Kenny Barron: A Musical Autobiography

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Its an unending journey to find your own style, and you never really want to arrive....You can be gratified but never satisfied.
Kenny BarronKenny Barron has achieved recognition, long overdue, as one of the giants of modern mainstream jazz piano. Born in Philadelphia in 1943, he moved to New York in 1961, where he worked briefly with James Moody, Lee Morgan, Roy Haynes and Lou Donaldson. He then had extended gigs with Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef and Ron Carter. After a stint as co-leader of the group Sphere in the 1980s, he went on to lead his own trios. One of the many highlights of his recording career was People Time (Verve, 1992), a series of brilliant duets recorded with Stan Getz live in Copenhagen, Denmark, just weeks prior to the legendary saxophonist's demise.



In December of 2006, Barron was in Des Moines for a concert under the aegis of the Civic Music Association, a non-profit cultural organization affiliated with Drake University. Since its inception in 1925, the CMA's stated mission has been both to present excellent musical performances and foster musical education. In recent years, it has brought top-shelf caliber musicians like Benny Green and Christian Howes to Des Moines, a city otherwise a bit off the beaten path for most big-name jazz players. As part of its agenda to promote awareness, understanding and respect for musical artistry, the CMA also asks performers, while they're in town, to give workshops, seminars, or free performances for the benefit of those who might not have the means or ability to attend pricey concerts at upscale venues.



On this occasion, Barron had agreed to give an informal presentation at Rieman Music, arguably Des Moines' premier music store. Along with the usual lesson rooms in the rear of the store, this establishment also has a spacious recital room which was to be the venue for his presentation. Upon arriving, as he made his way to the front of the room, Barron exchanged greetings with a few individuals and at one point remarked that he had never been in Iowa before. Later, however, he corrected himself, recalling that he had played at Grinnell College (located 60 miles east of Des Moines) several years earlier with Ron Carter.



Barron has a gentlemanly but cordial air, and (unlike many performers) he's as comfortable talking about music to a small group as he is playing it before a large audience, bespeaking his long tenure as a music instructor at Rutgers University. Taking his seat at the Steinway grand, Barron explained that what he wanted to do over the next hour was discuss some of the piano players who had influenced him, illustrating each musician's style with an example or two on the piano.



The ensuing presentation was thus a blend of jazz history, personal autobiography and music. Afterwards, he took questions from the small but attentive audience and graciously granted a brief interview with AAJ before being whisked back to his hotel room by his CMA handlers for some rest and dinner before that evening's concert.



He started by recounting how he first began playing piano at age 6, studying classical music primarily. "I hated it, of course, Barron recalled. "I wanted to be outside playing with the other boys. But there was one seminal experience at that age he termed his "first encounter with live music. His Philadelphia childhood home did not have a refrigerator, but rather an icebox. "When the iceman came around to make a delivery, he used to play the piano, Barron said. "He wasn't formally trained or anything; he played by ear. He was the pianist, Barron recounted, who first introduced him to the blues. "This is the sort of thing he would play, said Barron, who then launched into a richly developed 12-bar blues that managed to be both exuberantly down-home and yet tastefully polished.



Barron mentioned his oldest brother Bill, a saxophonist 12 years his senior and now deceased, with whom he played his first professional gig in 1961. He also spoke fondly of another key element in his early musical development. "There was great jazz radio in Philly in those days, he said. "That's how I first heard guys like Fats Navarro and Dizzy Gillespie, adding a bit wistfully that today's airwaves broadcast precious little of that sort of authentic jazz anymore.

He spoke of an art teacher at his school who sometimes played jazz records during class. "One record that made a big impression on me was a Sonny Rollins recording of the Dave Brubeck ballad 'In Your Own Sweet Way' with Tommy Flanagan on piano, said Barron. [Note: Rollins and Flanagan recorded this tune and two others in 1956 with Miles Davis, an effort to complete a failed session three years earlier with Charlie "Chan Parker. Originally released on Prestige (LP 7044), it can be heard on the Miles Davis CD Collector's Items (Original Jazz Classics, 1990)].



