How do you get to Carnegie Hall, the old joke asks? Practice, practice, practice, goes the punchline.
Practice: that’s exactly what James Henry “Jimmy” McKissic did.
His story begins on March 16, 1940. McKissic’s musical talent was evident at an early age. Growing up in Pine Bluff, he was playing church hymns by ear by the age of three. His mother was his piano teacher until his early teens when she turned him over to professional instructors. It was the right move. McKissic had big dreams, and one was to someday play at Carnegie Hall.
After graduating from Merrill High School in 1957, McKissic attended Arkansas AM&N College—now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB)—graduating in 1962 with a B.S. in Music Education. He didn’t stop practicing. He went on to graduate school, studying with noted concert pianist Marjorie Petray, who was then teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. After graduation, the chair of the music department offered him a job teaching chamber music. In 1969, he received the prestigious Hertz Scholarship to undertake additional study in Geneva, Switzerland. At the end of the scholarship, he moved to Paris, France, where he worked for two years doing youth programs at the American Church, a Protestant, English-speaking congregation serving expatriates.
Eventually, McKissic established residency in the French city of Cannes, playing at a piano bar there. From 1984 to 2007, he was the pianist for the Hotel Martinez in Cannes. The following year, he moved to Singapore, where he lived and worked at the Hotel Raffles.
McKissic’s talents and his showmanship led him to become one of Europe's most popular entertainers. He performed concerts in Switzerland (Geneva, Lucerne, Davos), France (Paris, Biarritz, Nice, Cannes), Morocco, England, Kenya (Nairobi, Mombasa), Syria, Holland, Bangkok, Singapore, Brazil, and many others. He performed throughout the U.S., giving concerts in Arkansas, California, Mississippi, Texas, and New York. During his lifetime, he played for three U.S. Presidents.
In case you’re wondering, McKissic eventually realized his goal of performing at Carnegie Hall. His first appearance happened in 1986, and it wouldn’t be his last. He performed on music’s most prestigious stage a total of 28 times. His journey was the subject of the 1989 documentary How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? He was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1994.
McKissic was the consummate entertainer. He was known for his wild dress, especially his trademark mismatched shoes, as well as for regularly giving free concerts. Jimmy considered it a privilege to invite people to attend his concerts without charge. He would say, "To whom much is given, much is required." Many of these free concerts were held in Pine Bluff, where he often returned.
People attending his concerts would be treated to his nontraditional program notes, which offered dedications to Mama, Daddy, his teacher, Delores Wiley, his sister, Jocelyn, and his Swiss friend, Geanie. He would even occasionally include letters to God. McKissic often closed his classical concerts with hymns or popular songs as a reminder of his roots and his celebration of the universal nature of music.
In 2011, McKissic moved back to Pine Bluff. Two years later, in 2013, he died, donating his extensive music collection to the Department of Music at UAPB. A scholarship at UAPB was named in his honor, an annual reminder of what can happen in life if you don’t stop practicing.
This video from 2011 provides a heartwarming overview of Jimmy McKissic’s music journey.
Sources: EncyclopediaofArkansas.net, ArksansasOnline.com