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Meet Kenny Barron


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I started thinking out more things as a bandleader, but I resisted the idea. It's much easier being a sideman—do your job and collect your paycheck.... So it took a minute for me to say, 'Okay, I'm gonna do this.' But when I did it I was very happy.
From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in March 2001.

Jazz Education

I recently retired from Rutgers University. Right now I teach piano one day a week at Manhattan School of Music. In September I'll be teaching at the new jazz program at Julliard. I've taught David Sanchez and Terence Blanchard. They could already play so it was a matter of polishing things up—fine tuning. One of the primary things—we play as much as possible. My students are at a point where I don't need to say, "Here are a thousand voicings for a C minor chord." We work on concepts for improvising—what does it take to negotiate this set of chord changes? We talk about phrasing, touch, harmony, things like that.

Bill Barron (older brother)

He was my first inspiration. We talked quite a bit about music. He showed me some of his concepts. He had some very unusual ideas about harmony and improvisation. He loved Cecil Taylor and the also the European composers like Webern and Stockhausen. When I was growing up in Philadelphia there was a whole environment. The whole aspect of playing with different people in different situations is educational.

Detroit piano tradition

I never thought about it until many years later. As it turned out many of my favorite pianists were from Detroit: Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Roland Hanna. They all had something similar. I could never put my finger on it—touch, lyricism, and the ability to comp (and play with singers) were part of it.

Move to New York/Dizzy Gillespie's band

The first thing I did was with James Moody. And through Moody I got the gig with Dizzy. He didn't need a musical director. He knew what he wanted and how to get what he wanted musically—how to explain it. He did record a few of my pieces. I was very happy about that. During the four years I was with him I did five or six records. The first was Something Old, Something New. On half the record we did old bebop things. The second half we did some music by a trombone player, Tom McIntosh. And I did the session with the Double Six of Paris. They overdubbed the vocal group in Paris—we did the rhythm tracks in Chicago. Those recordings were great experiences for me.

Ron Carter's band at Gulliver's

Oh yeah! The two-bass group you heard me with was really exciting and different. (Ron still has that band, just different personnel: Lewis Nash on drums, a pianist named Stephen Scott, a bassist named Leon Mallis. He also has a quartet with a percussionist in place of the other bassist.) I don't want to say the Gulliver's band evolved into Sphere. When it broke up the trio (Ben Riley, Buster Williams, and myself) played together as a trio, and then worked as a rhythm section for people coming to New York—Sonny Stitt, Eddie Harris, Lockjaw Davis, people like that. Eventually we decided it would be a good idea if we just got a horn player and formed a quartet. Ben Riley mentioned Charlie Rouse. I got a gig with the trio, and we hired Charlie just to see how it would work. It was great—that's how Sphere started. It was a cooperative group—there was really no leader. We're still doing some things with Gary Bartz, but it's a little harder now. Everybody's got his own schedule. We have some things coming up in April: a concert in Philadelphia, some things on the West Coast in Los Angeles and Seattle.

Bobby Hutcherson

I love playing with Bobby. I've recorded just a few records with him—many years ago when he was with Blue Note. It was called Now. Another record, more recent was called In the Vanguard with Buster Williams and Al Foster. Bobby and I have worked together quite a bit—we did some duo stuff out in California in the Bay area. It was great fun, and it was challenging.

Stan Getz

It was a great period, and it started during the '70s. I don't know where he got my name, but he called me to take Chick Corea's place just for a few weeks in a band that had Stanley Clarke and Tony Williams—"Return to Forever" or "Captain Marvel" band or whatever they called it. We were doing all Chick's music in Raleigh, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. It was fun. After that we kind of lost touch. Some years later Stan called me again. That's when I started working on a more permanent basis—it wasn't really permanent. He called me to do some concerts here and there. Eventually we started doing tours during the summer months for five or six weeks. We did all the summer festivals. I was teaching at the time so I couldn't do long tours. It was really challenging for me. Stan played so beautifully. He really inspired me, and hopefully I did the same for him. We were supposed to record for four nights in Copenhagen. He couldn't do the last set of the last night. As it turned out he had a bleeding ulcer and didn't know it. After that we did one night in Paris. That was the last time I saw him. I called him a couple of weeks after to see how he was doing. He said he was okay and gave me the dates for the next summer tour. It was March when we did the concerts, April when I talked with him. He died in June.

Sideman to leader

It kind of just happened. I started thinking out more things as a bandleader, but I resisted the idea. It's much easier being a sideman—do your job and collect your paycheck. As a bandleader you have a lot of other things to contend with—travel arrangements, dealing with the business, collecting money, what do you do if somebody loses their passport? So it took a minute for me to say, "Okay, I'm gonna do this." But when I did it I was very happy. One of the big differences is when you're working for somebody else you're dealing with their musical vision. When you're the bandleader it's your musical vision. I find that when I work as a sideman (and I still do occasionally) I tend to hold back. I don't play as much as I normally would because I'm aware that I'm working for someone else.


That kind of developed on a separate track. I don't think of myself as a top-rate composer yet. Fortunately I've had a couple of things work out. When I heard what was done with my music (Ambrosia by Harvey Wainapel with the Metropole Orchestra, A Records) I was flabbergasted—the orchestra, Jeff Beal's arrangements. Harvey just asked me to send him some lead sheets. Of course he knows I like Brazilian music. He asked me for some Brazilian tunes I had written. He and Marcos Silva (a pianist in San Francisco) arranged those pieces for a small Brazilian group. When I heard those I said, "Wow!" I was very happy with that.

Accompanying singers

I've enjoyed accompanying good singers. I never worked with Betty Carter, but I did a record with Ella, All that Jazz. It was a thrill for me. Ray Brown was on it, Bobby Durham, Sweets [Edison], Benny Carter. I worked with Joe Williams, Kathleen Battle, Vanessa Rubin, and I've done a lot of stuff with Japanese singers.

Solo piano

I have to supply more of the rhythmic aspect. I may play my version of stride piano or a walking bass line—pianistic things I wouldn't do with a trio. You're kind of forced to when playing solo. Otherwise it would sound kind of empty. Playing solo is kind of scary, but it's challenging. I won't say I have a preference for solo versus trio, but I tend to do it now more than I used to.

Spirit Song (Verve) (recently nominated for Grammy Awards)

I don't know that it's a departure. It's maybe a little bit different from some of the things I've done. I think it's in keeping with my other music, but the group is a little bit larger. I had to deal more with arranging which was kind of a new thing for me—trying to find colors and voicings. I'd like to continue writing for larger ensembles but not necessarily for big bands. Yes, I was nominated in two categories for a Grammy: "Best Piano Solo" for one of the songs from Spirit Song; and "Best Record" also. I've had other nominations, but I've never won. It's a thrill to be nominated.

Rhythmic emphasis on later recordings

That may be true, but it's something I've always liked—Latin music or Brazilian music. I'm in a situation where I can do that now if I feel like it.

New CD release: Free Fall (Verve)

I just recorded a duet with [violinist] Regina Carter. I just finished looking at the pictures for the cover. That should be out in the spring. There are a couple of my tunes, some of Regina's, and then there are a few pieces that were totally improvised: one take—turn the tape on and let's see what happens which is really fun.

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