Ark. musician Jimmy McKissic dies at 72

    11:21 AM, Feb 14, 2013   |    comments
    Jimmy McKissic dies at age of 72. (Photo: Arkansas Black Hall of Fame)
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    PINE BLUFF, Ark. (KTHV) -- World-renowned pianist Jimmy McKissic declared in 2010 that he was ready to give up his international lifestyle, explaining that he was tired of living in hotel rooms and wanted to go home to Pine Bluff.

    So in late 2011 - at age 70 - he did exactly that.

    The move thrilled his family.

    "We got to see Jimmy again," said his brother, Thirland "Danny" McKissic. "Before, he'd come in, spend two or three days here, and he'd be gone - sometimes for a year. This gave us an opportunity to be with him again, for over a year."

    Jimmy McKissic, 72, died Wednesday morning from chronic health problems that had plagued him for more than 20 years, his brother said.

    During his lifetime, Jimmy McKissic played for three U.S. presidents. As of April 2010, he had performed 27 times at Carnegie Hall.

    McKissic lived in France, Switzerland, Morocco and Singapore. He always wore custom-made suits that were embroidered with sayings and Scripture. His trademark was deliberately mismatched shoes - one orange, the other red. The colorful shoes made people happy, he explained.

    A deeply spiritual man, McKissic spoke often of God and even wrote out his prayers.

    Raised in Pine Bluff, McKissic spent a lot of time in church. His father, James McKissic, was the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church. And his mother, Rosa, played the piano for the church services.

    By age 3, Jimmy McKissic was playing church hymns by ear. His mother gave him piano lessons until McKissic turned 13. At that point, she decided he needed professional instructors.

    McKissic later applied to The Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music but was rejected by both.

    He ended up at Arkansas Mechanical and Normal College - now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff - where his grade average in music classes usually hovered around a C-minus.

    "What they were telling me to do was not for me," he explained in a 2010 interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

    In 1969, however, McKissic won the Hertz Scholarship, which allowed him to study music in Geneva. He next moved to Paris, where he was introduced to Pierre Sancan, a professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory.

    For his audition before Sancan, McKissic played "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

    "When I finished, he said, 'You are a born musician, and you do not need me or anyone else. Everything you need is within you and it is up to you to get it out,'" McKissic recalled in his interview with the Democrat-Gazette.

    In 1986, he made his debut at Carnegie Hall, playing Robert Schumann's Carnaval.

    The New York Times reviewed his performance, saying, "Carnaval has been played more 'correctly,' but seldom with such character."

    After returning to Pine Bluff in 2011, McKissic continued to perform sporadically, his brother said, and had planned to go to New York in March to play for a church there.

    "He was still doing pretty good when he got here, but then he started to deteriorate," Thirland McKissic said. "But he was still making plans. Jimmy believed he was going to be healed by his 73rd birthday. He asked God for it."

    A few days ago, however, Jimmy McKissic told his brother that he was at peace and "ready to go meet Jesus."

    "He was healed - not in the way he expected - but he got total healing, based upon his faith in God," Thirland McKissic concluded.

    In lieu of a funeral, the family is planning a memorial celebration of McKissic's life on his birthday, March 16.

    At that service, they will play many of his pieces, Thirland McKissic said, including Carnegie Hall performances and his recordings of their mother's favorite hymns.

    When McKissic died Wednesday morning at the hospital, staff members lined up to pay their respects, his brother said.

    "He just touched people like that. The last time I talked to him, I asked him, 'How are you doing?' He said, 'I couldn't be better.'"

    McKissic was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1994.

    (Source: Cathy Frye/UT Southwestern Medical Center)

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