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Interviews

Kenny Barron

By Published: November 14, 2003

You do have to go out there and hustle. You can't just sit by the phone; so sometimes you have to create opportunities for yourself. Going to a club that doesn't have music, for instance, and trying to start something, which has happened.

By Amanda Monaco

From his first gigs with Dizzy Gillespie to his current ensembles featuring some of today's emerging young artists, Kenny Barron is a continuously creative spirit and one of the warmest people you'll ever meet. AAJ-New York spoke with him on the occasion of his upcoming debut at Carnegie Hall's new concert space, Zankel Hall, to discuss his past, present, future and the wisdom he's picked up along the way.

All About Jazz: Let's begin by talking about your gig at Carnegie Hall, and the band you're working with?

Kenny Barron: It's a band of young people, one of which was actually my piano student who plays flute. Her name is Ann Drummond, and she just graduated from Manhattan School of Music, as a jazz piano major. She's playing flute with me. And the drummer is a young woman who also just graduated from Manhattan - fantastic - who is 22 years old also. Her name is Kim Thompson. On vibes, I'm sure you know Stefon Harris, and a bassist from Japan who's been in New York for the last 15 years, named Kiyoshi Kitagawa.

AAJ: Is Thompson and Kitagawa a new trio of yours?

KB: One of my trios; I still have the trio with Ben Riley and Ray Drummond. So basically that's the band that's going to be at Carnegie Hall. We'll be doing some original music and some standards. It's a very exciting band, a lot of energy; I'm really enjoying playing with them. The band has not been working that long; a few months ago, I received a commission to write some music for the University of Michigan, so I wrote it for that particular band. That was our first gig. We have some other things coming up, and I hope to record in October.

AAJ: When you get commissioned to write pieces, do you usually put specific ensembles together for them?

KB: Well, that was my first commission; I decided I wanted to write for a particular instrumentation, and I had particular people in mind. So hopefully there will be other commissions, which may involve larger ensembles. It is something I'd like to do more of. It's very challenging to write a certain number of minutes worth of music without it being totally improvised.

AAJ: Did you study composition formally?

KB: No, never formally, but you listen and you observe, and you learn things, and you try and apply them, utilize what you've learned into composition.

AAJ: Did you end up teaching composition at Rutgers before your tenure there was through?

KB: Yes, that was one of the last things I taught there, jazz composition and arranging, for the last four or five years I was there. It was a really interesting and nice course.

AAJ: Is that usually a class in arranging for big bands?

KB: Yes, but what I did was have the students write for the instruments that were in the class. We wrote music every week and they got a chance to hear it every week. I figured that was a better way to go, so that you could deal with the colors that were in the classroom. And they brought their instruments to class. It would have been very difficult for them to hear their music had they been writing for big band. I figured that would be a better way for them to hear what they had written.

AAJ: What was it like coming to New York in the '60s?

KB: Oh wow. That was definitely incredible coming from Philadelphia. There was a lot of music, so many clubs around in Brooklyn, in Manhattan, in the Bronx, coffee shops. My first experience—I came to visit my brother [Bill Barron], who was a saxophonist and moved here before me. And I just couldn't believe it. The first thing that got me was just that there were so many people on the street. In Philadelphia at midnight there was nobody on the streets, there's nobody out at that time. So to see all of these people on the streets—I walked up to Birdland, I can't remember who was playing, but I just remember seeing people like Kenny Dorham and Max Roach in the audience. There were all these coffee shops, some of which are still there: I first saw Cecil Taylor play at the Café Wha in 1961. I moved to the Lower East Side, to East 6th Street at that time. Of course, there were no Indian restaurants there at that time—I could walk to the Five Spot, which was on 2nd or 3rd and the Bowery. The same people owned a club called the Jazz Gallery, and I could walk to all these coffee shops, and there were some other musicians who lived down there who had lofts, it was kind of the beginning of the loft scene also. We'd have jam sessions. For me, it was a great, great experience coming to New York at that time. There was a lot more music then than there is now. There was music everywhere.

AAJ: These days, musicians go to hustle for a gig, and the club is either not interested or they already have a band. It sounds like people were a lot more open to the music back then.

KB: Yeah, they were a lot more open, and one of the things you could do at that time, people like Monk, they would work at the Five Spot for months at a time! I remember when I left Dizzy Gillespie in '66, one of the first gigs I had was working with Stanley Turrentine at Minton's, and we were there for like five weeks. You could have gigs like that back then. That doesn't happen now. Every August when I was with Dizzy, for instance - we would always do four weeks at the Village Gate. Any gig we did in New York was at least two weeks - sometimes three. We'd work at Birdland for two, three weeks. That's what gigs were back then.

AAJ: New York was pretty happening.

KB: Oh it was. And compared to other places, it still is. There's still no place like New York.

AAJ: Any advice for young musicians?

KB: Well, beyond just being patient and practicing, that's it - just hang in there. You do have to go out there and hustle. You can't just sit by the phone; so sometimes you have to create opportunities for yourself. Going to a club that doesn't have music, for instance, and trying to start something, which has happened. The club may not have a piano, so let's try and start something there. It may not be a lot of money at first, and you may get rejected, but you just have to have that kind of attitude of moving forward and trying things, and approaching people, and seeing if it will work. And it's unfortunate that that's the way it has to be now; you really have to just approach people, approach bars and club owners. I think that's how Augie's may have started. It was kind of a hot house for young players for almost no money, but it was a place for them to get together and network and play. And it started a lot of them on their way, as a result of that. And a similar thing happened at Small's.

AAJ: The record industry, what's happening with that? It seems that when you read anything about it, labels used to be out there looking for stuff, but now it's all about the bottom line, the next "diva" or something like that.

