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Arts & Entertainment

The Birth of Cool: Kim Henrickson
By Amos Hopkins


February 23, 2008

jpg Amos Hopkins

Amos Hopkins
Ketchikan, Alaska - As this is my first freelance article writing for Sitnews, I feel that I should introduce myself. My name is Amos Hopkins and I have been a musician since the day I was born. There is only one qualification in my opinion of what makes a musician. To put it simply, a musician is one that is the maker music. Or perhaps music makes him or her. Without projecting a degree of value, music can be as simple as clapping your hands. Or it can be as complicated as sensing your body and its dimensions within space and time. The aim of this column is to feature local musicians and their work within Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. As a musician living in this area, I have experienced that Alaska colors my life and the music I play to a hue of unimaginable saturation. The pleasure of this column is to introduce you to the musicians of this wonderful region. By reading this column you will discover the lives they live, the music they play, and get a special backstage pass to the origins of the sounds they create. In my time here I have gotten to play with many musicians. I have relished playing with all of them. But there was one in particular that I felt would be great to start with. And that is Kim Henrickson!


The Birth of Cool

Kim Henrickson has lived here for a good while. He is a fixture of Ketchikan and a secret element within the ubiquitous woodwork of town that makes people tap their toes without knowing (a true sign of artistry). Kim is a maker of music and a player of piano. I started our interview by asking him what got him started.

jpg The Birth of Cool: Kim Henrickson

Kim Henrickson

"It all started when my mother bought a Chickering square grand piano for our house when I was just a kid." This is a rough translation, bare with me. "She bought it as a piece of furniture to decorate the house with more than anything!" Imagine my pleasure, in discovering that Kim's life was changed by his mother's decorating whims. Better yet, imagine his pleasure! So, Kim went on to describe his early life as a musician and how it manifested in a marching band, the epitome of blissful ridiculousness, with Kim playing the bass clarinet. I listened to all of this and was guessing that this was all terribly entertaining to him but didn't make his toes tap. Then one day Kim heard a recording of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor and sat down at the old square piece of furniture to see what would happen. He banged and banged on the ivories and figured out the song. It is a strange alchemy that occurs within a person when suddenly something in their environment calls upon an inner predisposition to create things. One day you're a normal person and the next you become intoxicated by palettes of melody and rhythm. Eventually in his musical excursions, he found a piece of music that illustrated what he had been playing and promptly taught himself how to read (this is every self taught musician's distant fantasy by the way). He went on as a self-taught musician practicing classical music and being "too snooty for rock n' roll," to use his words. He said as a younger man he regretted learning to read music to some extent.

I discovered in a later interview, however, that Kim Henrickson never had anything close to a normal childhood. When learning more of his upbringing, it came out that his father, a Swedish immigrant by the name of Angus V. Henrickson, was responsible or partly responsible with inventing the patented process to enrich uranium. Kim's childhood was colored with a scientific atmosphere through his father, who was involved in such efforts as the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, etc. I asked Kim how his father felt about Kim pursuing music. "He didn't care really. My father was always more concerned with making sure that I thought as an individual. He never told me what to think. He taught me how to think." Kim analogized his learning of music. "For me it was like algebra. I just knew it. I can't explain why, but it just made sense." Another element of Kim's scientific influence in his music is his fascination with quantum physics. I had a feeling that this may have had something to do with his initial attraction to Alaska, his love of music, and all it beholds.


Isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only through their interaction with other systems. (Niels Bohr, Atomic Physics and the Description of Nature, 1934)

As a younger man, he went up into the interior of Alaska to work in mining camps. With no promise of a job, Kim made the journey in a VW bus and worked for no wage in the service of a family that owned a mining operation. He continued for months before finally giving him a job. The things that Kim saw would make a strong mark on anyone. But it clearly manifested in his music. It is hard to realize that a person's music can effect what kind of person they become. Thus, as our environment changes, so does our music. Kim spoke of wandering through vast wilderness and roaming among giants like Denali and the endless tundra. The glimpses he awarded me were like single frames off of a movie reel, fascinating in themselves and hopeless in the knowledge that they are a part of something so much bigger. He found himself working in large excavating projects for over eight years. He became tired of this though and learned how to do hand mining from some old timers. He pursued this for 12 years. Naturally, I was amazed by this and asked him how one would start a hand mining operation. He said, "You begin by breaking ground with a shovel and a pick ax and dig a hole around yourself!" Kim was successful enough at this to pursue it for the next 12 years mining in the summers in Alaska and operating boats in Hawaii during the winters.

During this time Kim pursued music much in the same way that he pursued mining. Music was a garden that sustained him. It was something that needed to be maintained but not an existence. Kim would play in local bars such as the Pioneer's Hall in Eagle and the Roadhouse in Kantishna. I asked him what kind of music he played there and he simply answered, "boogie woogie, jazz and classical. People were pretty well lubricated up there in those days. I wish I could remember more." I asked him about any experiences he might have had during this time that "only could've happened in Alaska."

