Brooks Kerr, Piano Prodigy and Ellington Expert, Dies at 66
May 9, 2018
The pianist and Duke Ellington authority Brooks Kerr, left, with Ellington at the piano, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1972.
Two years before Duke Ellington died at 75, he spent a week at the University of Wisconsin in Madison with his orchestra, teaching and performing in concert. Among the indispensable members of his entourage was a lean, legally blind 20-year-old pianist from New York to whom Ellington referred students in his master class.
“If you have any questions about my music,” Ellington said, “just ask Brooks Kerr.”
Mr. Kerr, who was 2 when he began playing the piano, 5 when he met the maestro and 17 when he helped celebrate Ellington’s 70th birthday at the White House, died in a Manhattan hospital on April 28, the eve of the anniversary of the Duke’s birth. He was 66.
He had been ill with kidney disease, but Charlotte J. Cloud, his partner, said the cause of death had not been determined.
Mr. Kerr first displayed his passion for jazz as a child prodigy. Mentored by the great stride pianist Willie (the Lion) Smith, he later gigged with the Duke’s orchestra and formed a trio in the 1970s with two former Ellington sidemen, the clarinetist and alto saxophonist Russell Procope and the drummer Sonny Greer.
“His thirst for historical trivia concerning jazz and the world of Duke Ellington in particular was unquenchable,” the jazz historian Steven Lasker said by email. “That, coupled with a prodigious memory, made him a priceless resource to this Ellington researcher.”
Ellington once tried to stump Mr. Kerr by asking him to play “Portrait of the Lion,” which Ellington had written years before and dedicated to Willie Smith.
“ ‘Which one?’ I asked,” Mr. Kerr recalled to The New York Times. “ ‘The 1939 “Portrait” or the 1955 “Portrait”?’ That really stopped him. The Duke had forgotten that he wrote two ‘Portraits’ of the Lion.”
Mr. Kerr in an undated photograph. Because his sight was so impaired, his parents sought substitute diversions, like music. By 28 he was blind.
In 1973, when Mr. Kerr performed at the Manhattan bar Churchill’s, John S. Wilson of The Times wrote, “Mr. Kerr, at 21, is so steeped in Duke Ellington lore that he knows many Ellington tunes even the Duke has forgotten.”
Chester Monson Brooks Joseph Kerr III was born on Dec. 26, 1951, in New Haven. His father was an editor, most notably at Yale University Press. His mother, Edith (Chilewich) Kerr, was a Russian-born editor and writer.
Born prematurely, Brooks was placed in an incubator for two months and developed a degenerative retinal disease apparently caused by excessive oxygen. By the time he was 4 months old, he had no vision remaining in his right eye and only a sliver in his left.
Because his sight was so impaired, his parents sought substitute diversions, like music, and assembled a cache of jazz recordings for him.
A family friend taught him to play the blues by placing his fingers on the keyboard. He mentally assigned a color to each key.
“It’s still in my mind today,” he once said. “When I hear keys, I see colors.”
“The Duke was a painter when he was young,” Mr. Kerr added, “and he thinks in colors, too.”
Mr. Kerr was attending a concert at Yale when he was introduced to Ellington by Mr. Kerr’s half sister, Claudia.
At first his efforts to play stride piano — a style, popularized by pianists like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, that requires a long reach with the left hand and a wide range of tempos — fell flat because his hands were too small.
“When I was 12, I was finally able to reach the notes,” he told The Syncopated Times, a monthly music newspaper. “This was more important to me than adolescent puberty. I knew then that I could arrive.”
Mr. Kerr played while bystanders danced in the street in Harlem in 1997.Barbara Alper for The New York Times
In 1963, after his parents divorced, Mr. Kerr moved with his mother to Manhattan. He enrolled in the Dalton School, where his grasp of ducal data was already so encyclopedic that he was asked to teach a jazz course there. As a teenager, he toured with the Ellington band.
In 1969 he was flown to Washington, where he took part in an all-star jazz concert in honor of Ellington’s birthday in the East Room of the White House. President Richard M. Nixon played “Happy Birthday” on the piano.
As a teenager, Mr. Kerr joined the Ellington retinue on tour. When Ellington was ill, he would designate Mr. Kerr as his stand-in on the piano.
Mr. Kerr was accepted to the Manhattan School of Music, but to major in piano he had to study music theory and read scores. He could not; his parents had raised him to compensate for his disability without learning Braille, including Braille musical notation. (He was also taught not to use a cane, and had five concussions before he was 6.)
Mr. Kerr circumvented the score-reading requirement by transferring after a year to the Juilliard School. He did well enough on placement tests in harmony and composition to get three years’ credit, and he graduated in a year.
In 1993, he and Ms. Cloud were briefly married. They divorced but remained partners. In addition to her, he is survived by his half siblings, Claudia Gross and John, Philip and Alexander Kerr.
By the time he was 28, Mr. Kerr had lost his remaining vision to glaucoma.
He recorded several albums as a leader. His repertoire eventually included boogie-woogie, blues and pop tunes from the 1920s and ’30s. But Ellington was always his first love.
“One night after a concert,” the lyricist Don George wrote in his 1981 biography, “Sweet Man: The Real Duke Ellington,” “the three of us — Duke, Brooks and I — were in Duke’s dressing room. Duke looked like a ghost. He had undergone a rugged week and was really exhausted. He kept calling for his valet, who was nowhere to be found.
“Brooks said, ‘If you need something why don’t you ask me? I’m right here. You know I’ll get you your coat. I’ll do anything for you,’ ” Mr. George wrote. “Duke quieted down. ‘I’m sorry, Brooks, I should have asked you.’ He took Brooks’s hand. ‘You would do it for love. The others do it for money.’ ”
Correction: May 10, 2018
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary misstated the given name of Mr. Kerr’s half sister, who introduced him to Duke Ellington. She is Claudia, not Ruth.