"I was very impressed by [Flanagan's] delicate, light touch and the way he developed ideas, musical strategies. I was so curious—who was this Irish guy playing jazz like that? I found out later, added Barron with a smile, "that he wasn't really Irish. With that set-up, Barron played the tune in the style of Flanagan's gentle lyricism and understated swing. He also showed his ability to carry a tune solo as he gradually built up a striding bass pattern with his left hand, finishing with a series of ringing, airy chords.



The next important pianist Barron discussed was Thelonious Monk; he noted that the two couldn't be more different. "If you were to make of graph of Flanagan, it would be like this (waving his hand in a series of gentle curves), with hills and valleys. Now, a graph of Monk, on the other hand, would be like this (moving his hand up and down in a series of abrupt diagonal lines), sharp and jagged.



Describing what was perhaps the single most defining element of Monks' style, Barron noted that "Monk employed a lot of dissonance in his playing; he used a lot of major and minor 2nds. Here I was reminded of a Latin term I once heard in a college course on British poetry: discordia concors, or "harmonious discord. First employed by Samuel Johnson to describe the frequently outlandish style of the so-called "Metaphysical Poets of the 17th Century, it is defined as "a harmony or unity gained by combining disparate or conflicting elements and could just as easily be applied to Monk—if one were inclined to use dead languages, that is.

Kenny Barron



Fortunately, as an educator, Barron shies away from the pedantic, and he confined his discussion to unpretentious English. "Monk also had a very percussive style, he pointed out, "and a strange sense of, well, I'll call it 'rhythmic displacement.' He was consistent as a stylist and composer, said Barron, explaining that what Monk played sounded like what he wrote. "Another essential element was his sense of humor, added Barron before launching into "Light Blue, the first of two vehicles he employed to demonstrate the unique Monk style. Using a much more emphatically percussive touch and open-spaced chords, he built a stately yet wry construction punctuated with cascading runs that abruptly bottomed out into witty discords. He followed with "I'm Getting Sentimental over You, again marvelously evoking all of Monk's aforementioned qualities.



"The next pianist I'd like to talk about is Art Tatum, said Barron. "I have every record he ever made—and I try never to listen to them. He paused, so as to give his listeners a moment to puzzle over his remark, before explaining. "If I did, I'd throw up my hands and give up! Barron elaborated a bit on Tatum's reputation as a master technician. "So I'm not going to pretend to demonstrate Tatum, he then said modestly. "I'm just going to present a reasonable facsimile. That facsimile came in the form of the venerable standard "Body and Soul, replete with massive block chords, quicksilver runs, and reflective fermatas.



At that point, Barron opened the floor for questions, and the first inquiry was about his practice routine. "I have a Steinway at home that I hardly ever touch, he said somewhat ruefully. He explained that with the demands of touring and teaching, he just doesn't have much opportunity to practice very often. When he did, he continued, along with the technical things ("Czerny, Hanon, scales ) he used to replicate performance conditions by playing nonstop, sometimes at a very fast clip, for up to 40 minutes. "You can't stop when you're on the bandstand, he noted. "You can't interrupt the flow; you have to play right through your mistakes.



Asked about his favorite musicians, Barron pointed to Dizzy Gillespie, with whom he played for four years, and Yusef Lateef, another bandleader he played behind whom he credits for influencing his teaching style, as well. "[Lateef] was so adventurous: he was kind of like a kid, always wanting to try new things.



"When you were 17 or 18, who did you want to sound like? asked a youthful audience member. Barron paused and smiled. "I was exploring at that age. I guess I was like everyone else—I wanted to sound like Tommy Flanagan or McCoy Tyner. You know, Miles Davis once said that it takes a long time to learn how to play like yourself, he continued. "It's an unending journey to find your own style, and you never really want to arrive.



