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?
KB: No, I don't think we have lost sight of it, not at all. The music still is important. In some senses, it has gained even more prestige from some of the things, even though I don't agree with everything he does, some of the things that Wynton Marsalis is doing. He's brought a certain amount of prestige and other groups as well, for instance, the Modern Jazz Quartet. I think the music is safe and the music is in good hands. I feel very good about where the music is. My only complaint again, Fred, which we have talked about is what some people call jazz. I am concerned about that.
FJ: What is jazz to Kenny Barron?
KB: Well, it is certainly music that's challenging. It is music that deals with improvisation, challenging improvisation. Some of the other stuff, for me, it's like bubble gum music. It's children's music. That's a personal opinion.
FJ: Let's touch on your last album for Verve, Things Unseen.
KB: Well, it's basically what was my working quintet at the time. My working quintet was Eddie Henderson on trumpet, John Stubblefield on tenor saxophone, Victor Lewis on drums, and David Williams on bass. Again, it is not a concept record. I don't like that. I just wanted to write some nice music. Most of my albums are kind of, what's the word, eclectic. They have a variety of things. One of the things, there is a violinist on there who I actually heard in Japan, hanging out on night. I went to this little, small club and heard this young lady, Naoko Terai. I was so taken with her playing that I mentioned to her that if the situation should ever come up, I would like to use her on something. Well, the situation came up. I had the record company call her in Japan and she came over. She had never been to New York before. She had never been in a recording studio before. She did very well. Now, she is a star in Japan.
FJ: And your latest, Spirit Song ?
KB: Right, Spirit Song. Well, it is kind of the same thing. It is a very eclectic record. I think each tune kind of stands by itself, tells a story by itself, which is kind of what I like. Each tune is a story in it of itself. But it is another quintet, not necessarily a working quintet, but we will be touring with that band next month.
FJ: Isn't that the heart of this music, telling a story?
KB: Yeah, yeah, I agree, very much so. And I have some great young players to help me tell a story, well, Eddie, Eddie Henderson, Rufus Reid on bass, and Billy Hart, who is certainly one of my favorites, on drums, and David Sanchez, who is a former student of mine, on tenor saxophone, and on a couple of tracks, Regina Carter, and an incredible guitarist, Russell Malone. He knocked me out. So it was a fun record to do and I think it goes a lot of different places.
FJ: Where are you kicking off the tour?
KB: We start at the end of February at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles.
FJ: What are the dates for the Bakery?
KB: OK, the dates are February 29-March 5. It is basically the same band. It is the quintet, so it will be Billy Hart, drums, Rufus Reid, David Sanchez, and myself. Eddie is unavailable, so it will be another young trumpet player named Terrell Stafford. So we will be starting there. We will do there for a week and Yoshi's in Oakland for a week and Jazz Alley in Seattle. We start March 28 at Sweet Basil.
FJ: Sonny Rollins told me that you are one of the players he would like to get an opportunity to play with and a host of other musicians site you as the finest pianist on the scene, you and Tommy Flanagan.
KB: Tommy is certainly one of my heroes.
FJ: Are there any musicians you would like to work with?
KB: Yeah, you mentioned Sonny Rollins. I have never had a chance to work with Sonny Rollins. Hopefully, it will happen. He did call me, I remember, during the '70s. He did call me a couple of times, but I was working. I was working already. I was working with Freddie Hubbard at the time. So I wasn't able to do it. Maybe it will happen eventually.
FJ: What records do you feel are essential to your collection?
KB: There are so many records that have had an impact. One of the records, for instance, is Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic), that particular record. When that record came out, it had a big impact.
FJ: Why did the record make such an impression on you?