When I speak to musicians, regularly they mention Kenny Barron as someone they would like to work with, someone they respect, or someone they love to hear. And since musicians as a rule are quite critical of their peers, it says a mouthful of the man, who rarely gets credit for being one of the greatest accompanists in jazz history. So there, I will say it first and perhaps it will start a groundswell for easily the most lyrical pianist of our time. He spoke candidly with me from his home on the East Coast, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
Kenny Barron: I started listening to a great jazz station in Philadelphia, so by the time I was eleven, I was really in love with the music. I also had an older brother (Bill Barron), my oldest brother, who also a jazz musician. He played the tenor saxophone. We talked about music a lot and got into it. Eventually, he got me my first job when I was fourteen. And then he moved to New York in the late '50s and then in 1961, I moved to New York. He was working with Philly Joe Jones and Cecil Taylor and people like that. So I came over to New York and I worked with him for a while and I eventually ended up working for Dizzy Gillespie.
FJ: What was it like playing alongside one of the innovators of this music?
KB: On a personal level, he was great to work for. He was really a good human being. On a musical level, it was most certainly a highlight, if not one of the biggest highlights of my career, one of the greatest learning experiences because Dizzy knew a lot about the music, not just about the trumpet, but about the music. He knew a lot about rhythms. He knew a lot about the piano. I remember some nights, being in some clubs and sometimes the last set wouldn't be crowded and he would actually chase me away from the piano and sit down and play, play a couple of tunes with James Moody, who was the saxophonist. He knew a lot and he was very generous with his knowledge, in terms of sharing it and showing me different things about how to voice this chord and I remember him showing the drummer, Rudy Collins, how to play a certain kind of rhythm and actually be able to demonstrate it. Do this with the right foot, and do this with the left foot, and play this rhythm with the right hand and this with the left hand. He was able to do that and so it was a great learning experience.
FJ: Of all the musicians you have played with, who influenced you the most?
KB: I would say there is probably three people. Dizzy is one of them, and in terms of being a leader, it was Ron Carter and Yusef Lateef. I would really have to credit three people. There have been others as well. For instance, one of the things about Yusef, first of all, his honesty in dealing with musicians. One of the things I remember, if Yusef said something, you could count on it. It was on a personal level. He was honest to a fault. He believed in being responsible, which is another I learned, like being on time, things like that.
FJ: You did many duo albums with Ron Carter.
KB: Yeah, yeah. Well, working with Ron was, Ron is able to tell you what he wants. He is able to get things from you because he has his own particular musical vision. He knows how to get it across, how to explain to you what he wants you to do. He was very good at that.
FJ: What qualities must a effective leader possess?
KB: Well, for me, aside from other things, from non-musical things like being reliable and being on time. I think those things are important. In terms of music, I kind of like to let the musicians go for themselves in a sense. I don't want to have to tell them how to play or what to play. Because when you are involved with a group, I think it's best that they develop the music. It's kind of the concept that Miles had about leading a band. I kind of like that.
FJ: Is jazz most effective when it is organic?
KB: I feel so. I think sometimes it can be too, too smooth, too polished sometimes.
FJ: You have witnessed the ebbs and flows of this music, has the term jazz lost its luster?
KB: Not for me, but in terms of what lay people may think of what jazz is, yeah, it is that way. I get upset when I hear certain radio stations say that this is jazz and I know it isn't or when I look at the roster of a jazz festival and I don't see anybody in there that plays jazz. They certainly are not going to hire me to play at a rock and roll festival (laughing). I get a little upset when I see things like that. I don't get upset with the music, because I think all music is valid. I get upset with them identifying it as jazz and having people say that this is jazz. Luther Vandross, I am just using that as an example and he is somebody that I really like, I'm just using that as an example. I have his records. I like Luther Vandross. I like his records. I have his records, but I don't think he belongs on a jazz festival.
FJ: Have we lost sight of jazz as an art form?