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Dr. Willis Kirk: A Sacred Jazz Life

By Matt Parish

It was a future that would have been tough to envision from Dr. Willis Kirk’s old home in Indianapolis back in the ‘30s. The renowned drummer and composer of the groundbreaking jazz oratorio “Rejoice! Rejoice!” has hit the bandstand with generations of musicians and developed original teaching techniques, eventually working his way up to serve as president of San Francisco City College.  In his early days, though, Indiana was a state just getting out from under the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, whose members at one point included the governor (Edward L. Jackson) and half of the state’s general assembly.

Kirk went on to discover himself as a lifelong jazz educator, musician, and composer, performing in early bands throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s and spending a long career teaching students in the Midwest and in the Bay Area. He used his teaching skills to climb the ladder at the San Francisco Community College while maintaining an active performing career locally and composing “Rejoice! Rejoice!”

Dr. Kirk playing with the Montgomery Quartet at Henri’s Bar on Indiana Avenue in the early ‘50s with Monk, Wes, and Buddy Montgomery.

Kirk grew up in Indianapolis in an era when quite a few jazz greats were emerging in the area. Great local names included Wes Montgomery, J. J. Johnson, Slide Hampton, and Freddie Hubbard. After a young adulthood learning the ropes by watching and performing with bebop legends like Charlie Parker and Art Blakey, Kirk set off on a performing career of his own in the early ‘50s, including a touring stint with the Lionel Hampton band. Not long after, he decided to settle down and pursue music education, exploring early methods of teaching music by rote in his early days at a high school in Indianapolis. At that school, in the underserved “Dogtown” part of the city, nonexistent arts funding led practitioners and students alike to make do with anything they could, including no budget for sheet music.  Those students successfully performed for audiences all over the state, and the experience gained Kirk the credentials to write a method book and head to the West Coast. There, he taught at an Oakland junior high before moving on to San Francisco City College, of which he eventually became president.  He also published the drumming method book Brush Fire in 1997 (Houston Publishing).

Through it all, he’s maintained a love for jazz and continues to play, arrange, and advocate for jazz education for all ages. He’s been focusing on new arrangements of his “Rejoice, Rejoice” piece recently, preparing for performances of it with a full big band and huge choir.  JAZZed recently spoke with Dr. Kirk about his incredible career and his steadfast dedication to jazz education.

JAZZed: That “Rejoice” project is taking up a good portion of your time these days – where did the idea for that originate?

Dr. Willis Kirk: Duke [Ellington] had a religious service at the time and he’d performed it just before I came out here at the Grace Cathedral. And otherwise, there was no precedent for a band and a gospel according to the New Testament. We were just trying express the meaning of that. Duke didn’t do it that way – he set up a religious service and he had a tap dancer and the band and just a little narration. It was mostly music. That was the only thing I looked up to as a way of doing things and it kind of opened my eyes that it could be done. We got some favorable reviews from the Evansville student newspaper. Some people liked it and said it should be done more places. Others said it was blasphemy to bring a jazz service into a sanctuary.

JAZZed: When you were writing the piece, was there a certain tradition in jazz that you were trying to draw from specifically?

WK: When I was growing up, my mother used to listen to the radio and every Sunday morning there was the Golden Gate Quartet. They were a capella but they had a jazz feel. They’d perform the story about “Old Moses,” and it would be really rhythmic. I really liked that. It was more to me than just telling the story – there was rhythm along with the gospel.

JAZZed: Did you have other experiences with jazz-inflected gospel music early on?

WK: A group used to set up a revival tent in our neighborhood and that was the only time I’d ever heard a guitar player, drummer, and organ player together. It was a group of Apostolic type of people – they’d talk in tongues. But that was the first time I’d heard an instrumental trio in a church. They were a lot further along – of course, nowadays this has been done in a Catholic church. So it’s all over now, but years ago a lot of people would say it was sacrilegious. We’d peep under the tent to see this stuff and when my mom found out, she gave me holy hell!  She belonged to a Methodist church that was quite traditional.