The questioner followed up: "How did you go about trying to find your own voice, to find a new way of playing? Replied Barron, "Well, you don't want to try to be different. I didn't want to be contrived; I wanted my playing to be organic. To be honest, I never really thought about it that much. Now, Coltrane, for example, he thought about it all the time; he was analytical. Bill Evans was the same way, very analytical. Not me—it's more a matter of emotion with me, just trying to convey how I feel. As a third sort of example, Barron also referred to trumpeter Richard Williams, whom he feels was "both intuitive and intellectual.



I decided to jump in with what I thought was an appropriate question, given the fact that the event was a function of the CMA's commitment to music education. "We know that it's one thing to be a good musician, and something else to be a good music teacher, I began. "Not every pianist combines those two abilities as successfully as you have. I guess my question is more about pedagogy, if you don't mind me using that word. Barron smiled. I continued. "Instead of asking who's influenced you as a jazz player, I'd like to know who's influenced you as a jazz teacher.



"Well, I've never actually studied formally with anyone, replied Barron. "But one person I really admire is Barry Harris, who teaches at a community center in Manhattan. I like the way he runs his classes; he's real hands-on, and he gets everyone involved. My own style in my classes is to use two pianos, side by side. I'll have someone come up and play, and maybe I'll play along, duet style.



One senior citizen seemed a bit unused to the notion of continual improvisation in the context of solo piano performance versus a jazz combo. "Do you always improvise? she said quizzically. "Don't you ever get to the point where you're satisfied with a song? Barron explained that, unlike classical piano performance, there's no such thing as a "set piece in jazz. "Oh, yes, he said. "I always change something every time I play a song, even if it's just one note. You can be gratified, but never satisfied, added Barron, who noted a bit later on that musicians like Bach and Beethoven were known as great improvisers. "That's something that has become a lost art in classical music, he observed.



"Any other questions? asked Barron. "Yes, one individual spoke out, "could you play some more? "Good question! remarked someone else, which met with smiles and general agreement. Barron took the opportunity to mention a favorite point of his, one he has brought up in other AAJ interviews: the ballad. "I've always felt that that's what separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, with musicians, he said. "I've seen lots of piano players who can play lots of notes, have outstanding technique, but when you slow them down they fall apart. Sounding very much like a New York/New Jersey guy, he stated unequivocally, "As far as I'm concerned, if you can't play a ballad, forget about it! Barron has said that he tells students that he wants them to make him cry when they play a ballad, and he then showed that he practices what he preaches with a heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most that had several audience members dabbing their eyes.



More questions followed. One gentleman mentioned a friend of his, a pianist who feels that the seventh is overused in jazz, and asked Barron for his opinion. Barron furrowed his brow in bemusement. "Well, most jazz chords are some form or other of a seventh. What does he think should be used instead? he asked in return. The gentleman clarified. "I think he was referring more to blues than jazz, and he was suggesting that perhaps the sixth ought to be used more. At that, Barron looked less puzzled and said, "Well, that would be more for boogie-woogie than blues, I think. But that's a good example of what I mean when I say I don't get too analytical about those sorts of things. I go more on intuition and what sounds right to me.



Another individual, contrasting the somewhat younger European jazz audiences with the older ones generally found in America, wondered if Barron made adjustments in his repertoire to "connect with the crowd. Barron replied that in his experience every audience was unique, regardless of age. "I don't really have pre-planned sets, he said. "I try to 'read' the audience's vibe, not so much to determine what songs to play, but rather what kind of songs to play, what kind of feel the first song ought to have.



Barron was asked about his impending recording plans. "I have one more record to do with Verve on my current contract, he answered. He discussed some young musicians from Japan and Cuba with whom he was working, and noted that he seemed to work best with an imposed timetable. "I need deadlines, he said. With that, Barron brought the presentation to a close. Several well-wishers briefly chatted with him before he broke away to give me a few minutes for the benefit of AAJ readers.

Kenny Barron

All About Jazz: You retired a few years ago from teaching at Rutgers. How long did you teach at there?



Kenny Barron: For 25 years, I guess, from 1973 to 1999. That's about 25, isn't it?


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