During a recent conversation, Barry Harris (75) was asked about his plans for the future. It evoked an instantaneous explosion of laughter from him before he replied, "Don't ask me that! The life I lead is the life I lead. The recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from Northwestern University, in person Dr. Harris is a physically unprepossessing 5' 6½ . "Yah, put da half in there, he remarks, punctuating it with one of his frequent chuckles. Talking with this warm, diminutive giant, legendary pianist, composer and educator is akin to being treated to a one-on-one master class. He's devoted his life to the advancement of jazz and is a seminal living link to the origins of bebop and the music of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.
Harris' career, which has extended over more than six decades, began in his hometown, Detroit, Michigan, where he began playing piano at age four. He credits the school system there with having been an especially nurturing force. Out of it emerged many first-rank musicians and lifelong friends such as Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan and Hank, Thad and Elvin Jones.
Warming to the subject of musical education, which has for decades been a major part of his life in settings such as weekly classes at the New York City Jazz Workshop, he considers what's most demanding in teaching. "Hmmm. ...Really, how to improvise. That's the biggest challenge. I want [students] to be proficient on their instruments. ...You have to find a way to teach all this kind of stuff. It's hard. ...They have to have the means and the means is the technique. You have to have that. [I'm not] really teaching bebop or something like that. I'm just trying to teach how to improvise.
An unexpected example of improvisation which Harris refers to is Johann Sebastian Bach. "...You gotta think, if Bach was alive and all those cats were alive, where would they be playing? They would be playing in a bar. Because symphony halls play dead people's music. You gotta be almost dead to be played there.
Clearly touching on a favorite theme he continues, "Bach had gone to see this great organist, a great cat. And it really messed him up a little. Bach came back and he was doing stuff and the singers were having a fit. He ended up having to go to a saloon to play because he was doing too much in the church. Here Harris takes on a hilariously strangled tone in his voice. "The people said, 'Bach, you're doing too much. Bach! Don't do so much!'
From Harris' point of view, he's bringing to Europe what Americans have added to music. "...We [in the US] were a conglomerate of people. ....See, these other nations, France and England and all them places are just now feeling the things we went through. (Chuckling) They're just getting used to people from all over the world getting in their house.
Along with Johann Sebastian Bach, among Harris' great mentors have been Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Of Monk he says, "Well, you know that Monk was an individual. Monk was a creature who must have said one day, 'I'm not going to play like anyone else.' And so he commenced to do it and his solos weren't like anybody else and his songs weren't like anybody else. Now Bird and them, they incorporated some of his music into their music. ...We think of bebop, we include Monk, but Monk wasn't so much a bebop man. Monk was an individual. I tell people there are very few of those who wake up and say, 'I'm going to be entirely different. [He quickly adds, there] ain't nothing wrong with sounding like someone else until you find yourself. You're not supposed to end up divorcing yourself completely from your beginnings.
When Harris wanted to learn soloing, it was Bud Powell and the recording "Web City with Sonny Stitt, Fats Navarro and Max Roach on drums that he listened to. "I slowed that record down...It ended up where I started listening to him. He was the best one of all of them as far as this music was concerned. ...Cootie Williams must have been a helluva nice leader because he let him, Bud Powell, solo all the way through some of his records.
As he recalls listening to Powell's "Iz Or Iz You Ain't My Baby for the first time, Harris' enthusiasm is as ebullient as it must have been a half century ago. "...Suddenly! in the background, and here Harris' voice grows hushed as he remembers that moment. "I could hear this pianist playing all these minor things and I said, 'WHO IS THAT, SO!...' So you see, that's how you get turned on. You hear these cats play and you say "ummmm . Every one of us was trying to learn how to solo and play and it looked like we were devout...devoted or whatever to the bebop. You know, Fats Navarro, Bird, Diz and the bebop was a lot of people. Pres, Coleman Hawkins, all of them, they were like at the beginning of it. But then Bird came in and he changed the rhythm of it. ...It's the rhythm mostly that Bird did... ...Bird was the leader.