April 19, 1999
CitySearch Rock, Jazz, & Pop
by Lee Jeske

These days, the jazz world just loves resurrecting old traditions. This year, at the JVC Festival, it will revive a doozy from jazz's grim, not-so-distant past: the memorial concert to a dead junkie. Sting, Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., and others will gather at the Beacon Theater on June 25 for "Kenny Kirkland: A Musical Celebration."

Kenny Kirkland
When Kenny Kirkland, a tremendous pianist who spent most of his short career as a sideman, was found dead of a drug overdose in his Queens home last year, it was a jolt. Kirkland was only 43, and the guys he made his name with—Wynton and Branford Marsalis—were the avatars of jazz's new age. Jazz musicians today are well-dressed and well-oiled: media-savvy, boardroom-friendly, dapper, and dandy. They have legal and business representation, IRAs, fashion consultants and PR consultants. Wynton Marsalis, Kirkland's old boss, heads Jazz at Lincoln Center. Branford Marsalis, his other old boss, heads the Columbia Records jazz division.

Today's jazz musicians are more like Joshua Redman, a Harvard graduate who will be making an appearance this month on E!'s "Fashion Emergency," as (in the words of the press release) "a guest 'style advisor' for a young jazz student seeking music/fashion advice for his performance debut." They are more like Diana Krall, who will be featured in a Bruce Weber-photographed layout in June's Vanity Fair. That month, Krall and Redman will co-headline a well-dressed JVC Carnegie Hall concert of their own. Jazz—the original hard-knock life—has become clean, sober, and safe. And then Kenny Kirkland goes and drops dead of a drug overdose.

Not long ago, dying of a drug overdose was considered more or less the jazz way to die. Jazz's junkies were legion, and they paid the price for it: They died. They went to jail. They lived to kick the habit, only to have their weakened bodies give out prematurely from something else. And memorial concerts were held in abundance.

Don Cherry
I remember talking to Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden during trumpeter Don Cherry's slow slide into drug oblivion. They both said the same thing: They knew that he was killing himself, but there was nothing they could do; he could only help himself. After Kenny Kirkland died, trumpeter Terence Blanchard—Kenny's on his excellent new "Jazz in Film" album—told me, "I knew something about his drug use, but thinking about Kenny Kirkland and drugs is like thinking about a family member. With all the other shit that happens to people, you just think that won't happen. And when it does happen, you still don't want to believe it."

These days, that old life has become, like everything else about the past, romanticized. The silver screen beckons—Leonardo DiCaprio is getting ready to play Chet Baker, Johnny Depp is talking about playing Art Pepper, and an option on Stan Getz's life is ready for its close-up.

Brad Mehldau
But if one is looking for a tousle-haired reminder of jazz's troubled past, one need look no further than 28-year-old pianist Brad Mehldau, who has been forthcoming about his own struggle with heroin abuse. In a recent issue of Jazziz magazine, Mehldau told journalist Tom Moon that he was attracted by "the retro romance of the junkie piano player." But, he says later in perfect '90s-speak, "Heroin is so much not who I am. It was a problem. It sucked."

A few years ago, I asked Mehldau about including the old chestnut, "Blame It on My Youth," on his second album. He said, "I guess I heard Chet Baker singing that on the soundtrack of 'Let's Get Lost.' What struck me about it is that he sang it when he was very old. He was old, missing his teeth, and there's a real kind of tragedy and sadness there when they're showing clips from when he was younger: He had these perfect good looks and he was young and he was playing great. And the lyrics themselves—when he's singing that in his old age, missing teeth, with that old dried-up junkie look, there's a kind of tragic, romantic failure kind of thing. The fact that he's singing about his youth, there's just a really heavy irony to the whole thing, that he's really looking back on his youth."

Chet Baker
"Let's Get Lost," of course, is fashion photographer Bruce Weber's weird documentary about the disintegrating Chet Baker. It's interesting, watching the film, to try to figure out who's exploiting who—is Weber using Baker as a living example of junkie chic, or is Baker using Weber for some quick, easy cash? And the "very old" Baker in the film was in his mid-50s.

In 1999, you're more likely to find young jazz musicians in Vanity Fair than in jail, more likely to find them buying vitamin supplements than heroin. Joshua Redman was recently featured in the Styles section of the Sunday New York Times, prowling the Prada boutique with his personal shopper. "I'm attracted to a look that's a combination of hot and cool," he said, "that's casual and elegant at the same time, something that's subdued and understated but also intense."

But it's a short trip back in time to a darker, scarier day, when jazz was a music of struggle and heroin was its plague. It's an easy era to romanticize—back in the grainy, black-and-white day—but then Kenny Kirkland turns up dead.

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Arm photograph by Benjamin Telford