Being a jazz music major in New York City at the end of the millennium was an exercise in self-aggrandizement. Even now, my first instinct is to glorify the countless hours spent either banging our heads against out-of-tune pianos in tiny practice rooms, or the meandering conversations in the communal stairwell/smoking corner. It’s almost as if, in some hail-mary attempt at relevance, the music program at NYU offered us the romanticism of deprivation. The practice rooms were so sweltering in the summer that guys would play shirtless and so cold in the winter that I remember running scales with fingerless gloves.
I had a secret spot where I could enjoy a Lucky Strike and a feeling of superiority. The ledge protruded maybe two or three feet out of the window on the 14th floor. I’d sit up there, half Bill Evans, half Batman, watching the kids from Stern Business School hustle in and out of their conspicuously well accoutered building. Reveling in the knowledge that in all the years I’d been smoking in plain sight from a suicidal height in a highly regulated building in a highly regulated neighborhood, none of these business people had taken an interest through their picture windows or gazed up from their scurry.
When you walked with Frank Kimbrough through the halls you walked slow, I swear he had a different handshake for everyone that he came across. Frank was the prankster king of the NYU jazz scene. There were guys there that you could learn a lot from but Frank was the guy you wanted to be. Frank’s been in NYC for decades but he’s held on to his Carolina tempo and he lets you know it. He doesn’t hustle with the flow, everything else flows around him. His playing is like that to. I’m not saying he’s one of those old-school be-boppers who hold down the time and dictates the swing; just that he’s not going to struggle against the tide; he’s going to ride it and somehow it will always take him where he wants to go.
Despite the certainty that you have when you’re hanging out with Frank that he’s cooler than you, you’ll never meet someone with a bigger heart. Which of course is the key to the whole thing. In an environment that’s trying to nurture creativity in the context of competition the coolest thing you can do is be genuine in your own love of the music and the musicians. Sounds easy enough, but Frank might be the only person I met, in an environment that was too often toxic, who could pull that off.