Dr. Kirk performing at a recent tribute to Max Roach at San Francisco City College.

JAZZed: When you were growing up and developing your own musical voice, what kind of role did gospel music play in that? 

WK: It played a large role. The closest thing I heard to that stuff was at those churches. The feel was there – people would get excited by the music and there would be a lift to it – a swing.  I came up in the swing era so I remember listening to the Coca-Cola broadcasts during World War II, hearing Duke Ellington’s bands. In the black churches, there was always music. The choirs always got down, but if they got down too far, the preacher would let ‘em know about it.

Tommy Dorsey wrote this tune – “Precious Lord, Take my Hand, Lead me on and let me Stand.” He was a Chicago musician who wrote spirituals and he played for Bessie Smith. He’d play in speakeasies and he played the blues and played church music. When they sang his songs in church, you always knew they were his. That had a great influence on me, just getting that kind of feel.

JAZZed: Who did you feel were real mentors to you in different phases of your development?

WK: My music teacher was Russel Brown at Attucks High School. He was a traveling music teacher during the war. When I started up, my friend Dickie Laswell had a snare drum and he’d started taking lessons and I wanted to be just like him, so I started taking lessons from Mr. Brown. We played for the kids marching in and out of school. A teacher named Miss Stephens would play piano.  So I thought that was a great time.

I came up with a great bunch of guys, meanwhile – Albert Cohen, Pookie Johnson, a tenor player named Russel West, Reggie Duval.

JAZZed: Indianapolis played an important role in so many jazz careers. What do you attribute that to?

WK: In 1927, Reggie’s father dedicated the new C.J. Walker Building with his band. That was also the year that Crispus Attucks High School was opened. The KKK wanted all the black students out of the white schools, so they built that school. In a way, they did us a favor because we ended up having the best arts programs. A man named Matthias Norcox was given two years to recruit people to teach there and he went to post offices all over the country looking for people with Ph.D.s who weren’t allowed to teach anywhere else. He stocked that school with the best people he could find. That turned out to be the best high school in the city, thanks to the Ku Klux Klan. [laughs] We had more Ph.Ds at Crispus Attucks than the rest of Indianapolis combined, because they couldn’t teach anywhere else.

JAZZed: What do you remember about the band program there?

WK: We had a band at Attucks High School and most people remembered us because we didn’t have enough money for real uniforms, so we just used ROTC uniforms.   We’d made up our own cadences and practiced them a lot. We were very flashy and had a good sound.  During that time I was listening to Charlie Parker. We’d sneak in the back door and I used to put on a mustache so I’d look like I was 21, you know. A lot of guys did that back then.  We had  a lot of chances to listen to those kinds of guys. A lot of times they’d come in and just say they’d need to play somewhere and people would tell them just to head over to Indianapolis Avenue.

Kirk with Rosalyn Kirk and Butler University president Dr. Bobby Fong.

JAZZed: What kind of stuff did you guys pick up from everyone coming through at that time?

WK: Bebop!  Carl Perkins and J.J. would come by when they were in town and play with us. Charlie Parker, who I found myself playing with one night because Max Roach and Miles Davis were late to the show.  I played with him for two hours and when he saw Max walk in, he called for a break and then gave me $10.  I said, “No, that’s okay, Mr. Parker.”  But he put it in my coat pocket anyway.  We paid $5 to get into that show where we were seeing him. The same thing happened with Duke one time, when his drummer hadn’t shown up. He had an alchohol problem and was falling off the drums.  Duke asked if there was any drummers around and my friend Emmet said, “Yeah he’s a drummer right here, Duke!” So I played part of that set with them.

JAZZed: Was there a point where it seemed like education was going to be one of the more important parts of your career?

WK: I was just about ready to graduate and I was thinking of going to the Army. The school system said they needed someone to take my friend’s place. So I got into that, teaching 12 years in Indianapolis. That was it, really!

JAZZed: By the time you got to San Francisco, did you feel like you had developed a music teaching philosophy?

