African American Studies
Jazz pianist Captain Kenneth Mills grew up on Kelly Street in the Bronx. His family moved from Manhattan to the Bronx in the early 1940s. He attended P.S. 39, Junior High School 52, and Morris High School alongside several renowned artists, activists, and politicians, including Eddie Palmieri, Elombe Brath, and Colin Powell. When Mills’ family moved to Kelly Street, the neighborhood was predominantly Jewish. There was very clear ethnic division in housing. Specific strips of houses were inhabited by particular ethnic groups. Despite ethnic partitions in his neighborhood, Mills’ educational and musical spheres were integrated.
Mills’ piano talent surfaced early in life. At age three, he surprised friends and family by playing “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” by ear. He did not receive formal training until junior high school, where his teacher had to push him to play by the book. Mills began to publicly share his talent by playing at church and accompanying school plays. In junior high school, he and three peers joined to form the 52 Bop Band. They referred to the band as the United Nations because of its ethnically diverse membership. At fifteen, Mills started singing and playing for the radio station WNYC through his involvement with the Police Athletic League. After his radio debut, members of the La Paris Sextet contacted Mills and he joined the group. While in his twenties, Mills played with and arranged for The Jazz Harmonics. In the mid-sixties he played with Jimmy Castor’s band. Mills has played with several groups over the course of his career, and in a multitude of venues across the Bronx and Manhattan including 845 Club, The Embassy Ballroom, Dawn Casino, Small’s Paradise, and The Concourse Plaza Hotel.
After playing with Jimmy Castor for nine years, Mills started composing music for plays in the 1970s. In 1979 he began playing for cotillions, and continues to play for these events. Also in 1979 Mills was named Captain in the Police Athletic League. He had been hired when the agency sought young outreach workers to communicate with neighborhood youth. In the late ’80s, restaurants became Mills’ main musical venue. At the present, Captain Mills is director of security at P.S. 153 in Co-op City. He has two sons, and plays for Tabernacle of Truth Ministry Incorporated, where his wife, Lillian Mills, is pastor.
Mills, Kenneth. 18 April 2006. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham.
Click below to download supplemental content.Mills, Kenneth.mp3 (143301 kB)