Brooks Kerr

Keeping Ellington’s Legacy Alive

Brooks KerrThe Musicians Foundation Helps the Steward of Duke Ellington’s Songs Play On

Brooks Kerr was born to play the piano. He began on the instrument at age 2 and was quickly identified as a prodigy. Kerr’s first musical model was Fats Waller, and he gained early attention for his lively and virtuosic renditions of Fats Waller’s music. But it was Duke Ellington who ultimately shaped the direction of Kerr’s career.

Kerr first met Ellington at age 5; by his teen years they were touring together across the country and abroad. John Wilson, jazz critic of The New York Times, described the Julliard-trained Kerr as possessing “an encyclopedic knowledge of Ellington’s music,” a repertory that includes over a thousand compositions, many of them now standards of the Great American Songbook. At the end of Ellington’s life, Kerr sat in for his ailing mentor in concert – chosen steward for this remarkable canon of American music.

After Ellington’s death, Brooks Kerr collaborated with some of Duke’s sidemen. Among the veterans who played in Kerr’s band were Sonny Greer, Russell Procope, Ray Nance and Paul Gonsalves. Kerr recorded for the following Jazz record labels: Famous Door in 1974; Chiaroscuro in 1975 (a set of duets with Greer); and Blue Wail during 1981-82 (tributes to Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Irving Berlin.) Kerr sparked a friendship with Irving Berlin through his resurrection of several of the composer’s forgotten pieces. In fact, they grew so close Berlin referred to Kerr as a “son.”

Kerr’s sight deteriorated throughout his childhood, leaving him legally blind by his mid- 20’s. Such was his love of music that he dealt with this loss with equanimity. For Kerr, life “has always been about the music.”

Not only has this teacher and performer upheld the legacy of some of America’s most important music, he’s also served as a loyal friend to other musicians, always willing to help a fellow artist in need.

Then Brooks Kerr needed help himself.

Struck with kidney disease and in need of a transplant, Kerr found himself unable to perform. Like so many musicians, this artist who had devoted his entire life to bringing pleasure to others was left with no means of financial support while enduring an unexpected medical crisis.

The Musicians Foundation has provided Kerr and his family assistance to pay their bills while he undergoes treatment. Kerr’s family reports that he is recovering well after his kidney transplant. With his financial distress alleviated, he can now focus on what matters most: getting well so that he can return to making the music that is part of our shared and cherished heritage.