A Scrubs-Wearing Jazz Bassist Takes The Stage In Ditmas Park

 (Photo by Charna Meyers)
Roy Nathanson (left) and Tim Kiah (right). (Photo by Charna Meyers)

Composer, bassist and vocalist Tim Kiah, who is playing a show at Qathra this Sunday with Roy Nathanson and Jesse Mills, has enjoyed an eclectic career as a musician. Kiah works in diverse genres as a composer, band leader, sideman and educator, with the healing power of music as a persistent motif across his endeavors. Oddly enough, this quality in his performance tracks back to his father’s refusal to pay for an exclusive music education.

After high school, Kiah enrolled in the University of Rochester, attracted by its Eastman School of Music. ”I came home from freshman year at Thanksgiving, and my dad was like, ‘So what do you want to major in?’’ Kiah recalled. “And I said, ‘You know dad, I think I want to major in music.’

“My dad said, ‘I’m not paying $20,000 a year for you to strum your god damn guitah!’”

So Kiah added a nursing major at Rochester to supplement his studies in double bass and composition. Between hair-raising hospital trauma stories and performing concerts still wearing surgical scrubs, Kiah gained a reputation with his fellow music students.

“A lot of groups were trying to come up with really strange names,” he said. ”One group was named Moist Towelette. But there was an improvisational ensemble that — for some reason — said, ‘Why don’t we call it Nurse Kiah.’”

Kiah graduated from Rochester, moved to New York, and got a job in community health nursing. At the same time, he formed his own jazz quartet and started performing under the name Nurse Kaya — changing the spelling just enough to make it original. “And I kind of insisted that the rest of the band wear scrubs,” he said. 

The band’s medical shtick developed beyond the name and costumes. “One time I had a girl volunteer to let me give her a shot onstage. It was just normal saline, because I couldn’t inject real medicine, but I put on the rubber gloves and everything.” Kiah said.

Eventually, the concept went from affectation to avocation. Kiah recruited a new group and began branching out with their audiences and honing their message. “Yeah, we wore hospital clothes and it was kind of funny, but there was something we were trying to say. We started to talk about how important it was to play for people that are suffering,” he said.

With a grant from Chamber Music America and support from a group called Hospital Audiences, the new version of Nurse Kaya began performing in nursing homes, hospitals, and a prison. “For me, the most important people in the room are the audience,” Kiah said. “When we performed in places where the audience was going through a hard time, that notion felt stronger. We could see that people were suffering. That was pretty powerful.” 

Supporting the audience became a constant focus for Kiah’s performance, even when playing more traditional venues.

Kiah and Roy Nathanson, his bandmate from the group Sotto Voce, decided to stage a summer series of concerts in Ditmas Park at Qathra, when Brainerd James stepped in as the new owner. Kiah appreciates James’s efforts to introduce more live music into the neighborhood. 

“For me, it’s really special to be able to play in my neighborhood,” Kiah added. “Because I live here, because I am a Ditmas Park resident, it feels very special to make a connection with the Ditmas Park audience. It’s also been fun putting up flyers at the Flatbush Food Co-op and hanging flyers on the bridge so you can see them from the train.”

Recognizing the abundance of musicians in the neighborhood, Kiah invites local musicians to sit in on his gigs, including Luis Gonzalez, who lives in Kiah’s building. And a guest player from outside the neighborhood, Grammy-award winning violinist Jesse Mills, has become a permanent part of the series.

“There’s something special about making music together and something very powerful can happen when there’s good chemistry in the group,” Kiah said. The chemistry extends beyond performance; playing together has inspired all three musicians as composers as well.

“In addition to being a world class violinist, Mills is also a really great jazz pianist,” Kiah said. “What he’s able to do with his jazz chops, he’s able to transfer that into his composition. His sense of harmony is amazing.”

Mill’s classical background is also valued as an addition to the trio. “There’s something interesting about classical composition, all the Italian words, all the bow technique, the sound. Roy’s really excited about it. He has a new piece that he calls ‘Dumb Classical,’” Kiah added with a laugh.

Despite the creative energy the trio has enjoyed working together this summer, they haven’t yet come up with a name for the group (though apparently Moist Towelette is once again available).

Catch Kiah, Nathanson and Mills perform from 5pm to 7pm on Sunday, August 21 at Qathra Cafe, 1112 Cortelyou Road, featuring soul and jazz standards, original compositions, and a little dumb — and not so dumb — classical music.

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