Friends keep jazz musician’s memory alive with nonprofit group

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on June 19, 2014.

Bryan Boyd remembers everything about the last gig he played with Derick Kirk.

Boyd had booked a gig at Soho’s at the Capitol Market and asked Kirk to come along and play keyboards.

He showed up looking white as a sheet, a cap pulled over his hairless head, an oxygen tube in his nose. His left arm was in a sling.

“He was so sick he could barely sit up,” Boyd said.

But then Kirk started playing. And he kept playing for three hours.

Boyd said cancer and chemotherapy had robbed Kirk of his strength, and he had use of one hand, but he still outperformed every musician in the house that night.

“It was just beautiful,” Boyd said. “It was marvelous. It was absolutely marvelous.

“I was thinking to myself, what if this is the last opportunity Derick gets to play? Then I shut it out of my mind. But of course, that was it.”

Kirk played that gig with Boyd on June 15, 2007. His health took a turn for the worse a few days later.

In a little more than a month, Kirk was gone. He was 28 years old.

But the music didn’t stop.

A few months after his death, Kirk’s friends and family formed the Derick Kirk Foundation, a nonprofit organization that gives out college scholarships to young musicians and donates money to public school music programs around the Kanawha Valley.

The foundation will have its annual fundraising concert this Sunday at Black Sheep Burritos on Summers Street. The concert will feature local groups Blues du Jour, Ignition Jazz Quartet, Hybrid Soul Project, the Bob Thompson Unit and VooDoo Katz.

Derick’s mother Lois, who sits on the foundation’s board, said the bands all play for free so every dollar can go toward music education.

“They do it because they knew Derick,” she said.

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It wasn’t a surprise that Derick Kirk became a musician.

His mother, Lois, played in the high school band. His dad, Danny, played guitar and banjo. His older brother Darren, seven years Derick’s senior, played saxophone, keyboard and guitar.

There were musicians all through the extended family, too.

But no one expected Derick’s talents would show so early.

Lois remembers riding in the car when her son was an infant, listening to music on the radio.

Mothers didn’t worry much then about putting children in car seats, so she had him wrapped in a blanket on her lap.

She noticed his arm bobbing back and forth.

“He was going right in time with the music,” Lois said.

She figured it was just a coincidence but decided to try a little experiment. She stopped Derick’s arm, held it for a moment and then released it.

Before long, his arm was again ticking like a metronome.

When he was about three years old, Danny and Lois gave Derick a toy keyboard.

The toy had a button that would automatically play songs, and Derick was constantly mashing that button to hear the music.

One day, Lois noticed the keyboard sounded like its batteries were going dead. It was playing wrong notes.

She walked into Derick’s room and found her toddler banging out Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on his miniature keyboard.

“He was just a born musician. Once in a while they come along, and Derick was one of them,” Danny said. “It was a gift.”

He joined the band program at his elementary school when he was in fourth grade, playing alto saxophone just like his mom and older brother. By junior high, he was playing with Sherman High School’s marching band.

He soon proved to be one of the band’s most versatile musicians.

“It got to the point, when I went to watch him, I never know what he was going to play,” Lois said.

Once, at a parade in Whitesville, she got a little worried when she didn’t see Derick with the saxophone section. But then she spotted him marching with the brass section, trombone in hand.

He graduated high school in 1997 with scholarships to both Marshall University and West Virginia State University. He chose State so he could stay at home and drive to school.

In his first year there, he helped form the jazz group Moment’s Notice with local guitarist Ryan Kennedy.

Kennedy left for Berklee College of Music in California shortly after that, but met up with Kirk anytime he returned to West Virginia.

“Every gig that I got a call for, I made sure to see if Derick was available,” he said.

Even when they weren’t playing publicly, Kirk and Kennedy spent hours practicing together.

“In some ways they were our formative years as professional musicians,” he said. “I felt like, at the time, we did a lot of our best work.”

They composed songs together, helping each other hone their arrangements.

“He had amazing musical ears. His ear for music was one of the best I’ve ever seen. He could hear harmony so well,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy found he could communicate with Kirk in a way he couldn’t with many other people.

One time Kirk played Kennedy a song he wrote, a melancholy jazz piano ballad. After listening to it, Kennedy suggested he call it “Afterthought.”

“I told him it reminded me of a sad old washed up boxer from the 1920s,” he said. “These abstract explanations of things seemed to make perfect sense to Derick. He just got it.”

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But then came cancer.

When he was 26, Kirk began complaining about pain in his shoulder. His mom tried to get him to see a doctor, but he thought he just pulled a muscle lugging heavy music equipment.

Then, one night, he was at a party and saw a woman nearly trip.

“He reached to grab her. She landed on his arm and it popped up,” Lois said.

