Tuning Into A Jazz Great

By Anthony Haubert; Photography by Alan Wycheck

Up Close and Personal with Kirk Reese

Though his accomplishments in jazz music and education are impressive, local musician Kirk Reese is extremely modest about his ability as a piano player and his impact on cultivating a jazz culture in Central Pennsylvania.

In addition to a long list of clubs where he’s played throughout the past nearly 30 years, he has collaborated with some of the industry’s most prolific artists, including Phil Woods, Blues Brothers saxophonist Lou Marini, Stefon Harris and Cyrus Chestnut.

He has also played along with his brother and sister-and-law, flutist Tom Reese and cellist Laurie Reese, respectively, on The Reese Project: Blue Etude, which garnered a Grammy nomination in 2002. On the education front, Kirk helped develop an arts infusion program for schools, garnering him national recognition from the Leonard Bernstein Center as an innovator in education.

But the most impressive of accolades and the long list of artists with whom he has worked don’t give justice to the sound of his music. You’ll just have to hear him play. He spends most Fridays playing piano at Ironwoods Restaurant at the Heritage Hills Golf Resort in York, Pa.

His playing virtually parallels – if not surpasses – any internationally acclaimed jazz pianist, past or present. Yet Reese has made a conscious effort to avoid the spotlight most musicians typically chase, opting for a quieter place away from the glare: the classroom.

Labeled a child prodigy for his advanced playing ability at an early age (he began playing piano at age 5), Kirk began playing gigs in prestigious local clubs with some jazz heavy hitters in 1982 – when he was only 17. And for the first 20 years of his musical career, gigging was Kirk’s life.

By 1996, the importance of spending time with his family, coupled with the challenges common to a performing musician – the instability, the late nights and the hectic schedule – prompted him to seek something more stable.

“I lost interest in playing gigs just for the sake of playing gigs,” he says.

Though he continued performing regularly, Kirk began to teach more throughout the late 1990s and was offered the opportunity to teach full time at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. in 2003. Over the past 10 years, Kirk has coached, mentored and instructed countless students on jazz music, praise and worship music and the art of improvisation. Kirk has not only grown the jazz program at Messiah, but some individuals under his tutelage have even gone on to receive scholarships in jazz performance at the post-graduate level.

Even though he is best known by Messiah students and faculty for jazz piano, he believes improvisation transcends any instrument or genre: “In my opinion, improvisation is the most authentic and organic form of musical self-expression in that it captures a given moment of personalized creativity with a degree of immediacy that other forms do not,” Kirk says. “Improvisation,” he adds, “also provides two or more players a broad platform for spontaneous musical ‘socializing,’ which I have not experienced while playing written music.”

Clearly, he is passionate about his art form. And while he underscores to students the importance of learning classical literature, his teaching – whether in a classroom or individual setting – focuses primarily on learning the art of improvisation.

“Regardless of the idiom, and regardless of an individual’s instrumental expertise, I think that all musicians should improvise and reap the enjoyment that it brings.”