Frank Kimbrough 1956-2020 | In Memoriam

Friday, Jan 15, 2021
By Aaron Flagg
Juilliard Journal
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Frank Kimbrough portrait

Juilliard mourns the loss of faculty member Frank Kimbrough, who died in December. 

By Aaron Flagg
On December 30, at the 11th hour of an already challenging calendar year, Juilliard and the wider music world lost the reassuring presence of Frank Kimbrough. An incredible pianist, dedicated teacher, caring mentor, and devoted friend, Frank began teaching in the Jazz Studies program in 2008 and was interim chair in 2014. He guided 12 graduating classes of talented young artists teaching private lessons, courses, and coaching ensembles. However, what he really taught was life.

Frank modeled a particular way of life, one that cherished each human interaction, saw the beauty in the everyday, accepted each phase of one’s life, and remained fascinated by the countless choices possible in making music.

He was unique. Clovis Nicolas (BM ’11, MM ’12, jazz studies) recalls “Once, Frank came over for a playing session at my place and got off the train two stops earlier and walked ‘to get a feel for the neighborhood.’ Who else does that?” Students and alumni fondly remember long walks in Central Park with Frank or lunch at Amber to talk or just hang that often started as an impromptu meeting outside the school’s entrance. These were really investments into the life of each person.

Frank was a great listener and storyteller, a master of conversation whose wisdom could be delivered in a pithy quote such as “I don’t practice, music is my practice.” Or on recognizing what makes a person unique, “sometimes you’re the last to know.” His wisdom could also come in a sarcastic, witty observation, or a thoughtfully explained concept wrapped in metaphors or an analogy like “rhythm is melody, and melody is rhythm” or “the score is not the music. It’s only a map, not the journey itself.”

’The composition is a gift from the composer for how you’re going to improvise on this tune. It gives you information. It gives you motive. It gives you intervals. It gives you rhythms. It gives you all sorts of things to deal with. And if you just throw all that out the window with the first chorus of your solo—to just play a bunch of patterns you’ve figured out in a book, or something that’s going to get applause—then I think you’re doing a disservice to the tune and to its composer.’ 
—Frank Kimbrough

Frank was raised in Roxboro, North Carolina. After leaving college, he formed groups in Chapel Hill and in Washington, D.C., where he met and was mentored by jazz vocalist and pianist Shirley Horn before he moved to New York in 1981. He recorded on 70 albums as a sideman and more than 20 as a leader, on labels such as Pirouet, Newvelle, Palmetto, Soul Note, and Mapleshade. He was inspired by the piano playing of Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and Shirley Horn and the music of Paul Bley, Herbie Nichols, and Andrew Hill. He co-founded and was composer in residence for the Jazz Composers Collective (1992-2005), and he played with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra for more than 25 years.

Frank cherished being a member of the Juilliard community. He loved all his students. He loved his creative, brilliant, and beautiful wife, vocalist Maryanne de Prophetis, and he loved being in jazz. His being at Juilliard facilitated a reciprocal relationship with his artistic life and seemed a culminating achievement given his humble beginnings and own mixed experiences with school.

Frank was my immediate predecessor—he briefly served as interim chair of Jazz Studies—and knowing firsthand the work involved with the role, he happily handed me the clipboard so he could focus on teaching  when I returned to Juilliard in my current role in 2014. Frank took every teaching responsibility at Juilliard seriously and poured himself into it. His syllabi were always done first, his audition evaluations were thoughtful and thorough, respectful of each developing young artist’s journey. Generous and supportive, he was always there for recitals, making each graduating student feel special, and he encouraged everyone to give themselves the space to make their playing and their life personal, organic, and human. His participation in faculty meetings was always for the greater good and never about self-aggrandizement. He was in the office regularly to hang out and volunteer updates on his classes. A perfect mentor, he was sensitive to how folks were feeling and ready to spend hours with them walking, listening, and offering sage wisdom. All he did was done in love.

