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Barry Harris: Iconic Jazz Pianist and Keeper of the Flame


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In memory of Barry Harris. This article was first published at All About Jazz on October 29, 2015.

At the ripe age of 85, pianist Barry Harris has been on the jazz scene for seventy years, and throughout that time, he has remained loyal to and consistent with his bebop roots. Even though his playing has evolved in complexity and depth, it remains profoundly connected to his origins. He is a true keeper of the flame that was ignited at the start of his career.

Harris came up in Detroit in the 1940s-50s, when that city was a lively musical hub with a jazz scene that spawned some of the greats like Thad, Hank, and Elvin Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Milt Jackson, Frank Foster, Yusef Lateef, Pepper Adams, Frank Rosolino, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, and others. Spearheading musicians like Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, and John Coltrane came through the city, played gigs, and exchanged ideas with the locals. The Detroit influence spread throughout the country and the world. The young Harris quickly picked up on the bebop idiom that emerged there, and his career escalated when he moved to New York, performing and recording with the likes of Cannonball Adderley, Hank Mobley, Coleman Hawkins, and Lee Morgan. Since then, his playing has served for several decades as a gold standard for other jazz pianists. As both an in-demand performer and a prominent jazz educator, Harris continues to this day to utilize the ideas and inspiration he acquired during that generative era.

All About Jazz wanted to get Harris' current personal take as an octogenarian on his music and career. We caught up with him at his home during one of those rare times when, still playing up a storm and occupied with teaching duties, he had a break from his travels.

All About Jazz: Just for starters, what are a few of your favorite recordings of all time?

Barry Harris: I like listening mostly to Bird, Bud, and Monk [Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk -Eds.] Any of their albums. I also dig Donald Byrd and Phil Woods. I especially love their band from 1954-1958, the one with Bud Powell, Phil Woods, and Donald Byrd, with Arthur Taylor on drums and Paul Chambers on bass. (Bud Powell: Live at Birdland 1957, East Wind Import, 2013).

AAJ: OK, how about if we go back to that time period, when you were coming up in Detroit, where there was so much going on musically in the 1940s -50s. What was that experience like for you?

BH: I sure had a lot of good musicians to learn from. We practiced a lot and we jammed a lot; we'd go to different clubs and jam sessions. We used to go to the house of a saxophonist named Joe Brazil, who eventually moved to Seattle. I heard a rumor that they recently found recordings of jam sessions we had at his house between around 1949 and 1952. I hope that they are released, so I can listen to it and hear if we really played that good. I heard some stuff from 1952 with Walter Davis Jr. [known for his work as pianist/composer/arranger with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers -Eds.] that sounded a lot like we played in Detroit. It was the same thing that we were doing.

AAJ: What was it like for you as a kid to get to play with the likes of Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt, who were more advanced than you at the time?

BH: I felt honored to be able to work with them.

AAJ: Were you nervous?

BH: Probably so, but not for long. I also played with Pres [Lester Young -Eds]. I played with Bird, and it was great.

AAJ: You have vividly described the moment that you first heard Charlie Parker in person. I think you said it was at a roller skating rink.

BH: It was a dance hall. You know, at that time musicians played a lot at dance halls. But in this case, the dance hall was at a roller rink. I think I was in high school then, some time in the early 1940s, when I first went to hear him.

AAJ: You said that chills went through your whole body when you first heard Bird.

BH: That's right! That's a feeling you get when you hear something extraordinary. I sometimes get that feeling when I hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. A feeling comes over you. I was so entranced and enchanted when I first heard Bird. And he was only one of so many great musicians who were around Detroit then.

AAJ: Did you have any contact with the Jones brothers, Elvin, Hank, or Thad?

BH: That was later. Elvin and I had a trio together after he came out of the Army. At the same time, we had Sheila Jordan, Jimmy Dawson, Benny Carter. Sheila was in a vocal trio called "Skeeter, Mitch and Jean" who could scat and do everything. Bird used to invite them to sing with his band. There was so much going on in Detroit then. And about twenty of us went to New York all around the same time!

AAJ: Did you have a job lined up in the Big Apple, or did you just go hoping for work?

BH: Max Roach hired me to work with his group that included Sonny Rollins, Donald Byrd, and the bassist George Morrow. Then I came back to Detroit and hooked up with Cannonball Adderley. That was when Yuseff Lateef, Paul Chambers, and a lot of other great musicians left Detroit to make it elsewhere. It really was a very special time.

AAJ: I recently listened to your album Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron (Xanadu, 1975) and was very impressed by your interpretations of Dameron's music, which seem to capture his essence. Did you know him personally?

