Born November 19, 1951 in Brooklyn, New York, Kenny Werner got an early start as a pianist. At the age of 11 he recorded a single with a 15-piece orchestra and appeared on television playing stride piano. He attended the Manhattan School of Music while still in high school, then became a concert piano major upon graduation. He felt the pull of jazz and decided to leave the Manhattan School for the Berklee School of Music in Boston, coming under the influence of two teachers, Madame Chaloff and Juão Assis Brasil, both strong pianists who helped him integrate spiritual aspects with strong performances.
His first jazz recording was in 1977, when he released an LP that featured piano solos of the music of Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and George Gershwin. Soon after that, Werner got a plum job when he was invited to record with Charles Mingus on Something Like a Bird. In 1981 he released his first album of original work, Beyond the Forest of Mirkwood. 298 Bridge Street, which was inspired by the sounds surrounding his Brooklyn studio, followed a year later. The early '80s brought extensive touring, including a tour with Archie Shepp and the Mel Lewis Orchestra. He also performed in duos with Rufus Reid, Ray Drummond, and Jaki Byard. His accomplishments were honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, which awarded him two grants in the '80s — in 1985 and 1987 — allowing him to present his own music in a concert hall setting at Symphony Space in New York. He also played with Ratzo Harris and Tom Rainey throughout the '80s, but the trio wouldn't make its first album until 1988's Introducing the Trio. The band recorded only one more album after that, but stayed together until 1995. Another long-term relationship was established when Werner joined the faculty of the New School in 1987.