Two years before Duke Ellington died at 75, he spent a week at the University of Wisconsin in Madison with his orchestra, teaching and performing in concert. Among the indispensable members of his entourage was a lean, legally blind 20-year-old pianist to whom Mr. Ellington referred students in his master class.
“If you have any questions about my music,” Mr. Ellington said, “just ask Brooks Kerr.”
Mr. Kerr, who was 2 when he began playing the piano, 5 when he met the maestro and 17 when he helped celebrate Mr. Ellington’s 70th birthday at the White House, died in a Manhattan hospital on April 28, the eve of the anniversary of the Duke’s birth. He was 66.
He had been ill with kidney disease, but Charlotte J. Cloud, his partner, said the cause of death had not been determined.
Mr. Kerr first displayed his passion for jazz as a child prodigy. Mentored by the great stride pianist Willie (the Lion) Smith, he later gigged with the Duke’s orchestra and formed a trio in the 1970s with two former Ellington sidemen, the clarinetist and alto saxophonist Russell Procope and the drummer Sonny Greer.
“His thirst for historical trivia concerning jazz and the world of Duke Ellington in particular was unquenchable,” the jazz historian Steven Lasker said by e-mail.
In 1973, when Mr. Kerr performed at the Manhattan bar Churchill’s, John S. Wilson of the Times wrote, “Mr. Kerr, at 21, is so steeped in Duke Ellington lore that he knows many Ellington tunes even the Duke has forgotten.”
Chester Monson Brooks Joseph Kerr III was born on Dec. 26, 1951, in New Haven, Conn. His father was an editor at Yale University Press. His mother, Edith (née Chilewich) Kerr, was a Russian-born editor and writer.
Born prematurely, Brooks was placed in an incubator for two months and developed a degenerative retinal disease apparently caused by excessive oxygen. By the time he was four months old, he had no vision remaining in his right eye and only a sliver in his left.
Because his sight was so impaired, his parents sought substitute diversions, such as music, and assembled a cache of jazz recordings for him.
A family friend taught him to play the blues by placing his fingers on the keyboard. He mentally assigned a color to each key.
“It’s still in my mind today,” he once said. “When I hear keys, I see colors.”
Mr. Kerr was attending a concert at Yale when he was introduced to Mr. Ellington by his half sister, Ruth.
At first his efforts to play stride piano as a child fell flat because his hands were too small.
“When I was 12, I was finally able to reach the notes,” he told The Syncopated Times, a music newspaper. “This was more important to me than adolescent puberty. I knew then that I could arrive.”
In 1963, after his parents divorced, Mr. Kerr moved with his mother to Manhattan. He enrolled in the Dalton School, where his grasp of ducal data was already so encyclopedic that he was asked to teach a jazz course there. As a teenager, he toured with the Ellington band.
In 1969 he was flown to Washington, where he took part in an all-star jazz concert at the White House in honour of Mr. Ellington’s birthday.
As a teenager, Mr. Kerr joined the Ellington retinue on tour. When Mr. Ellington was ill, he would designate Mr. Kerr as his stand-in on the piano.
In addition to Ms. Cloud, Mr. Kerr is survived by his half siblings, Claudia Gross and John, Philip and Alexander Kerr.