribute to one of his favorite pianists.

In 1993 he joined Schneider’s big band, which led to his greatest visibility. He appeared on eight of Schneider’s albums, in addition to their 2015 single with David Bowie, “Sue (or in a Season of Crime).” By the time he joined Schneider, Kimbrough had already released two albums of his own; he would go on to work with the likes of Ted Nash, Paul Motian, Joe Locke (a favorite duo partner), Igor Butman, and Kendra Shank, among others. He also led several trios—most recently with bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jeff Hirshfield—and quartets, including the one with multi-reedist Scott Robinson, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Billy Drummond that recorded Monk’s Dreams in 2018.

In addition to de Prophetis, Kimbrough is survived by his mother, Katie Lee Currin Kimbrough, and four brothers, Conrad, Mark, Edwin and David Kimbrough.

For more on Frank Kimbrough:

Q&A with Thomas Conrad (2017)

JazzTimes video interview during the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival

Hearsay profile by Bill Milkowski (2000)

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.