”I realized that Frank had somehow figured out the secret to living and experiencing life to its fullest.”
This is one of a series of tributes current and former jazz students wrote about faculty member Frank Kimbrough, who died suddenly on January 30. They have been edited for length.
By Chris Ziemba
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that knowing Frank so thoroughly and positively influenced the course of my life that I can’t imagine what a Frank-less reality might look like. If I had never taken that trip to New York City to get a one-off lesson with Frank, I never would have thought I could get into Juilliard—I might not have moved to New York City at all and certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunities that came as a result of having him as a mentor (my first gig at so-and-so club, recommending me to play with such-and-such big name player). Sometimes I even wonder if I would still be a jazz pianist today! Frank played a huge part in shaping the course of my life, and I won’t get to tell him how immeasurably grateful I am.
The loss of a close friend or family member cuts deep. Frank felt like both to me, and in the wake of his sudden passing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are now, all of us, Frank-less. However, in hearing and reading tributes, memories, and anecdotes from his other students and colleagues, I’ve found that the grief has been softened by a confident faith that Frank lives on—we all now carry him with us. I think I can probably speak for all of his students when I say that Frank’s essence continues on in our hearts and minds: his opinions on music; keen observations on politics; his stories about the New York jazz scene from decades past; crotchety words of wisdom passed down from his own mentor Paul Bley; his dark humor. In short, Frank had already become a legend before his time on earth was through! (This, of course, says nothing about his vast recorded oeuvre, as full of breadth and depth as any artist could hope to leave behind.)
One of the things that made Frank so special was his willingness to impart himself to others. Wisdom about music, wisdom about life. Lessons with Frank took place as much at the piano as they did away from the instrument—and when we were away from the instrument, we were walking and talking. Even when I was out of school, the walks always started outside the main entrance to Juilliard on West 65th between Broadway and Amsterdam. As I’m writing this, I’m picturing the way I’d almost always find him: standing right at the curb in front of those doors, often sporting a trench coat or leather bomber when the weather called for it, a colorful button-down, always with those dark circular spectacles, a lit cigarette at hand, and a nonchalant posture that said he knew just how damn cool he was. He was also almost always found engaged in conversation with another passerby; Frank’s cool guy vibe was an outer shell for a warm and inviting soul. Walks would go up, down, left or right, but there would be some usual destinations. Most often, we’d go for the sushi lunch special at Amber, up on the corner of 70th and Columbus. Just a few short blocks, pretty much as short as a walk was liable to get in NYC, and yet this walk would become a journey in itself.
With Frank, walks were never a means to an end, they were as much an integral part of the hang as the time spent sitting at the table. These walks were not typical to the streets of New York, either; there was no rushing, no jostling, none of the usual vying for position at crosswalks. Frank didn’t play that game. I always got the sense that Manhattan was moving around and in spite of Frank, and that he was determined to only ever go at his own natural pace. It was a slow pace! Possibly a holdover from his North Carolina upbringing, but it was also more than that. Here was a man who was so immovably in the moment that whoever he was with was forced to share in its significance with him. Even walking to the end of a block could become an opportunity for revelation and inspiration.
I realized that Frank had somehow figured out the secret to living and experiencing life to its fullest. He just had an undying positivity, an ability to always find the bright side, to see the larger picture, to not let himself be bogged down by petty concerns. And to walk with Frank was to become infused with this same spirit! My concerns about navigating the bridge to a certain tune, finding work as a new guy on the scene, playing poorly the night before (definitely a recurring frustration of mine), whatever new bad geopolitical thing I read in the news—with Frank, these worries all were framed differently. I could approach these issues with a healthy perspective, because Frank taught me not to dwell on the problems. I had determined almost immediately to make myself more like him, to soak up as much of his vibe as I possibly could—one walk with Frank was apt to inspire me for weeks on end. (How lucky I was to be able to have a weekly dose when I was in school!)