The outpouring of love and appreciation for this man from the global jazz community as well as the Juilliard community mirrors the love he bestowed on everyone he met. As Registrar Kathy Gertson noted, “He was great at telling people how much he appreciated them and exactly why.”

We are all blessed to have known Frank Kimbrough. His impact is immeasurable. Rest in peace, my friend.

Aaron Flagg (BM ’92, MM ’93, trumpet) is the chair and associate director of Juilliard Jazz

Remembering Frank

The following have been excerpted from tributes former students wrote about Frank Kimbrough just after he died.

Frank was a really generous, kind, and supportive person, and his genuine care for his students brought so much warmth to the Juilliard community. I loved running into him in the hallway or around the city. His go-to greeting was “Whaddup Cool?” which always put me in a good mood. His perspectives on music and life really influenced and helped me, and being in his combo one year was some of the most fun I had playing music in school. At the beginning of the lockdown, I got really into the Sonny Rollins album Our Man in Jazz, which he mentioned in class one time. I would always take a mental note of anything he recommended because I knew it would be something unique and kind of a hidden gem.
Zoe Obadia (BM ’18, MM ’20)

Frank was always very supportive of me. One day after a rehearsal, he really liked what I played on a tune and he took the time to email Ron Carter—my teacher at that time—to tell him that whatever he was teaching me was working.

I have many other stories to share—our trip to Colombia, his beautiful sound, his warm demeanor, how he supported all the students at school and how he was always there for all the recitals, making each one of us feel special, and of course his sarcastic yet witty sense of humor.
Clovis Nicolas (BM ’11, MM ’12)

Frank did things his own way. I always appreciated his free spirit, unique perspective, and insatiable appetite for interesting conversation. He encouraged you to explore every possibility in the music and think, play, and live outside the box, even when everyone else was telling you not to. It’s characters like him who make life and music exciting, and I know he will be greatly missed by all who knew him.
Joe Boga (BM ’14)

Frank was the embodiment of what it meant to be creative, walking around Central Park, figuring out ways to breathe new life in songs we’ve played thousands of times. He always avoided categorical thinking when it came to music—you could hear him talk about Bud Powell the same way he could talk about John Cage. What really separated Frank from all of the other teachers I’ve worked with was the depth of love for his students. If you had a problem in your life musically or personally, you knew you could always count on Frank. Those first few years in NYC were tough for me, and Frank was always a light in the darkness. I’m still in shock to hear that he passed away, and I hope that we can remember the passion, love, and joy that permeated every aspect of his being.
David Adewumi (MM ’18)

Frank’s sharp wit and humor taught me something new every time we spoke. I smile thinking of the laughs shared on the Juilliard stoop. He taught me to appreciate the history of the piano lineage. One project he gave all his students was to learn the birth dates and places of 100 important pianists, helping to unlock this puzzle of who-influenced-whom, regional styles, contemporaries. And his enthusiasm for legends like Monk and Ellington was only matched in his advocacy for overlooked artists whom we may otherwise neglect to discover. 

Hearing Frank play was a mesmerizing, stirring experience. I will cherish those memories and recordings. I’m especially grateful to have seen Frank at Birdland with Jeff Hirshfield and Ben Street last January, a time when future circumstances were still invisible. 

Frank was a listener; he practiced that quality with an integrity rarely seen among musicians. I’ll forever carry that standard in mind, with ample opportunity to practice: He gave so many of us astounding listening lists, carefully crafted for what he thought might be up your alley, or what might take you to a brand new alley altogether. 

I’m feeling fortunate to have recorded a number of my lessons with Frank [and] hearing his voice has provided great comfort. I know that I’ll be passing on quotes of Frank’s to my future students, just as he did from his beloved Andrew, Shirley, Motian, and Bley. 
Addison Frei (Artist Diploma ’19)

>A virtual gathering to celebrate Frank Kimbrough takes place January 30, and a celebration of life will be scheduled in the future; for information contact [email protected]

Maryanne de Prophetis is establishing the Frank Kimbrough Jazz Scholarship in honor of her husband; for information, please contact Mary Yeatts, associate director for major gifts, at [email protected]