Lois heard him come home late that night and found him sitting on the couch with a big knot on his arm.

She took him to the emergency room, where doctors there determined his arm wasn’t broken. They referred him to an orthopedic doctor, who thought it was a hematoma and told him it would soon go away.

“It never got better,” Lois said.

He tried physical therapy but that didn’t help either. His doctor finally referred him to a specialist in Pittsburgh, who did a biopsy on the knot and found it was a tumor.

Worse, the cancer had already spread from his shoulder into his lungs.

Danny remembers when he learned his son had cancer. They were sitting on the front porch.

“He said ‘Dad, they said I had a tumor.’ I said ‘You can’t have a tumor. You’re too young.’”

He began heavy doses of chemotherapy, spending a week every month at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital.

The drugs zapped his strength, but after about a week he was usually well enough to get out and play a few gigs. He would play music around town until his next trip to Morgantown.

“Playing’s what kept him going,” Lois said.

“Right up until the end, that’s what he did,” Danny said.

Boyd met Kirk a few years before he died, when Boyd was looking for a keyboard player for his band.

“Somebody had told me about this kid Derick Kirk. They said you need to call this guy, he’s off the hook,” Boyd said.

Boyd invited Kirk to his house for practice.

The band ended up blowing through 25 songs in an hour and a half.

“I was born at night, but not last night. It didn’t take me long to say, this kid is special,” he said.

Boyd said Kirk’s passion for music began to drive his own playing.

“We’d play a conference at a hotel. We’re up there playing, and they’re cleaning up the place. And they’d say ‘You guys are going to have to leave,’” Boyd said.

When Kirk got sick, Boyd began wondering how long they might have left to play together. He started booking every gig he could find.

One night, Boyd scheduled the band for an out-of-town performance that was supposed to last three hours. They were headed into the third hour — and still going strong — when the drummer hollered at Boyd, asking how much longer they had to play.

“I said, ‘I don’t know where your head is, but I’m having the time of my life,’” Boyd said. “He realized then, at that moment, what I was talking about. We’re not going to have Derick very much longer.”

As his health declined, Kirk became determined to record his music.

He cut seven original compositions with Kennedy, bassist John Inghram, and drummers Sam Wiseman and Chris Hudson.

“In that last year that we had Derick, he just played. He played for real,” Kennedy said. “There was this academic approach to things when we were young. But when Derick knew he was sick, everything became more focused.”

The recordings would not be released until after his death, however.

The foundation compiled the tracks for an album called “Soar” and asked Kennedy to write the liner notes.

“All sentiment about Derick’s illness or the unfairness of his untimely passing its totally absent from the music presented here,” he wrote. “It is an acknowledgment of his genius and a testament to how he, through his music, learned to truly soar.”

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When people talk about Derick Kirk, they usually begin by marveling at his musical talent. But by the end of the conversation, without fail, they start talking about his character.

“He was one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life,” Kennedy said. “Never had a harsh word to say about anybody. Mentally clear, kind, to the point. Quiet, but not shy.”

Lois recalls a time when, returning home from a late-night gig, her son stopped to pick up a girl walking home from a back-roads bar and drive her home. Lois scolded him, reminding her son of how dangerous the situation could have been.

“He said ‘Mom, I’m going to help somebody if I can.’ And that was that,” she said. “Every time we would go to hear Derick play, people would come up to me and just brag and brag about him. Not just as a musician, but as a person.”

Boyd remembers the enthusiasm he had for teaching music.

“He was a natural, because he never intimidated you,” he said. “People just loved him. He had that quality of peace about him. ”

That’s why, a few months after his death, Boyd and some of Kirk’s other band mates decided to start a nonprofit in his honor.

“We knew we had to do something, because it just couldn’t stop. We needed an outlet to say, you need to remember who this person was because he was so important,” Boyd said.

They approached Lois and Danny with the idea.

“I was humbled his friends wanted to do that but I wasn’t sure it was going to work,” Lois said.

But it has worked.

Since the foundation was formed in 2009, the group has given out thousands of dollars in college scholarships to students who are pursuing degrees in music performance or music education.

The awards aren’t huge — usually less than $1,000 apiece — but the foundation hopes to expand in coming years.

“It’s good for us to do this, to remember him, rather than just be sad that he’s gone,” Kennedy said. “I think he’d be smiling ear to ear if he knew what we were doing.”

Boyd, who now serves as president of the foundation, says he’s happy the foundation can inspire young musicians to achieve the kind of success Derick would have if cancer had not ended his life.

“It wasn’t that Derick didn’t make it. He just ran out of time,” Boyd said. “I’m convinced. He was just special.

“He ran out of time, that’s all.”