Other common destinations with Frank were Central Park, where we’d find a bench on which to just watch things go by. Frank sat on benches a lot. “I never practice,” he would say. The bandstand would just render irrelevant and useless any of the constructs of the so-called practice room, anyway. Any preparations he needed to make were all done in the mind, on a bench surrounded by trees, squirrels, distant city noises. When Maria Schneider sent along a piano part for a new tune, he’d take it to a bench and read it over and over until he knew it. He also came up with entire compositions, or arrangements of standards, in the park.
One that I’ll never forget is his twisted take on Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are.” Somehow he realized you could play the second eight bars first followed by the first eight bars, then the second half of the bridge followed by the first half of the bridge, and then the last section as is. Only a few connective chords were needed and he had found a brand new take on one of the most well-worn vehicles in the jazz pantheon. In an effort to be more like Frank, I started seeking out some spots of my own to take a break. Though I never quite got to his level, I made a point to listen to full albums all the way through and had begun to learn to focus my attention for extended periods.
During these walks, I always sensed that I was special, that Frank had wanted and allowed me to share in the present with him. And I think that this was true; conversations rarely felt as meaningful, or as sincere, or as thought-provoking as those with Frank. I knew that he sincerely cared about my development as a human. This is the sign of a truly great teacher. I’ve heard these same kinds of things from his other students as well. He devoted himself to us. He was able to make each one of us feel important in the moment, and feel the importance of the moment. He had many current and former students to walk with, yet Frank always found time for everyone, and he never brought anything less than his whole presence to each person. He was, simply put, as real as it got. I will always marvel at his ability to be completely and undeniably himself at any juncture, in person or at the piano.
A new chapter began in my life when I moved away from New York City, after six wonderful years spent in and around that scene, to Washington, D.C. I am lucky to still be pursuing music (and jazz, at that), though the move itself and having made the choice to head away from the epicenter of my art had the predictable effect of causing me to question my choice. Inspiration was no longer as easy to come by, because I couldn’t go to a Smalls or a Village Vanguard on a whim. Frank became a lifeline for me. Every few months, I’d give him a call at his home and we’d catch up as if no time had passed. (Side note: Frank was one of the few humans on the planet who never owned a cell phone. God bless him for that.) I’d fill him in on what I’d been up to, he’d tell me about where he’d been playing, how his current students are, we’d complain some more about the political environment. Eventually I’d bring up how I was struggling to stay inspired, how my playing had taken a hit, how I just felt off since leaving New York. Frank, true to form, would always call my bluff. He broke down the B.S. in my head with a healthy dose of perspective. “Remember, you’re the only person that’s ever heard 100 percent of what you played.” Or “When you walk out on that stage, you have to tell yourself that you’re the baddest motherf*cker that ever played. That’s what I do.” Or “As soon as the gig’s over, forget about it. It has nothing to do with the next one.”
When the pandemic hit and I found myself without an outlet for the thing I had trained for my whole life, Frank was there for me still, floating above it all and seeing the whole picture. About a month in, our first talk had centered around the new gig-less pandemic landscape, about which I was recognizably dark. Frank had again turned me around, pointing out that it would only be temporary, and recommending that I reread one of his favorite book recommendations: Free Play (by Stephen Nachmanovitch, about kindling and maintaining one’s innate spirit of play). We spoke once again, after he’d left me a voice message to check in, to see how things had been faring. We chatted for close to an hour, and he said he’d been continuing to enjoy his walks in the park and spending time with his wife Maryanne. I distinctly remember his sign-off: “Okay, love you, man, take care of yourself. Talk to you again soon.” I couldn’t have known that would be the last time I’d get to speak to him.
So, to Frank: Thank you for your music, your piano playing, your compositions. Thank you for your many words, in the form of piano lessons, life advice, jazz lore, jazz departmental gossip, and dark jokes. Thank you for always, always being willing to make time for a hang and a walk. Thank you for fostering my love of sushi. Thank you for being so generous with passing my name around town when I first got there. Thank you for supporting my development and then being a trusted ear for my concerns. Thank you for showing me that it’s all about taking the journey, and that the perceived end goal is never as important as it may seem. Thank you for teaching me how to appreciate life. Thank you for everything.
—Chris Ziemba (Artist Diploma ’14, jazz)