James Henry “Jimmy” McKissic was born March 16, 1940 in Little Rock and was raised in Pine Bluff by his parents, Rev. James E. McKissic and Rosa Daniels McKissic. He spent a lot of time in church and by age 3 was playing church hymns by ear. His mother was his piano teacher until age 13. At that point, she decided he needed professional instructors. He soon developed the dream of someday playing at Carnegie Hall.
Growing up in Pine Bluff in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was well known for musical talent in both the white and African American communities. He served as a musical coach for a Miss Pine Bluff contestant, Frances Jane Anderson, who later went on to become Miss Arkansas and first runner up to Miss America. Today, she is better known as Frances Cranford.
As a young man Jimmy played for St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church and the Mt. Calvary Baptist, where his father pastored. He also played for other churches in Pine Bluff and the surrounding area. He earned a B.S. in Music Education from A.M.&N. College (now UAPB) which was followed by additional study with Marjorie Petray of Berkeley, before receiving a Hertz Scholarship to further his piano and musical training in Geneva, Switzerland. He worked at the American Church in Paris, where he was in charge of young adults for two years.
Establishing residency in Cannes, France, Jimmy’s personality led him to become one of Europe’s most popular entertainers. He performed concerts all over the globe including Switzerland (Geneva, Lucerne, Davos), Franc (Paris, Biarritz, Nice, Cannes), Morocco, England, Kenya (Nairobi, Mombasa), Syria, Holland, Bangkok, Singapore and Brazil, among others. He performed in numerous cities and states in the USA including Arkansas, California, Mississippi, Texas and New York. During his lifetime, while spending 49 years of his life abroad Jimmy played for three U.S. presidents. He also performed 28 at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
After that debut, 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.” He often closed his classical concerts with hymns and/or popular songs as a reminder of his roots and his celebration of the universal nature of music. People from all over the world would come to hear him play from as far away as Australia or as close as Washington, D.C. He later served on the musical faculty of the University of California, Berkeley.
A PBS documentary, “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall,” chronicles his odyssey from Pine Bluff to New York, with scores of stops and detours in between. In 1994, he was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. Regardless of where he lived or worked, he continued to visit Arkansas and support endeavors in the state. In 2006, he lent his talents to a fundraiser for the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. Four years later, he made the rafters shake in capacity concerts at that now-opened museum as well as the Clinton Presidential Center. In addition to his musical talent and winning personality, he was known for his unique fashion sense (deliberately not matching his shoes was one trademark).
Two years ago today (February 13, 2013), McKissic died. His funeral services were held on the campus of UAPB, where he had spent so much time growing up.
For more on Jimmy McKissic and other inductees into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, visit the permanent exhibit at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. That museum is an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.