Howard "Kingfish" Franklin.
Howard "Kingfish" Franklin. Photo courtesy of Lisa Pointer.

Several years ago, I was listening to a classic jazz album when I became preoccupied by a drum figure. The album’s liner notes described the figure with great complexity, but what I heard was rudimentary—in fact, it was a literal rudiment. Seeking clarity, I dropped a text to one of my go-to experts on the D.C. jazz scene, Howard “Kingfish” Franklin.

“Yes!” he responded. “That’s a single drag tap. But there is some more complex shit happening there. Come by Dukem tonight before we start, I’ll give you a free lesson bro.”

Just as you don’t ask a professional musician to play for free, you don’t ask them to teach for free. Nor do you expect them to offer freebies. But that was the kind of generous spirit that Fish (as he was universally known), who died of complications from COVID-19 on Aug. 18 at the age of 51, was.

Fish was a man defined by his passions. He loved photography. He loved D.C. sports teams—all of them. Anyone who ever spent an hour with the man knew that he loved his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. (Mention names like Martin Luther King, Duke Ellington, or even an obscure Black actor or athlete, and a frequent response was, “My fraternity brother!”) 

And he loved people. Fish leaves behind his partner, Lisa Pointer, four children, his parents, four sisters, and a brother. He and alto saxophonist Bruce Williams, his best friend since childhood, also acknowledged each other as family. “His family and friends meant everything to him,” says Williams, now based in Montclair, New Jersey. (Fish had recently moved near Williams; he died in New Jersey.) “He loved people. He loved hard.” 

Music, however, uniquely animated him. Engage him on a musical level, and you could unlock all the best parts of him at once: generosity, kindness, fierce intelligence, humor, and joy.

That’s not to say he wasn’t serious about it; he was often deadly serious. Yet jazz—a term he hated, preferring to call it “straight ahead music”—put a special kind of light in his eyes. Get him listening to some of it, or talking about it, and that light would jump and dance. 

Straight ahead was the flavor of the music he loved the most. He also appreciated the edge-skirting likes of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy; still, when it came time to play, he went in for traditional, “inside,” and swinging. He held the dead center of the beat and he swung the hell out of it.

“He understood the dance element of the music,” Williams says. “Making it swing. Making it pop. Making it feel good. That’s where the integrity lay with him. I’d put Fish at medium tempo, swinging hard, against anybody.”

Perhaps that explains the dance of that light in his eyes. It’s the light that I’ll miss most of all.

Howard L. Franklin, Jr., was born Dec. 20, 1969 in Takoma Park and grew up in both Southeast D.C. and Maryland. Like so many African American D.C. kids of his generation, his first entry into music was go-go; in another typically Washingtonian fashion, he started out playing bucket drums, teaching himself to play the rhythms and textures he loved. (He finally bought a real drum kit from Veneman’s Music in Rockville when he was 16, calling it “the greatest day of my life.”)

He met Williams when they were about 12. They clicked instantly. It was Williams who introduced him to jazz, putting on a Branford Marsalis record. “He was like, ‘Wow!’” Williams says. “And he had that spark ever since.” Even so, Fish continued playing in funk, R&B, and pop bands as well as jazz. 

It wasn’t until he enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia in 1988 that he first began training formally. Calvin Jones, who founded the jazz program at UDC, became his most important mentor. “He taught me to love the music on another level,” Fish said. (It was Jones who gave him the nickname of “Kingfish.”) Along with teaching him to swing hard and keep the dance groove out front, Jones taught Fish to ground the music in African American culture and tradition.

After graduating and earning a master’s degree in music from Oregon’s Concordia University Portland, Fish got to work making himself an ambassador of what he’d learned at Jones’s tutelage. It was in that capacity that Fish’s musical generosity shone through. He gave D.C. players like Ameen Saleem, Kris Funn, and Eliot Seppa some of their earliest gigs, and worked as well with the young Baltimore players Ebban and Ephraim Dorsey. Fish felt a tremendous responsibility to young people, especially young Black people: to provide them with positive role models, and to encourage them to keep their musical heritage alive.

He put that knowledge and generosity into more than just jazz. Fish maintained several ensembles, all under the corporate banner of Howard Franklin Music Inc. Wildflower band, which specialized in funk and R&B, was among his most popular projects—and also employed a huge swath of D.C. musical talents at one time or another. By all reports he could be a difficult taskmaster at times, with a penchant for honest and forthright criticism. At the same time, though, the targets of that criticism acknowledged later that they became better players because of what Fish told them.

Pointer, Fish’s partner and the mother of two of his children, stresses that he loved to play music for, and with, his children. She cherishes a video of him playing the drums while his baby twins, Kiros and Amalyah (now almost three), play notes on an electronic keyboard.

It’s no slander on Fish to say that he could be temperamental. “People that know me know that I have two sides,” he told saxophonist Antonio Parker in a YouTube interview this summer. “I’ll smile, then smack your head off five minutes later.” He was also stubborn. He insisted on calling the Washington Football Team “the Redskins,” even after the official name change. More to the point, he refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“He got some disinformation,” says Pointer. “Everybody tried to talk him out of it. I tried, his daughter tried, Bruce tried harder than anybody. But he really believed that disinformation and he was not going to let it go.” My own last interaction with Fish was a confrontation with him about vaccine untruths he was helping to spread. By the time he began musing that he might get the shot, it was too late. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Aug. 4; less than two weeks later, he was dead. A GoFundMe campaign to benefit his family is ongoing.

According to Williams, Fish left behind two recently completed but unreleased albums, one jazz and the other funk. Here’s hoping that the recordings find their way to the public. His love for and generosity with the music both demand it.

Correction: This story previously misidentified Lisa Pointer as the mother of three of Franklin’s children.