New Orleans jazz lost one of its most respected musical educators when Clyde Kerr, Jr. died in his sleep at his New Orleans home. He was 67, and his cause of death is not determined, though he had been suffering from several health problems in recent months. It’s undeniable to say that he has left his mark. A native of Treme and graduate of St. Augustine High School and Xavier University, Kerr led a 43-year career of teaching at middle schools, high schools, and college universities. He had a career as a performer with artists as different as Kidd Jordan and the Temptations, and in 2009, he released an album, This is Now!, his only album under his name. But he’s much better known for his teaching career, including 16 years at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) and his spirit remains through the hearts and minds of those he touched.
Kerr received OffBeat’s 2002 Best of the Beat Award for Lifetime Achievement in Education. Interviewed for the award, Kerr said “Life is like playing the trumpet; it’s a matter of endurance. So if you can endure, then your thing will eventually come around to you.”
OffBeat spoke with a few of Kerr’s students as they shared their memories of his teachings.
To be frank, to describe him as a teacher is really hard to do. No man could ever boast about having a better mentor and teacher than I was allowed to have with him when I was growing up. Every possible facet of learning to play music but also being a man, this person engaged me in and made sure that when I was in his presence I was striving to be better.
I don’t think he fully knew the amount of trust that he engendered in his students. He could’ve told us to jump off the moon and we would have did it just because there was a small amount of teachers around that would lead you with that type of honesty and sincerity. He was an actual teacher, not someone who just played the trumpet and talked to some kids. This man was a master and I always look at myself as being one of his apprentices; he was like a sensei.
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews
Mr. Kerr was an extraordinary teacher. He understood when you had weaknesses and understood how to teach whatever he was trying to teach you. He knew how to strengthen our weaknesses and teach us different ways by explaining to us by using props. He was the type of person that always wanted us to learn. No matter what we did, he always made sure we got it some way. He would show us how to break down rhythms if it was too much for us at the time, or he’d teach us different options on slowing things down and looking at them in a different way that made it easier for us.
He was a gentleman first of all, and we all looked up to him as a father. He changed my life in different ways. When I first got to NOCCA, he told me straight up, “Talent can only get you so far. You must learn the fundamentals to become a complete musician.” That right there had me studying and working as hard as I could possibly work.
Mr. Kerr was a great teacher, and not just of the fundamentals of the jazz art form. He taught all his students something deeper: an appreciation of the spiritual side of the music. Not in a religious sense exactly—although I believe music is a sort of religion—but anyone who spent long afternoons in the room overlooking Perrier Street in a call-and-response session with Mr. Kerr at the piano, or sat for hours on a bench in the overgrown backyard shedding tunes like “Treme,” “Leo’s Lady,” “D Jam,” and “Sylvia’s Kitchen”—those of us lucky enough to have shared those experiences know that what we learned goes beyond mere music theory, far beyond scales and arpeggios and odd time signatures.
Mr. Kerr kept alive for his students the sense of discovery and fascination that is the lifeblood of the music, even as he shared with them its secrets.
He led by example and through his experiences. It’s funny because when he was teaching you things you really wouldn’t know he was teaching you because it was so subtle. Because he played with us often at the piano, a lot of times he would guide you musically to certain areas and places so that when you played with him, you didn’t recognize he was guiding, but he was. He wasn’t an overbearing presence; it was a lot more subtle in many ways. At the same time, he could really get in your stuff. If you weren’t taking care of business, he would let you know.
As an improviser, he was very daring. Pretty fearless in terms of taking chances and being willing to live the way he played. He was unwilling to compromise his musical vision for the sake of anything shallow. His music was very deep, and he stood by what he believed. All of his musical stories had personal experiences attached to them. I took that as him demonstrating that you write tunes from your personal experiences. It’s not about music, it’s about life, and that was in everything he said as an artist.
He was much more than a teacher and musician to me; he was family. Mr. Kerr knew my entire family and we were very close. He invested an immeasurable amount of time—in and out of school—into helping me become a professional musician and person. It takes a great man to constantly encourage a bunch of kids to practice and work hard when most of us were distracted by other things. I am proud of what he achieved as a human being and a teacher, and I will always remember the good times, conversations and performances we shared over the years.
In terms of a “teacher,” I don’t think that’s the appropriate word for somebody like him because he’s more of a master of a craft or an art. To study with him, you’re not just studying with him; your life is changing. It’s not like you going to take science or math or something like that. Going study with Clyde Kerr is like going to Japan to study with a great sword maker, or going to Thailand to study with an ancient martial arts teacher, or going to Italy to study great Italian opera. He was like that. He had a lot of rich understanding.
The difference between studying with somebody who’s just a teacher and studying with somebody who’s a master is that there are a lot of things that you learn that doesn’t deal with things that happen inside the classroom. We would learn from him by him calling you on the phone, or vice versa. Once you started the process of being his student, it never ended.
He was always on my ass, and knew he always knew he had to watch over me. The last day of high school when I was at NOCCA, he said, “I have one lesson for you. Everybody’s got bullshit with them; it’s when you start believing your own bullshit that you got a problem.” And that was Clyde Kerr.
There would be no New Orleans jazz artists without Clyde Kerr, Jr. That Grammy award this year wouldn’t exist if I had not met Clyde Kerr, and I’d probably not be a musician. When I met Mr. Kerr, I fell in love with jazz—not just jazz but art. His exit from this place is a significant phenomenon, and I’m so lucky and fortunate I got to know him and spend time with him.