Anthony Kerr is regarded by many as the most exciting vibraphone player in jazz today. Having spent two years studying and performing in New York in the 1980s, he then moved to London to perform and record with many great musicians including George Shearing, Elvis Costello, Georgie Fame, Claire Martin, Louis Stewart, Mike Westbrook, Peter King and Norma Winstone. He was voted best instrumentalist in the 1994 British Jazz Awards and has also won nominations in the ‘Rising Star’ category in 1995, 1996 and 1998. First Cry, his debut album for which he composed the music and collaborated with singer / lyricist Jacqui Dankworth, was hailed as ‘a remarkable leap in the dark’ by the Observer and reached number three in the Virgin Jazz Charts. His second album, Now Hear This which was recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s Club, was released in 1997. He also currently works as a session musician, and has been commissioned to write for television and radio. Anthony is the Professor of Jazz Vibraphone at the Royal College of Music.
Why did you take up percussion?
It was because I didn't like playing the trumpet!
How old were you when you made the swap?
Who was your first teacher and where did you start did you start?
I started with timpani and drum kit, so I had two first teachers! I had a drum teacher called Mike Edgar who was at my school, and did some stuff on BBC Radio Northern Ireland I think, and then my timpani teacher was David Openshaw who was the timpanist for the Ulster orchestra.
What instruments did you have?
I was lucky, I went to a grammar school - Methodist college Belfast - and they had a very good music Department with quite a lot of instruments you could try. They had two hand-tuned timps and two kits. But it was the vibraphone that was the big thing for me, at 16, I really doubt that I would have pursued music all that seriously, not professionally, if I hadn't been lucky enough to chance upon a vibraphone. There just happened to be one in the Belfast School of Music. With the vibraphone it felt completely different, I could really create melodies, phrase and really play lyrically.
How come you went to the Belfast School of Music?
That was through David Openshaw my timpani teacher, because as well as playing timps with the Ulster orchestra he was also involved with the School of Music and with the Youth Orchestra. That was really important for me, the city of Belfast School of Music, it was fantastic because the school I went to had a decent orchestra but it was the stuff that involved other schools and the whole community that really set me off. It was also great because it was it was cross community, Protestant and Catholic, it was one of the very few things in those really dark times that there was cross community and brought people together. My teacher would be there in the rehearsals, so it was great to learn alongside him.
Was it when you were playing the vibraphone that you realised that you wanted to be a musician?
Yeah, the drums didn't do it for me the way the vibes did, I would practise the drums and I just didn't get into it the way I did with vibes. I did gigs on drums, but then I’d sit at the piano and work out the tunes that we’d just played. It’s quite an interesting way to learn actually, because I’d be there playing time on gigs like dinner dances and I'd have plenty of attention left over to listen to the chords and then go home and work out the tunes. So when I came across the vibraphone and I could actually do that on this instrument and get a good sound straight away, bang, it was brilliant!
How were you learning about chords and how to shape them?
Well, my Dad happened to have a book in the piano stool with all these hymns in it so I would play through the chords and then try adding things, like the sixth, and think ‘Oh yes I think I've heard that somewhere’ and it was just interesting to explore all the options.
Where did you go next and who do you learn with?
Well when I finished school it took me a while to accept that I was actually going to be a musician, I didn't think you were supposed to do that, I thought you were supposed to do something proper, scientific, and play gigs for fun. So I ended up going to the University of Manchester to do computing and maths, but it really wasn’t for me so I dropped out and thank God I did! Maybe if I’d been a more self-disciplined person, I’d still be doing that today! So, I dropped out and went back home to Belfast and by chance the Irish Youth Jazz Orchestra had just been formed. It was based in Dublin but some of us came down from Belfast, some came up from Cork and we did concerts and things, it was just the taste I needed! But Belfast was very small in terms of jazz, I moved to Dublin and that was bigger but people talked about New York and I started to think ‘You know maybe I could I could go for this’.
What was your first ever professional work?
I think that would have been the dinner dances, when I was playing drums, my brother Jonathan played the electric bass and my late friend Dermot Harland was on tenor saxophone. Dermot taught me loads of tunes and I came home with meaningful money. I was playing the drums and I was learning tunes at the same time, it also gave me the concept of the paid practise, or being paid to learn gig, you’re doing a gig but you’re also learning something.
It was just such a different time in terms of hearing and learning how tunes should actually go. It is so simple now, I go on Spotify and I want to hear Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra and then I can go into all the derivative versions from there, all the instrumental versions. You can just take in the whole thing; you can play it while you sleep! It’s just everywhere, it's amazing!
After you played with the jazz orchestra, what happened next?
I was in Dublin and there were some real stars there most notably Lewis Stewart, so I played with him and others and I wasn't very good at all! My chords were very obvious, root position stuff and he was one of the world's great guitarists and he never said anything, he just slowly let me get better, he was so kind!
How did you end up in London?
I took a route via New York! I have a friend, Stephen Coe who now runs the global music foundation, and he'd been to New York and so had quite a lot of the musicians and he said ‘If you're going to be serious about this music you've got to leave Ireland and if you're going to go anywhere you might as well go to New York!’. He was right because it was all happening there, you could look up who was playing at the Village Vanguard and it would be like looking at all your favourite record covers and then, those guys would give you a lesson as well! When you come from a small place and then you go somewhere like New York you get a jazz education just by taking the subway because of the buskers, the level it just completely blows away the feeling of ‘I'm quite good’!