WK: I knew I always wanted to include jazz wherever I found myself teaching music, because I found that I could teach kids using methods I knew from jazz. I developed a method where I wrote like the Hampton family used to do. They hadn’t had access to all kinds of instruments or anything in the part of the city I taught, which was called “Dogtown.” They hadn’t had a high school graduate in 50 years. So I developed this method of teaching music by rote. When I got there, all they had was a bass pedal, a snare drum, a bass drum, a clarinet, and a trumpet.  But even though I taught in poor neighborhoods, I was able to get instruments from people in the community. I had to beg, borrow, and so forth. I couldn’t teach out of books. I started what we called the Early Bird Program, before school started each day, which allowed the kids to have music every day of the week. So I learned a lot by doing that. We would also take them the IMEA to play songs for everyone, even though they couldn’t read a note a music.

JAZZed: When you went to the West Coast, how did your approach change? 

WK: I got a job right before I came at a school called Elmherst Junior High School in Oakland. I worked there a year and it was a tough assignment because there were a lot of gangs in the school.  It was hard to get anything done. I wrote a book about that rote system that was full of interesting lessons and all these great stick figures that kids could really relate to. I went on tour with it to Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, Brooklyn, DC, Baltimore. Did all that in 12 days and I was a wreck. I would never try that again ever.  The sad part of it was that all the instructors loved it, but had no money to buy it. I didn’t sell one book.

I knew I didn’t want to stay at that Junior High because I couldn’t do much music there.  So I got a counseling job at City College and from there went to administration. I worked there 23 years. I became assistant to the president.  I came back to the college and worked for the president as the assistant for three years. I was the president from 1988 to 1991.

JAZZed: As you were coming up through the ranks there, how did your relationship to jazz education change?

WK: It became sort of nonexistent as far as my role in the administration went. A lot of the time, I had very little to do with music. I did see that the music education was lacking, compared with what I felt it should be.  I knew all the people in music education and they all had a hard time getting funded.  It wasn’t very good. But in general, we were able to have very little effect on music education.

JAZZed: What was your involvement in the music scene in general then?

WK: I was always playing at that time. I had gigs and played in the San Francisco All-Star Big Band. I was involved in music all the time, just not so much at the college.  Though the All-Star band did rehearse at the college.

JAZZed: In those bands, were you guys involved in any sort of outreach or educational programs? 

WK: We would occasionally perform for kids, but not really as much I would have liked to have been able to. It just didn’t seem to be in the cards for us to be able to teach and further jazz education. There’s very little education going on around the Bay Area.

JAZZed: Do you find that changing compared to earlier days?

WK: It’s worse.  I feel like this country has really let the arts down. When I came up in Indianapolis, we had music in all the schools.  Music, PE, and Art were things taught by all these various teachers.  The music teachers went from school to school, but at least they had them from when I was in fourth grade through high school back at Crispus Attucks High School.  A lot of schools don’t have that anymore.  We had excellent teachers. We had instruments. The better schools had more instruments because that’s just the way it is in this country – money begets money. They have the best teachers and more instruments, so it makes it easier on the teachers.

JAZZed: With the state of jazz education the way it is, do you find that people are less informed about the culture in general?

WK: Things have gotten worse.  It’s poorly presented – when it is presented, it’s by people who know very little about jazz. The ones who know about jazz are the ones in the colleges who’ve been trained by people who know what they’re doing, but that’s very few and far between. Very few parents want their kids to get involved, it seems like.  They don’t see a future, all over the country. My son just came from Calgary up in Alberta, Canada, where he was for five days, and he says they had 14 community bands.  These are people who want to play – they’re doctors, lawyers, teachers, whatever. They can all sound like Basie and they all read. You don’t find that in America. Can you imagine 14 active bands in one town?  America’s got all this talent, but very few people know anything about it.

JAZZed: What’s the most important thing that students need to learn about jazz?

WK: That it’s an oral music.  It’s all oral – it can be taught that way. Reading can come at any time, but they need to appreciate the sound, where the rhythms came from and how they got to America, what we do with those rhythms, and how other countries contributed to jazz.  It’s the rhythms and the harmonies that you put together and hopefully you’re able to teach that.

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