Kirk, Andy, 1898-1992

Alternative names
Birth 1898-05-28
Death 1992-12-11

Biographical notes:

African American musician and band leader, Kirk toured extensively in the 1930s and 1940s with Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy.

From the description of Andy Kirk visual materials series. 1924-1991. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 690636054

From the description of Andy Kirk papers, 1923-1991. (University of Michigan). WorldCat record id: 690635425

Andrew Kirk was born May 28th 1898, in Newport, Kentucky. According to family lore, although the family lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, Kirk's mother wanted her son to be born in her native Kentucky and she crossed the river to the nearby city of Newport. Kirk's mother died when he was three years old and his Aunt Mary adopted him. The family moved to Denver, Colorado in 1904 where jobs were reported to be more plentiful.

Kirk took music lessons as a child and his music teacher at the Denver Public Schools was Wilberforce Whiteman, the father of musician and bandleader Paul Whiteman. Kirk bought a saxophone and began taking lessons. In 1919, he joined the George Morrison Orchestra as a saxophonist. It was during this time that he began dating Mary Colston a pianist and fellow musician. They married in 1925. That same year Kirk moved to Dallas, Texas to join a band led by Terrance Holder called the Dark Clouds of Joy. In 1928, Holder left the band and Kirk was elected as its new bandleader. The band changed its name to Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy. Shortly thereafter, the band auditioned for the Pal-Mor Ballroom in Kansas City. At that time, Kansas City was something of a hub for jazz musicians and the move proved to be successful for the band. They began recording and were engaged for a six-week performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York. Mary Lou Williams, wife of the band's saxophone player, began filling in on piano. Eventually she became the band's full-time pianist and sometime music arranger. Williams became famous in her own right first as a member of the band and later with a solo career. In 1929, Andy Kirk Jr. was born.

The band began touring in the 1930s. 1936 proved to be a successful year for the band with a couple of hit songs including Until the Real Thing Comes Along the song for which the Twelve Clouds of Joy is best known. Over the years, the band featured many prominent, or soon to be prominent, musicians including Fats Navaro, Hattie McDaniel, Mary Lou Williams, June Richardson, Charlie Parker, Dick Wilson, and Lester Young.

The decline in the popularity of big band music in the late 1940s led to the Clouds of Joy disbanding in 1948.

Kirk received his real estate license in the 1950s and later was the manager of the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, New York. Kirk, however, continued to play with bands in his free time. In later life, he became a devoted Jehovah's Witness and worked for the church for many years. In 1977, Kirk began to write his memoirs. The resulting book was published in 1989 by the University of Michigan Press and entitled 20 Years on Wheels after one of the songs he had written. Kirk was honored in 1991 as an American Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. He donated his $20,000 American Jazz Master Fellowship to the Adam Clayton Powell Junior High in Harlem, New York. Andy Kirk passed away December 11th 1992, of complications from Alzheimer's disease.

From the guide to the Andy Kirk papers, 1923-1991, 1935-1950, (Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)


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Ark ID:


  • African American musicians
  • Jazz musicians
  • Band leaders
  • Jazz musicians--United States


  • Performer


  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)