Kirk Lightsey’s profound pianisms originate from the Motor City. Kirk LIGHTSEY was born into Detroit 's rich music scene on February 15, 1937. He grew up in a town known for its jazz pianists, which included Hugh Lawson, Sir Roland Hanna, Barry Harris, Hank Jones and Tommy Flanigan, whose brother gave Lightsey his first piano lessons at the age of six. 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 the ‘60’s, Lightsey’s first recordings as a sideman were on trumpeter Chet Baker’s Prestige sessions. Ironically, Baker’s last performances before his death in 1988 were with the pianist in Bradley’s. Lightsey also performed and recorded with George Coleman, Sonny Stitt, David Murray, Sonny Fortune, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Harold Land.
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 five-year 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.
At Bradley’s in the early ‘80s, Lightsey met a newly arrived French IBM executive and jazz devotee, Francois Zalacain, who had just started his Sunnyside label with a release by pianist Harold Danko. Lightsey “signed” with the label, and in 1982, he released Lightsey I, a solo piano recording. In 1983, Danko and Lightsey released Shorter by Two, a magnificent, dual keyboard look at Wayne Shorter’s compositions. Lightsey Live and Everything Is Changed with percussionist/trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez were released in 1985 and 1986.
Lightsey also recorded on the Timeless, Criss Cross, Limetree and Evidence labels before he moved to France in the mid-‘90s.Lightsey was a founding member of The Leaders, a group that featured trumpeter Lester Bowie, saxophonists Arthur Blythe and Chico Freeman, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Famadou Don Moye. Their first album “Heavendance” is recorded on Sunnyside.
Currently, Kirk Lightsey is 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 are the horn players on the front line. Lightsey, bassist Cecil McBee and Don Moye at the percussion comprise the rhythm section. Each musician in the band has a reputation as a bandleader, 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.” The latest trio’s CD, « Good Bye Mr Evans » on Evidence Records was top rated by the jazz magazines: Downbeat gave it 4 1/2 stars.