BH: No, I never really knew Tadd Dameron. I never came into contact with him. But he was from Cleveland, Ohio, and I knew a cat named Willie Smith, not the pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, but another guy who wrote tunes just like Tadd Dameron [Willie "Face" Smith, who worked with Dameron in his early days. They were part of a group of composers/arrangers in Cleveland at the time. -Eds.] They had a special way with their arrangements. I went to Cleveland to record some things for Willie Smith: songs from "Flower Drum Song," which was a musical on Broadway at the time. The recording was never released. It's a lost album.

AAJ: Do you have a sense of how your own playing has changed over the years?

BH: I've added some things here and there based on my various experiences. I worked with Coleman Hawkins, and that added a lot to my playing. I've played with many of the greatest musicians and always tried to pick up ideas from them.

AAJ: You're considered one of the best interpreters of Thelonious Monk's music, and I wonder if you ever met him.

BH: Oh yes, I lived with Monk for ten years! We lived at Baroness Nica von Koenigswarter's home in Weehawken, NJ. Once, we were at the piano together, and we played "My Ideal" over and over again, maybe 25 times. I'd play one chorus, and he'd play one, and on and on! I wish it were recorded, because it would be really interesting to hear. To me, he was one of our greatest and most prolific composers. All those beautiful ballads: "Pannonica," "Reflections," "Ask Me Now," "Monk's Mood," they're all very special. And "52nd Street Theme," Rhythm-a-ning," "Bolivar Blues," "Straight No Chaser," all those things. When he died, I played Monk's music all night long. That's incredible, that you could play one person's music all night.

AAJ: How did you relate to Monk on a personal level?

BH: I liked him a lot. One time, I played the piano, and he was in another room, and he recognized my playing and shouted out, "Oh! That was you!" He had a great sense of humor.

AAJ: To bring us up to the present time, I understand that at age 85, you still take piano lessons! Is that true?

BH: Yes, my teacher is Sophia Rosoff. She's 95 years old. She's a classical pianist, and I'm always trying to learn and develop. A real jazz musician practices and learns every day. You never know what you can learn and what you are capable of doing unless you work very hard at it. We have to stay alert. Taking lessons keeps me sharp.

AAJ: Do you play the classical repertoire?

BH: Of course! To my mind, it's all just music. Jazz is a continuation of Bach and Beethoven, and so on. If they were alive today, they would be jazz musicians. We improvise, and we can't go back and correct ourselves. They would have loved jazz. If they were alive today, they would be playing in a corner bar.

AAJ: Do you still like to play in small clubs?

BH: Of course. I especially like to perform at the Village Vanguard. I like the closeness of it, the closeness of the people to the music.

AAJ: You're a prominent jazz educator. You give many talks and master classes to aspiring jazz musicians around the world. Tell us about that.

BH: I'm very concerned that jazz may be on the way out. I'm trying to make sure we survive. I teach all over the world, and I do this because I want to make sure that jazz survives. Jazz is in danger. We took away all the instruments from our children. The kids can't even tell one instrument from another. They don't know anything! We have a whole generation of children who can't even play a musical instrument. It's unbelievable!

AAJ: How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are from half-a-century ago?

BH: If the young people had their own instruments, they could make up their own stuff. But most of the kids don't play at all. And we're losing our audiences. It's really disturbing that jazz clubs are closing all over the world.

AAJ: That's certainly true in Philadelphia. Have you worked with any of the Philly musicians?

BH: Coltrane came by my house in Detroit to teach.

AAJ: Did you have any contact with Benny Golson?

BH: Yes, of course. Benny recently told me he was the person who first asked me to come to New York to make a recording, but I can't confirm that. He said the reason he did that was because I knew the most about Charlie Parker.

AAJ: What are you doing these days? Do you have a group that you work with?

BH: I travel. I teach. I just came back from Switzerland and Sicily. In Italy, people come from all over the country to study with me and hear me perform. I have students in Israel, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany. They flock from everywhere to work with me. I teach in order to keep jazz alive.

AAJ: Do you perform with a group?

BH: Most of the time, I use musicians from the places that I play. But I sometimes use musicians I work with regularly, like when I travel to Spain and Portugal. In New York at the Vanguard, I use either Ray Drummond or Chuck Israels on bass and Leroy Williams on drums.

AAJ: John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

BH: I believe there is a Creator who is hard to describe. There is a musical Creator, a musical God. The musical God is Perfection. As humans, all we can do is strive for perfection. As musicians, we try to get as close as possible to His Perfection.

AAJ: What would you like to convey to young musicians who are just starting their careers?

BH: They should realize they've been taken by the devil. [Laughter.] When I came up, we'd perform for our contemporaries. We played at dances where all the young people came. I feel sorry for the young musicians today because they don't bring their contemporaries with them. I think maybe they should try to perform on television, because that attracts large audiences, and there hasn't been much jazz on TV for many years. Something needs to be done to bring jazz back on a larger scale with new audiences.

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