Kirk Lightsey


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Kirk LIGHTSEY was born into Detroit 's rich music scene on February 15, 1937. With the encouragement of his family, young Lightsey began his music studies with Johnson Flanagan, Tommy Flanagan's brother. He then took lessons with Glady's Wade Dillard, who also taught pianists Barry Harris, Alice McCloud and Tommy Flanagan.


At Cass Technical High School Hugh Lawson and Paul Chambers introduced Kirk to playing jazz. They all performed in the school orchestra which included Ron Carter and Kiane Zawadi. Late afternoons were often spent at Barry Harris' house where Lightsey would jam with Ira Jackson, Lonnie Hilliard and Charles McPherson. Under the tutelage of Harris they honed their improvisational skills. Kirk also learned about music by listening to his mother's record collection, and he went to hear all the Swing Era Stars who came to Detroit.


In 1954 Lightsey was awarded a music scholarship to  Wayne University to study the clarinet, but at age 18 he quickly chose to play professionally. His first real gig was with the Harold "Beans" Bowles Sextet which included Albert Aarons and Joe Henderson. He toured with Arthur Bragg's Rhythm and Blues Show which included Della Reese, T. Bone Walker and the Four Tops. During this time he also worked with Yusef Lateef, Melba Liston and Ernestine Anderson. In 1960 Kirk was drafted. He played clarinet two years in the Fort Knox Army Band, and the bassoon for the Louisville Civic Orchestra. He also added flute to his repertoire.


When Lightsey was discharged from the army, he went back to Detroit with fellow Army Band member, Cecil McBee. They formed a jazz duo and played Detroit clubs. Kirk also played for Motown hit recording sessions, and made time to study with classical pianist Boris Maximovich. Lightsey's main influences however, are piano masters Hank Jones and Tommy Flannagan. He defines himself as a Detroit pianist incorporating "...a Bud Powell awareness, an Art Tatum styling, a bebop feeling and a pianistic approach."


In 1965, Lightsey started working with Damita Jo. He was also responsible for In Stage; a production group he directed which included musicians, dancers and actors. Kirk was to experience a fifteen year close association with singers. During these years a more orchestral awareness evolved in both his pianistic approach and his thinking. He was the pianist and music director for O.C. Smith for five years and moved to Los Angeles where he gigged and recorded with other artists such as Pharoah Sanders, Bobby Hutcherson, Esther Philips and Harold Land. Another five year association with Lovelace Watkins began in 1974 which took Kirk to Australia, Africa, Europe and the British Isles as well as New York and Las Vegas. While touring in Europe, Lightsey conducted the Bucharest Symphony Orchestra and the Scala Symphony Orchestra in Spain. He also conducted the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.


Albert Dailey had preceded Kirk in Damita Jo's Band; in 1979 Kirk once again followed Dailey, this time into Dexter Gordon's group. Lightsey's fiveyear association with Gordon gave him the prominence he deserves. In Gordon's group he found the opportunity to acquaint a larger jazz audience with his talent as a key player.


Kirk Lightsey wass the pianistic force behind The Leaders, a sextet formed in 1984 to play the major European jazz festivals. Saxophonists Arthur Blythe and Chico Freeman and trumpeter Lester Bowie were the horn players on the front line. Lightsey, bassist Cecil McBee and Don Moye at the percussion comprised the rhythm section. Each musician in the band has a reputation as a band leader, composer and recording artist in his own right. New York Times critic Robert Palmer writes "They...are among the leading exponents of their respective instruments, and they are players who are helping chart the evolution of jazz as a whole."


Lightsey's quartet included bassist Santi Debriano, drummer Eddie Gladden and conga/trumpet player Jerry Gonzales. This outstanding group toured Europe several times and gave a new depth and meaning to jazz with Latin rhythms.


In 1988 Kirk was voted among the top pianists in the world by the Downbeat International Critic's Poll and in 1989 he was chosen as one of Steinway's preferred artists.


Kirk Lightsey moved to Paris in 1993. One of his trios includes Famoudou Don Moye on drums/percussions and Tibor Elekes on basse. The trio’s CD, « Good Bye Mr Evans » on Evidence Records was top rated by the jazz magazines : Downbeat gave it 4 1/2  stars.


Since then Kirk continues to perform extensively with his own formations (England, Poland, Israel, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Italy etc). He continues to tour with his favourite musicians such as Benny Golson, Stéphane Belmondo, Sangoma Everett, Daryl Hall. 

In 2014, his concert week at the Jazz Vanguard made the New York Times best concerts.

KIRK LIGHTSEY QUARTET Village Vanguard, Sept. 23. A fixture of New York’s piano rooms of yore, Kirk Lightsey turned his official stateside return into a brisk renewal of purpose. With colleagues like the bassist Rufus Reid, he imbued the week’s opening set with a sort of buoyancy that didn’t used to be quite so rare.


Quote from NY Times: An 82-year-old pianist with a diaphanous harmonic sensibility and a redoubtable résumé (he toured and/or recorded with Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker and Woody Shaw, among countless others), Lightsey is now based in Paris and seldom performs on this side of the Atlantic.