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The Legacy Series: Willis Kirk, Jazz Drums

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Willis Kirk

Willis Kirk is a jazz drummer. During his career he rubbed shoulders with many of the 20th century jazz greats, and played countless casuals. He was born in Indianapolis in 1928. In 4th grade he started taking drum lessons, and by high school had played his first paid gig. After high school, he worked with many groups in Indianapolis, including Wes Montgomery, with whom he played for many years. He says he was stranded a few times on the road during this time, and he recalls working in Kansas City for three weeks when the government closed the club suddenly before he could get paid.

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Willis Kirk – drums, Wes Montgomery – guitar,
MonK Montgomery – bass, Buddy Montgomery – piano.

In 1950, he was drafted into the army. After the service he continued to play music and eventually went to Butler University on the GI Bill. In the summer of 1953, he had a short-lived tour with Lionel Hampton’s band, just before they went off to Europe. He left the band after a disagreement with Hampton’s wife, the band manager, over money. “It just wasn’t meant to be,” he says.

Back in school, Willis continued to play gigs and eventually had his own trio. In 1955 he got married and began to raise a family. He supported himself as a music teacher. In the early 60s, Willis also worked part-time as a business agent for Indianapolis Musicians Local 3. He relocated his family to the Bay Area in 1968, where he taught music in Oakland public schools and, eventually, worked as a counselor for City College of San Francisco. From 1988 – 1991 he served as City College president. Musical highlights of this period include filling in on vibes for Tony Bennett, a tour with ‘Fatha’ Hines, and helping to found the David Hardiman All – Star Big Band. In the early 80s, he wrote a jazz drumming instructional book called Brush Fire, which was published by Hal Leonard.

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Willis Kirk directing the choir in Indianapolis
at the Jazz Festival in 2000.

During the 1990s, Willis composed a jazz oratory that was recorded and performed at the Indianapolis Jazz Festival in 2004. On May 9, 2009, he received an Honorary Doctor of Arts Degree from Butler University. Today, Willis continues to play with the David Hardiman All – Star Big Band, as well as the occasional casual gig.

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Featured in concert with the
City College Jazz ensemble, 2008.

In His Own Words…

“One evening in 1949, my friend Walt McCauley and I were very excited about hearing the Charlie Parker Quintet with Max Roach & Miles Davis at the Sunset Terrace, on Indiana Ave. We arrived before the starting time of 9:00 p.m. so when the doors opened we were one of the first to enter the ballroom. Upon entering, we both heard someone say, “There he is, Bird.” Another voice came up to me and said, “Are you Kirk, man?” I said yes, not knowing who was asking. He said, ”Come on man. We have to hit at nine.” At this, he pulled me by my arm towards the bandstand, which was quite a distance from the entryway. Before I realized what was going on, the person sat me behind a set of old drums at the rear of the stage and proceeded to play. As I sat there he turned around and said, “Play man, play.” He repeated this command on more than one occasion as I continued to just sit there. Needless to say, I was bewildered and in shock as I realized I was sitting in the seat which should be occupied by my idol, Max Roach.

After I got myself together, I did start to play drums with Charlie Parker. My shock turned into excitement, and I began to feel good playing with one of my musical heroes on alto saxophone. Starting at 9:00 or shortly afterwords, I played with Bird until 11:00. When Max and Miles appeared at the entrance to the Sunset, Bird immediately took an intermission so that Max and Miles could set up. Charlie called me over to the bandstand and put $10.00 in my hand. I gave it back to him, but he would not accept the money. Instead, he put the bill in my coat pocket after he thanked me for filling in for Max Roach. I was excited to meet Max Roach, and he too thanked me and said that he enjoyed hearing me play. He and the rest of the quintet played the rest of the evening until the job ended at 1:00 a.m. This was the most memorable moment of my career in the music business.

Another great experience called when I was listening to Duke Ellington’s band on a Sunday at the Sunset Ballroom. Sonny Greer, Duke’s drummer of many years, fell over from the drums because of the excess use of alcohol. He really passed out on the bandstand. I was standing at the front of the bandstand with a photographer, Emmitt Brown, who was a friend of Duke Ellington. Duke leaned down and asked Emmitt if there was a drummer in the house. Emmitt pointed to me and told Duke that I could play his book. I got to the drums and sat in with the Duke Ellington Band for one set to finish the evening. It was so exciting to be trying to push that big band. I really felt as if the band was pushing me since the musicians were seasoned artists who had spent years with Duke Ellington’s band. I shall never forget that experience.” – Willis Kirk