Who were you having lessons with?
I studied with David Friedman and when I went out there my policy was just play with play with people as much as I could, I would go hang out at gigs, both at the expensive jazz clubs but you could also go and hear amazing people for hardly any money every night of the week as you can in London.
Why and when did you come back?
I was there for 2 years, at the beginning it was definitely ‘I'm going to move here and I’m not coming back’ but I realised there were quite a few hoops to jump through legally to stay in America, so I went back to Belfast very briefly. But, I just realised I wasn't going to just settle back there so I packed all my stuff into my Ford Escort and drove to the ferry and then all the way down to London in August 1988. The first thing I did was call people from Ireland and they said to sit in at the 606 club, so I took my vibes down there and I met Simon Purcell and Steve Watts who were playing that night. I just had the same policy I had in New York, play as much as possible, so I’d lug my vibes to different jam sessions and play a tune at the beginning. I met lots of people quite quickly at those jam sessions, like Tim Garland, Alan Skidmore and people would invite me to play and write tunes for the vibes.
What was London like?
What was great we there were loads of projects where you would get to do 6 or 7 gigs, those were always fantastic because you would get a couple of days of proper rehearsal so by the time you do the first gig it doesn't feel like the first, it feels like the third and by the time you're doing the third one you're putting away the music.
I had my own bands then as well, with piano/bass/drums and you could get a week at Ronnies supporting and then you could get a BBC broadcast and there were loads of other venues around the country. In 1990 I started working with Georgie Fame and Mike Westbrook’s bands and that was an amazing time to get those two gigs because instead of doing pub and foyer gigs we were actually in the concert hall!
There was a lovely sense of community in London, with the downstairs bar at Ronnie's, the 606 club and the Pizza Express Jazz Club. Ronnie’s was great because after doing a show at Lion King, I would finish at 22:20, and the main band would be at 22:45, so I would just jog up the road, neck back a quick espresso and be on stage!
How did you get the job with the BBC Big Band?
I got the BBC big band gig in 1998, they had me in a few times when they needed two percussionists and then when Jim Lawless retired, they just kind of kept booking me! They never officially auditioned me; it was like ‘Oh I seem to be in the band here’.
What has been your favourite gig so far?
There are so many things that would stick out for different reasons but I suppose it's the most recent stuff of all actually, because I've had vibraphone features where I've got to the front of the stage and that means the sound is amazing: the trumpets are pointing right at you, you’re close to the drums, you can hear the bass and guitar acoustically and you can hear the attack so the time just locks in. And, I've done enough of those to be super comfortable with it now, the nerves and stage fright they diminish as you put yourself into situations that are a little bit scary - they can't be completely terrifying - it has to be just a bit scary and then you get a bit braver and then your world gets bigger and bigger!
Now I'll walk onto the front of these big stages and big places with amazing bands and I admire every musician on the stage and I find myself at the front there just nailing this thing, and I'm nailing it because I've practised it, we all know how to practise, and I'm also nailing it because I'm comfortable and I'm not being sabotaged by any form of stage fright and I feel like ‘wow okay I live here now’ and that's really amazing, that's the most memorable thing about it.
How do/did you deal with stage fright?
Stage fright is a real, so what I think is ‘what’s the opposite of it?’, I'll show you what I have (picks up a soft fabric football) I have a little one of these, I don't bring it to gigs anymore but I used to, and I would kick it around backstage before going on, because the last thing I wanted to be was serious. But, if I'm kicking one of these I’m going to be silly and if I’m doing that 30 seconds before the first note, chances are I'm not going to be sabotaging myself. So there are things like that that can help, another is that I make sure I'm moving physically backstage and if I'm nervous I move more and I'll scat sing, I'll improvise because I want to get my ears going, I want to get myself in gear so that when I arrive at the vibraphone I feel like I'm already as warmed up as possible.
Another one is to practise the music, really, really, really learning it and roast yourself as much as you can before the gig so that the gig feels like less of a roast! But ultimately it is the individual growth of one’s comfort zone that happens at its own pace and can't be forced too much.
What advice would you give to a young percussionist starting out in 2020?
I would advise to cover the other percussion better than I did, to be better equipped to do shows as bread and butter and, either to be less idealistic or to be just as idealistic but to be prepared to push yourself as a soloist. I would also say to get involved with playing with other people, try and play people who are a good level study.
Also, use all the resources that are available now - YouTube, online courses – all of it. And, really build up the technique based on that knowledge, build up the basics if it's drums know all the rudiments, if its vibes know the names of the chords. Finally, listening, listening, listening! Listen to the great jazz players, there's so much available that you can really just listen to the ones you want!
What is the best thing about being a musician?
You know I was tempted to say variety, that’s what I would have said until this pandemic, but now I'm going to say people. It's the people, because everybody you meet: the other musicians, the people that run the venues, the people who do the lights on stage and that give you the sandwiches and everybody, I like all of them! It's like a worldwide club or something there’s just a real sense of belonging amongst musicians.
What would you top 3 tips be for young musicians?
2. Keep it joyful
3. Ask for help
Any last thoughts?
If I could do anything, I would encourage a cooperative mindset rather than a competitive one, because if we are competing with people in this world, it’s with people that put on drum machines, not with our brothers and sisters as percussionists.
If you would like to find out more about Anthony, please check out his website:
Anthony is an Acoustic Percussion Signature Artist: