Bio-industry dropout: UVA alum Jack Kilby eyes career as jazz musician

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After spending time under the tutelage of local music legends, Jack Kilby is making his own name on the jazz scene. He performs at Fellini’s #9 on Friday. Photo: Michael Kilby After spending time under the tutelage of local music legends, Jack Kilby is making his own name on the jazz scene. He performs at Fellini’s #9 on Friday. Photo: Michael Kilby

Jack Kilby wanted to go to music school. His parents weren’t so into the idea. He settled on UVA, earned a degree in biology and scored a job as a lab technician right out of school.

The career trajectory was in line with Kilby’s parents’ wishes. But there was a note of discord: Kilby had never given up his musical ambitions. He’d taken a few music classes at UVA, played in the university’s jazz ensemble and jammed with local legends over his four college years. He figured after spending a couple years gigging around C’ville and saving money, he could fulfill his dream of going to music school.

He figured right. Kilby graduated from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in late May. And on June 12, he’ll play a gig at Fellini’s #9 that figures to pay homage to his formative years in this musically rich town.

Joining Kilby onstage will be John D’earth, one of the influential local legends who guided him through what he calls his education at “Miller’s University,” a reference to the Downtown Mall live music hot spot.

“Being able to listen to and sit in with John and his band, notably drummer Devonne Harris, were some of the best ‘lessons’ I had down there,” Kilby says.

Rounding out the septet at Fellini’s will be locals Charles Owens on tenor saxophone, Bob Hallahan on piano and Randall Pharr on bass, as well as two of Kilby’s fellow Copland School grads, John Crompton on alto sax and Elad Cohen on trombone.

The band, formerly billed as Jack Kilby and the Nextet, will take the stage as Jack Kilby and the Front Line, which he said is really just a proxy for when he’s joined by three horn players across the front of the stage.

Why, you might ask yourself, does a percussionist get to be the front man in a band this diverse? Calling Kilby a percussionist is to sell him short. Kilby is proficient with a number of instruments, most notably the trumpet, and spent his time at music school doing more than just banging on stuff. When the band takes the stage, they’ll play primarily his arrangements and compositions.

“There is an extent to which I could teach myself whatever I wanted behind a drum set,” Kilby says. “But I wanted to study harmony, arranging, ear training. I just needed a little more guidance.”

Kilby studied at the Copland School under Michael Mossman, who he calls “one of the most prolific arrangers for big band” in the world. His favorite drum teacher was Dennis Mackrel, who was the last drummer to play for the Count Basie Orchestra, the seminal big band founded by the jazz master of the same name in 1935.

Indeed, Kilby had been given a record by his high school music teacher that featured Mackrel on the skins long before he had the opportunity to meet and learn from the man himself.

Kilby, 26, has a tough road ahead. He’ll need to work hard and catch a break here or there to get on a tour, play some studio sessions, find work as an instructor and do all the other things required to cobble together an existence as a professional jazz musician.

“I admit I used to be a little cocky because I was more well-listened than the average UVA music student, but not more proficient on my instrument,” he says. “I hadn’t committed myself to putting in the time…It feels like I just graduated from kindergarten with how much I feel I still have to learn about music.”

Kilby points to his trials by fire in Miller’s, C’ville Coffee, Early Mountain Vineyards and Michael’s Bistro—not to mention an opportunity to open for Aaron Neville at the Paramount—as critical to his music career. He says the lessons he took with UVA’s Robert Jospé were “one of my greatest influences and experiences.” He tells the story of a night at Miller’s when Johnny Gilmore died, and the community came together to morn.

And of course, there is the influence of D’earth and the talented people with whom the local trumpet icon always surrounds himself.

“Always playing with musicians better and more experienced than myself was huge, made me step my game up,” Kilby says. “John liked interactive, energetic drummers. He’d often call for duo trumpet and drums in the middle of a tune on the bandstand.”

Kilby says he would ask himself, “What am I going to do to inspire this guy who has been playing longer than I’ve been alive?”

With two more years of experience and a music degree under his belt, it’ll be interesting to see how Kilby answers that question. D’earth, at least, has confidence.

“What a thrill, to see somebody go from a student to a guy who any great musician would call in to play with them,” he says. “He is so loving of and serious about the music. You deal with so many students who are kids and trying to grow up. He hit me from the very beginning as a man.”

Who is your favorite local jazz player? Tell us in the comments.