The Pine Bluff Jefferson County Historical Museum is honoring the life and legacy of the late James “Jimmy” McKissic, internationally acclaimed pianist.
In celebration of Black History Month, an exhibit honoring the Pine Bluff native is currently on display. The Road to Carnegie Hall is the theme for the exhibit documenting McKissic’s road to fulfilling his life-long dream of playing classical music in one of the world’s most famous concert halls.
McKissic, who died last year, is fondly remembered as a man with big personality, a contagious smile and an outstanding gift.
“He didn’t have to say anything,” said McKissic’s younger brother Thirland McKissic. “He could just speak to you through the piano.”
Thirland McKissic said the McKissic family always shared a love for music, but from a young age, his brother stood out.
“We all played and sang around town, the 4H Clubs and at the Robinson Auditorium together, but Jimmy had a touch on the keys a lot of people don’t have,” Thirland McKissic said.
Thirland McKissic said Jimmy McKissic’s talent touched many lives. He recalled letters the family received from people around the world — such as Singapore, Bangkok, Paris, Switzerland, Morocco, San Francisco and Chicago — after Jimmy McKissic died. He said many of the writers had met Jimmy McKissic in the bars where he played.
Thirland McKissic said people spoke of the impact Jimmy McKissic’s music had on their lives.
“He would play ‘Amazing Grace’ … in the bar,” Thirland McKissic said. “He led some people to Christ. Some others said they returned to church.
“He spread love through his music. He touched lives in ways I did not understand.”
During the exhibit, photos of Jimmy McKissic performing in cities around the world can be seen along with some of his signature colorful outfits worn during his performances and personally annotated sheet music.
The exhibit also includes a documentary in which Jimmy McKissic affectionately illustrates parts of his journey. He talks about how his love for classical music started while sitting in his grandmother’s front yard listening to the radio, how he dreamed of playing at Carnegie Hall and how even after being denied the first time, he never lost hope.
He talks about how some thought he should focus on jazz or blues — music more traditional to African-Americans — and how in the midst of criticism, he stayed true to himself.
“All I know is,” Jimmy McKissic said in the documentary, “I was born to play classical music.”
The exhibit, hosted by the Pine Bluff chapter of Links Inc., will be on display through July 30.