KB: That's unfortunate, but that is the way it seems. There aren't that many major labels anymore, and they seem primarily interested in vocalists. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but to the exclusion of instrumental music. And jazz allegedly only accounts for 1% or 2% at most of the entire recording industry. So when they get somebody who sells millions and millions of records, they figure that's a "winning formula" so record companies try and jump on the same bandwagon. And there hasn't been an instrumentalist that's sold that many records ever.

AAJ: So do you think that maybe the wave of the future is just people putting their own records out by themselves now.

KB: Well, yeah, I think that might be. First of all, you can do anything that you want, musically. You don't have a producer trying to talk you into recording all of the music of Elton John, or something - that name just came out of a hat - but you know what I'm saying. And, yeah, it's not that expensive as you may think. A pianist can always record solo, as can a guitarist. And the technology is as such that you can almost do it in your house. And from a business point of view, if you sign a recording contract and the record company sells about 1,000 CDs, you get a very small percentage of that. But if you sell a thousand copies on your own label, then you get to keep all of the money. Which means that if you sell a record for $15, you get all of it, as opposed to say, 10 cents from a record label. So that's a big difference. Again, I'm just using that figure, but you don't get that much. Again, as far as royalties go, you don't get any until the cost of producing the record has been recouped. Then you start to get royalties. So if it costs $100,000 to produce your record, you won't see any money until that $100,000 is paid off. And with a jazz record, that rarely happens. Unless the overall cost was very low. But if you record for three or four days, you have a cast of thousands, and the cost of doing the cover - all of that is your money, all of that gets charged to your royalties. So where a lot of musicians make money is on publishing. So when they record, they record their own compositions.

AAJ: I've heard that a lot of record companies take your publishing.

KB: If you let them. That used to be something that happened, especially when musicians had substance abuse problems. Record companies would say "we'll record you, but you'll have to give up your publishing". And a lot of musicians would do that. But I don't think that happens so much today.

AAJ: It seems like such a modern day thing, with all the contracts and the like.

KB: Many musicians 30 or 40 years ago weren't interested enough back then, so they would get jerked around, especially in terms of publishing and stuff like that. But, again, that doesn't happen so much anymore. Musicians are a lot more aware, and they hire people like managers who know the business and are looking out for their interests. But the best situation is for musicians to know. For any musician, pop, classical, or jazz, it's important to understand, because it is a business. And it's very necessary.

AAJ: How do you feel about jazz education?

KB: I think it's a very valuable thing, and I enjoy doing it. When I look at some of the young players coming out of various schools, it's amazing. The knowledge that they have, the way they play—they really play with the right feeling... Education is a great thing. I think probably the only negative thing I see from it is that sometimes a lot of the young players get so bound up in technique, that they forget about their hearts. But as they get older, they get more experienced and pay more attention to the soulful part of their playing. Most of the young players are at a level where, when I was their age I was not at their level. I had some students at Juilliard who were just unbelievable! So I think the educational system in terms of jazz is really great. It's just that one aspect that more attention needs to be paid to somehow, though I don't know what the answer is, really, developing that emotional side. A lot of them play ballads, for instance: they play all the right stuff, and their touch is good, but one thing that I always tell a student when they play a ballad is, "I want you to make me cry." They haven't been able to do that yet. But that'll happen. As Ben Riley says, "They just need to have their hearts broken, then they'll have something to be emotional about." But other than that, I think the educational system is great; the things they're learning, they get to deal with all kinds of music, from very early to the very latest.

AAJ: Is there a lot of experimental playing going on in the schools now?

KB: Unfortunately, that's not one of the things. Students may be doing that on their own, but it's not really being looked at in education, unfortunately. But I think students are encouraged to do that on their own. It actually depends on the school, the environment. A lot of the schools tend to be very big band oriented, so there isn't that much material that you're going to find. That's more a concept about playing than about writing. There are people who write that way, but for me it's more about playing, a way of expressing.... It has to have some reason for it to be. If you listen to Trane's latest stuff before he passed—I didn't know him when he was young, but my brother knew him, and, you know, Trane used to play gigs where he'd "walk the bar" - Rhythm and Blues gigs - so, I mean, he came from that. He developed that, and you can trace that development. When you develop a certain way, the music has more validity than just buying a horn and getting a sound and then just going for broke - just screaming and squawking, that's not avant-garde music, that's just noise. But if you reach a certain level, or if you develop, then the music has more validity - and you can hear the difference.

AAJ: You've done so many different records, and I wanted to ask you about your varied recordings - your solo piano records, your Brazilian records...

KB: That's one of the things I like: different kinds of music. And Brazilian music I happen to really love. I've always liked the spirit of the music, and the way Brazilian composers utilize chords and the movemen—it's something that I especially love. And then getting hooked up with the guys who were on that last recording - Canta Brasil is what it's called - so there are four Brazilian guys on that recording and they have a different feeling than, say, a jazz musician playing Brazilian music. It was just really incredible to play with those guys, and have a chance to go to Brazil with them. We're actually playing next week - we're going to Austria to play for three days. It's just so much fun. And I try to find different things to do -ideas. For example, I met this guy who plays kora - it's an African instrument—and I'm trying to figure out something we can do together. It's a different sound. I like the sound of sitar - or koto - so there's all different sounds, in terms of colors, to explore.

AAJ: It sounds like you are juggling a lot of different ensembles right now. How does that work for you?

KB: It's fun! I love it. I call it "modular units". Again, that's what makes it exciting. The more different situations you're involved in, the more you grow. If you have one situation you're involved in, the tendency - and I've noticed that in myself - is to become very relaxed and you start to feel safe and comfortable, so you won't go beyond a certain level, because there's nothing to push you, you just do what you can do, or you do what you know how to do.


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