"Yes!" he said, and told me about a run in with a griz one time above Kantishna. "I was out in the bush one day enjoying the scenery when I spotted a grizzly bear that was far off and hunting field mice on the tundra. (The bear) would spot one and go tearing off after this mouse and ripping up tundra like a backhoe. He stopped in mid-chase, stood up and smelled the air in my general direction. He promptly charged at me and I took off for my motorcycle. By the time I made it to my bike he was where I had been standing when I started running. Of course my old Yamaha didn't start up right away. It took me ten kicks before I got it started at which time the bear was right on my tail. I left him in a cloud of dust. He was frothing and foaming at the mouth when I pulled away!"


"You blows who you is." (Louis Armstrong)

At some point in Kim's life he was transformed by the non-classical music he was hearing. There was Frank Zappa, Dr. John, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Pat Methany, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea.

"Frank Zappa was busy spitting out these monsters and I had to listen." Kim said, "It was groups like these that started introducing me to other genres. It was around this time that I realized how much I didn't know."

We talked a good deal about being musicians in Alaska and how it affects one's musicianship. He said it can be hard to find people to play with but it is always very rewarding. He also finds inspiration by playing alone sometimes. "It's a small pond." he says, but went on to talk about all of the great things about being a musician here, describing how he often plays alone by circumstance or sometimes by choice. He mentioned how his musical experiences can be very spiritual sometimes; his love of Bach and bebop because of its "spiritual geometry and crystalline structure." He also said that music has helped him to become a better person. It has taught him patience in dealing with hardship. He said, "I know that if I have the patience to learn how to play something, then I have the patience to get through hard times." He says, "Music is meditation. I like being able to come up with immediate answers." This happens when his improvisation is perfect. He also said that being in Alaska helped him to channel his creativity.


"It takes seven years to become a lifer. That's how long it takes for the fungus to enter your brain stem. Then you know that you're never going to leave." (Ray Troll, outside of the New York Café)

One of the things that I love about Alaska is that it brings out the wildness in everyone. Something in the water brings out the individual in all of us. Those priceless personality quirks bring this place to life. Kim is one of the only people in Ketchikan, Alaska, for whom I would reserve the highly esteemed title of "Hep Cat". Many people have seen him at various functions, always wearing quirky glasses and always chewing gum with an enjoyable aloofness. I had to ask Kim about his incessant bubble gum chewing while playing music. "Simple" he says, "I started chewing bubble gum while playing because I couldn't smoke cigarettes and use both hands at the same time!"

I asked Kim why he has stayed in Ketchikan for the past fifteen years. He fumbled with his words for a long time before offering an anecdote. "You know, one time I was flying back in to Ketchikan after being gone for too long. We had hurricane-like weather and the plane was bouncing all over the place in the air and trying to make a landing. And the woman next to me was looking out of the window and said 'Dammit! This is my home!' And I knew I had to agree. I believe in this place. This is my home. This place has a sense of community that I've never found anywhere else in the country Musicians in Alaska have more exuberance. They know how to make hay when the sun shines. People here have a better idea of being in the present. They have more fun and they're more humble. You get humbled to be around tall mountains and being among the trees in the Tongass. You feel insignificant. But somehow, that gives me energy to make music. I believe in reality and what part of reality up here isn't jaw dropping?" He continues, "I like Alaska because attracts people that are strong, talented, and in search of adventure The musicians here are like pioneers. They're making music that hasn't been made before."

In all musicians' souls there is a sentimental place that stores the treasures of past events, loves lost, and remarkable notes that have been given life only to float off into the ether, never to return. We all have those precious memories of favorite gigs or musical experiences. I asked Kim about his. He remembered one year at Dave Rosendin's house on Pennock Island during the Fourth of July fireworks. The night was full of mayhem and he found himself playing a Bach piece on a blaring organ that echoed around the mountains while the fireworks illuminated the Tongass Narrows on the Inside Passage. He said it felt "inebriatingly appropriate."


Never express yourself more clearly than you think. (Niels Bohr, quantum physicist)

"I don't let my mouth say nothin' my head can't stand"(Louis Armstrong)

Kim said that it took him most of his life to figure out that he should be a musician. After all of his other ventures, this is what he really wants to do. He says, "Music defines me. It helps me to be in the moment. Nowadays I just want to play. And I don't try to think of my music in values. I think of it in terms of what I'm getting out of it." I asked Kim if he had any advice for younger musicians in Ketchikan. "Be in the moment. If you think it's cool, then you're right. Don't let anyone discourage you from what you're trying to do." Kim talked about how Alaska is a great place to play music because its listeners are always so eager to hear something. "They'll applaud for anything and encourage your efforts." He says that he is very grateful to Ketchikan for letting him play music here. He also wants to encourage the arts and music in the elementary schools. Kim can be seen in various productions and events around town throughout the year.

Amos Hopkins is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Amos at somasnikpoh[at]

Amos Hopkins ©2008

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