Pianist | Class of 1994
James McKissic was a world-renowned pianist from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who spent much of his life in France but performed throughout the world, including more than two dozen events at Carnegie Hall in New York.
James Henry “Jimmy” McKissic was born on March 16, 1940, in Little Rock, Arkansas, to the Reverend James E. McKissic and Rosa Daniels McKissic; he had five brothers and five sisters, including one sister who was adopted. He grew up in Pine Bluff and could play the piano by the age of three. He played in his father’s church and for other local congregations as a youth; his mother taught him until he was thirteen, when he began studying under a professional instructor. After graduating from Merrill High School in 1957, he attended Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal (AM&N) College—now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB)—and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1962.
He went on to graduate school and studied with noted concert pianist Marjorie Petray, who was then teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. After graduation, the chair of the music department offered him a job teaching chamber music. In 1969, he received the prestigious Hertz Scholarship to undertake additional study in Geneva, Switzerland. At the end of the scholarship, he moved to Paris, France, where he worked for two years doing youth programs at the American Church—a Protestant, English-speaking congregation serving expatriates. He established residency in the French city of Cannes and played at a piano bar there. From 1984 to 2007, he was the pianist for the Hotel Martinez in Cannes. The following year, he moved to Singapore, where he lived and worked at the Hotel Raffles. McKissic’s talents made him a popular entertainer throughout the world, and he played in such places as Brazil, Kenya, and Thailand, in addition to various European locales. McKissic performed at Carnegie Hall in New York twenty-eight times (his first appearance was in 1986) and was the subject of the 1989 documentary How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? In 2010, he released the album Bless This House, a collection of hymns.
McKissic was known for his wild dress, especially his trademark mismatched shoes, as well as for regularly giving free concerts. Many such concerts were held in Pine Bluff, where he often returned. He performed the works of Robert Schumann at Trinity United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff on September 12, 2010, and moved back to Pine Bluff the following year. He donated his extensive music collection to the Department of Music at UAPB.
McKissic died on February 13, 2013. A scholarship at UAPB was named in his honor.