Selected Piano Music of Thomas H. Kerr, Jr.1
by Hortense R. Kerr and Marva
Thomas H. Kerr, Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in the
USA on January 3, 1915 and died in Washington, District of Columbia on August
26, 1988. Kerr attended Douglass High School, the alma mater of several
famous musicians including Mark Fax (composer), Anne Browne,2 (famed Bess of Porgy
and Bess), and Cab Calloway (King of Hi-Dee-Ho). Early on, he
began playing and studying the piano, taught himself to play the organ and, by
fourteen, was playing for church as well as in clubs on Pennsylvania Avenue,
much to the consternation and chagrin of his mother, a deeply religious woman.
Kerr's father, Thomas Henderson Kerr, Sr., who graduated from
the School of Pharmacy of Howard University in 1912, was a famed orchestra
leader3, composer, pianist and violinist. His compositions include many rags,
waltzes, and other dance forms.
Kerr spoke admiringly of Llewellyn Wilson, his music teacher
at Douglass High School. He said of Wilson - "He let nothing go by. You
learned penmanship, history, politics, personal hygiene, etiquette, whatever was
needed from this extraordinary man."
Mark Fax, the composer, who was a little older than Kerr, was
another influence and his idol. Kerr told me that he did everything to be
Mark Fax -- Kerr even tried to walk like him.
The Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore was Kerrís choice for
music study, but he, Anne Browne, and other Blacks were not accepted at the
institution at that time4. So they went elsewhere - Mark Fax to Syracuse, Anne
Browne to the Julliard School of Music in New York City, and Kerr eventually
attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, also in New York. There, he
received three degrees (Bachelor of Music in Piano, and in Theory, and a Master
of Music in Theory) because the Eastman School of Music offered no masterís
program in Piano at that time. Kerr was the top scholar in his class, and Cecile
Genhardt was his piano teacher.
One of Kerrís first positions was as an Instructor at
Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was during this period that he
started to compose and he did so as the need arose.
In 1942, as Warner Lawsonís first appointee at Howard
University, Kerr applied for a position as a Theory teacher by submitting a
musical composition. This was perhaps the only such job application ever
received by Warner Lawson, Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Howard University
who served from 1942 to 1975. Kerr attended Howard University as a freshman but
transferred, preferring the Eastman School of Music. But he returned to Howard
University where he remained for the rest of his life as Professor and Chairman
of the Piano Department.
Although we are presenting only a few piano works,5 Kerrís
compositions number between 60 and 65. The compositions run the gamut, with the
exception of orchestral works, from solo voice to instrumental ensemble works.
There are works for voice and piano, piano solos, piano
duets, and piano duos; voice, violin, and organ; choral works (a cappella) as
well as with piano or organ accompaniment; organ solos; organ, brass ensemble,
and choir; and one instrumental ensemble piece.
He began an opera based on the life of Frederick Douglass but
never completed it because he was not able to get his librettist (a professor of
journalism at Howard University) to provide him with a libretto
The Selected Piano Works
Old MacDonald6 is an example of "composing what was
needed". It is a duet written for a brother and sister, Michael and Pat,
with one player being a rank beginner and the other a more advanced player. The
tempo is not fixed but determined by the beginner, in Kerr's words: at
Within this miniature (only 66 measures long), appear
snatches of at least seven songs in addition to Old MacDonald. At one
point, there is even a descriptive measure of "Here a quack, there a
quack." Piano teachers and their young charges will have fun with this.
Scherzino: Easter Monday Swagger7 is based on a Negro
spiritual. It was composed for the late Natalie Hinderas8, a pianist,
who taught for many years at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
and who played with some leading symphony orchestras in the USA.
In this piece, which sounds deceptively easy, Kerr has mined
the melody beautifully and artfully through extensive thematic development and
through hints of Impressionism and imaginative pedaling, while plying his wry
wit and puckish sense of humor. He called this composition a "little filet
of soul" (SOUL), punster that he was. Kerr loved Negro spirituals and
thought they contained capsulized seeds of glorious possibilities and potential
such as "Walk Together, Chillen".
The next piece, Scherzo: Didnít My Lord Deliver Daniel?,
as cited in its title, is based on the spiritual "Didnít My Lord
Delivered Daniel?" Although quiet unless pressed, Thomas had some quirks
which, on occasion, he would express to me. He abhorred needless repetition,
triteness, and foregone conclusions. Although he professed to dislike surprises
(he made me solemnly promise never to give him a surprise birthday party), he
delighted in inflicting surprises on others, particularly in music. He tried to
avoid theme and variations form (and disliked Bolero almost as much as
Ravel did) because he became bored with variations of the same length as the
theme. And so, in this version of that form, he tried to abbreviate some
variations and elongate others, while at the same time altering the style and
character of each. Notable are Variation II, dubbed by the composer
"Allegro Barbaro" and Variation III, described by Constance Hobson (my9 former duo piano partner) as "Plantation Love". Didnít My
Lord Deliver Daniel? was a theme that seemingly haunted Kerr, as he used it
as the basis of a choral arrangement in 1961, twenty-one years after the
duo-piano version was composed.
Thomas H. Kerr, Jr. wrote works of novel
rhythmic and harmonic freshness which were essentially tonal. He avoided
serialism, preferring instead to produce melodies more accessible to the human
ear. For Kerr, the occasion was master. He thought it was his responsibility to
compose what was needed whether it was pieces for his students or a good work
such as ďA Prayer on the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr."
1 Editor's Note: This bulletin, Intercultural Musicology volume 4, number 1, is dedicated in the memory of the late Dr. Hortense Kerr who died in May 2002. The present paper was delivered at the 6th International Biennial Symposium and Festival of the Centre of Intercultural Music Arts, which was held at the University of London Institute of Education in April 2000. Hortense Kerr was assisted in her presentation by Marva Cooper. A fuller version of the paper as an essay will be published in Intercultural Music, volume 6.
2 Peabody News, May/June, 1998, p.18.
3 This paid his way through Pharmacy School.
5 Editor's note: Hortense Kerr and Marva Cooper performed some of the piano music excerpts, which have been recorded for CIMA.
6 This piece was composed in 1973.
7 This piece was composed during the Easter holidays in 1970.
8 This piece is available on CD CR1629 'Piano Music by African American Composers'.
9 Editor's note: my here refers to Hortense Kerr.