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Scott Robinson Remembers Frank Kimbrough

The saxophonist pays tribute to the longtime Maria Schneider Orchestra pianist, his friend for more than 40 years (11/2/56 – 12/30/20)

Frank Kimbrough
Frank Kimbrough, July 2018 (photo: © Brian McMillen / www.brianmcmillenphotography.com)

I knew Frank before there was a Maria Schneider Orchestra. Before either of us moved to New York. Ron Horton just reminded me that I told him about Frank, and suggested they get in touch, back when Ron and I lived in Boston (years later, the two of them became co-founders of the Jazz Composers Collective). So Frank and I go way back. Neither of us could remember exactly how we met—probably at some Washington, D.C. jam session—but it was sometime in 1979 or ’80. He always spoke fondly of our first gigs, at the Boar’s Head Inn somewhere in Virginia, where I would show up in my 1949 Plymouth loaded with instruments.

After we both ended up in New York, he landed a steady piano gig at the Village Corner on Bleecker Street (“At the Corner of Walk and Don’t Walk”), where he held forth for years, playing solo for an assortment of drunks, characters, and—sometimes—music fans. I used to pop in there and see him, and we would chat. He had an edge in those days, an irritable side, that noticeably mellowed out when he married his wonderful Maryanne [de Prophetis]. He seemed a much happier person after that, more relaxed about life, although he kept his BS meter finely tuned and always at the ready.

I can’t recall if I had a hand in bringing Frank to Maria’s attention or not, but he became a tirelessly loyal collaborator for some 30 years—as indispensable to her music as Hodges was to Duke. I have so many pictures in my mind of the two of them hunched over the piano, figuring out how to stop the strings and where, and with what materials, to get the many otherworldly effects heard in the Winter Morning Walks project with Dawn Upshaw.

Frank did everything his own way. He never owned a cellphone. He never practiced, believing in “saving it for the gig.” His political views were decidedly liberal, and some of the ways he expressed those views were legendary. Few of us will forget his refusal to cut his hair for the entirety of G.W. Bush’s eight-year tenure in the White House.

Most of our live duo performances consisted of tunes, and we had developed a way of moving in and out of tunes that involved a very special kind of communication, which I can honestly say only happens with a very few people. That’s part of what hurts so much: I’ve not only lost a friend, but I’ve lost that music—the music that only happens when I play with that person.

When Frank tapped me to record, with Rufus Reid and Billy Drummond, a mammoth six-CD set of all known Thelonious Monk compositions [Monk’s Dreams], I was stunned. What an incredible opportunity to learn, grow, and play great music with great people. We had an amazing six days of music and camaraderie out at Maggie’s Farm in rural Pennsylvania, and managed to get good takes of all 70 tunes. I will always be grateful for that experience. One of my favorite tracks, though, is one of the few I don’t play on: “Functional,” a little unaccompanied blues piano gem. I was moved to write to Frank about it: “I don’t know too many cats who can play like that.”

There are so many regrets when someone like this leaves. The unsaid words. The unfinished projects. The missed opportunities that now will never come again. One of those that will haunt me for a very long time came when the Monk group was scheduled to perform a livestream from Smalls—as my own quartet had done a couple months before, in an empty club—for Monk’s birthday in October. Three weeks before the gig, we were told there would now be an audience of 20, and I got nervous. Much as I wanted to play, I asked the others if this was really a good idea. Rufus seconded my concerns, and nobody wanted to do the gig if I wasn’t comfortable about it. Frank took a raincheck from Smalls, telling me, “Don’t give it a second thought. We can do it at another time.” Then we were offered another date in late November, again with the audience, and the COVID situation wasn’t any better. This time I was really in agony over it, and suggested that maybe they should just do the gig with another horn player. Frank wouldn’t hear of it. “We can’t do it without you,” he said. “I can’t imagine you not being there.” So those gigs didn’t happen, and despite his optimism, now they never will … and I must live with the fact that my fears of COVID took away my last two chances to ever play music with that wonderful group.

Now, as I look out the window and watch the sun finally set on this year of heartbreak and death, I find it is my unhappy turn to say, after 40 years of friendship and music, “Frank … I can’t imagine you not being there.”

This tribute originally appeared in longer form on the ScienSonic Laboratories website (sciensonic.net).

In Memoriam: Tributes to 2020’s Departed Jazz Greats