NEW YORK — Two years before Duke Ellington died at 75, he spent a week at the University of Wisconsin Madison with his orchestra, teaching and performing in concert. Among the indispensable members of his entourage was a lean, legally blind 20-year-old pianist from New York to whom Ellington referred students in his master class.
“If you have any questions about my music,” Ellington said, “just ask Brooks Kerr.”
Mr. Kerr, who was 2 when he began playing the piano, 5 when he met the maestro, and 17 when he helped celebrate Ellington’s 70th birthday at the White House, died in a Manhattan hospital on April 28, the eve of the anniversary of the Duke’s birth. He was 66.
He had been ill with kidney disease, but Charlotte J. Cloud, his partner, said the cause of death had not been determined.
Mr. Kerr first displayed his passion for jazz as a child prodigy. Mentored by the great stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, he later gigged with the Duke’s orchestra and formed a trio in the 1970s with two former Ellington sidemen, the clarinetist and alto saxophonist Russell Procope and the drummer Sonny Greer.
“His thirst for historical trivia concerning jazz and the world of Duke Ellington in particular was unquenchable,” the jazz historian Steven Lasker said by e-mail. “That, coupled with a prodigious memory, made him a priceless resource to this Ellington researcher.”
Ellington once tried to stump Mr. Kerr by asking him to play “Portrait of the Lion,” which Ellington had written years before and dedicated to Willie Smith.
“ ‘Which one?’ I asked,” Mr. Kerr recalled to The New York Times. “ ‘The 1939 “Portrait” or the 1955 “Portrait”?’ That really stopped him. The Duke had forgotten that he wrote two ‘Portraits’ of the Lion.”
In 1973, when Mr. Kerr performed at the Manhattan bar Churchill’s, John S. Wilson of The Times wrote, “Mr. Kerr, at 21, is so steeped in Duke Ellington lore that he knows many Ellington tunes even the Duke has forgotten.”
Chester Monson Brooks Joseph Kerr III was born on Dec. 26, 1951, in New Haven. His father was an editor, most notably at Yale University Press. His mother, Edith (Chilewich) Kerr, was a Russian-born editor and writer.
Born prematurely, the child was placed in an incubator for two months and developed a degenerative retinal disease apparently caused by excessive oxygen. By the time he was 4 months old, he had no vision remaining in his right eye and only a sliver in his left.
Because his sight was so impaired, his parents sought substitute diversions, including music.
A family friend taught him to play the blues by placing his fingers on the keyboard. He mentally assigned a color to each key.
“It’s still in my mind today,” he once said. “When I hear keys, I see colors.”
“The Duke was a painter when he was young,” he added, “and he thinks in colors, too.”
Mr. Kerr was attending a concert at Yale when he was introduced to Ellington by his half sister, Ruth.
At first his efforts to play stride piano — a style, popularized by pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, that requires a long reach with the left hand and a wide range of tempos — fell flat because his hands were too small.
“When I was 12, I was finally able to reach the notes,” he told The Syncopated Times, a monthly music newspaper. “This was more important to me than adolescent puberty. I knew then that I could arrive.”