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Barry Harris: Iconic Jazz Pianist and Keeper of the Flame

Victor L. Schermer By

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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 Julian "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!

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