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"Barry was revered," said Michael Weiss, one of the many pianists Harris mentored. "He orchestrated his melodies and constructed his improvisations in a lyrical, unhurried and free-flowing manner. His codification of the bebop language stands apart from most of the trite attempts at jazz theory in the academic world, because it goes to the heart of what makes a melody."
“The essence of Harris’ individuality was his storytelling expressions, spontaneous flow of melody and harmony and the intensity of his swing. On romantic ballads, his ear for color and the eloquent movement of one chord to another lent his performances the lyric glow of a Shelly Ode.”
Harris’ passion for teaching grew out of an analytical mind and a lifelong quest for knowledge and self improvement. He put the virtuoso improvisations of Parker, Gillespie and Powell under a microscope, discovering the musical grammar that makes bebop work - scales, chords, chromatic passing tones. He then organized a set of rules that helps musicians play like natives, without an accent.”
- Mark Stryker, NPR Obituary
born 15 December 1929
The grandmaster of bebop piano and one of the great teachers in the music, Harris was a leading player in the strong Detroit circle of jazz musicians in the early 1950s, and he was busy enough there to resist the temptation to move to New York - until the end of the decade, when he joined Cannonball Adderley's group for a brief spell and then settled in New York. He made five outstanding albums for Riverside early in the 1960s, and three more for Prestige later in the decade, which showcased his huge authority on bebop material: the prevailing soul-jazz movement had no impact on his playing, and Magnificent! (1969) is a textbook exercise in the timeless qualities of bop as a creative idiom. Coleman Hawkins favoured Harris as one of his last piano players (and told him, 'I don't play chords, I play movements'), and Harris helped care for Hawkins during his final illness. In the later 1970s, the pianist went to live with Thelonious Monk in the Baroness de Koenigswarter's home, and remained there after both passed away. Though he dislikes travel, he has toured widely, and became known as one of the premier teachers in the music: he opened the Jazz Cultural Center in New York in the 1980s, and students have always spoken of his teaching methods in the warmest terms. He came back after suffering a stroke in the early 1990s, and is still playing handsomely: 'I'm a bebopper. I believe strictly in Diz and Bird, I don't think the music has gone any further.'”
- Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia:
Barry Harris died on December 8, 2021 a week short of his 92nd birthday.
I thought it might be fun to remember him on these pages in a multi-part feature by cobbling together some excerpts from the Jazz press about his background and significance and center these around information and videos about some of my favorite recordings by Barry.
My first exposure to this ultimate Bebop pianist was his playing in alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s group in the early 1960s..
During this period, Cannon had some remarkable pianists in his combo including Bobby Timmons, Victor Feldman and Joe Zawinul. What impressed me most about Barry’s playing was that he fit alto saxophonist Phil Woods’ description of baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams to a T: “He was a Bebopper down to his socks.” If you love Bud Powell’s approach to Jazz piano then you would have loved Barry Harris because they were in the same vein.
Barry somewhat faded into obscurity on the larger Jazz scene with the advent of Free Jazz, Jazz-Rock and Electronic Jazz, all of which increasingly dominated Jazz in the last quarter of the 20th century.
But it would be a mistake to think that he “left town,” so to speak.
Where straight-ahead Jazz with a Bebop orientation was prized, either in clubs, concerts or festivals, at home or abroad, one was more than likely going to find Barry Harris playing alone or with his trio in the tradition started by Parker, Gillespie and Powell.
Increasingly, too, as time went on Barry would move into the classroom where as a teacher he could continue to spread the word and influence a new generation on the interesting and unique [and demanding] qualities and characteristics of Bop, a form of the music that never left his heart.
Time-marches on, but I caught up again with Barry with the purchase of Baryy Harris: Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume 12 [Concord CD 44-36.
Here are Andrew Sussman’s insert notes to this great solo piano CD.
“When Barry Harris' name is mentioned, other pianists usually react with awe. This is esteem which has been earned over a lifetime of making exquisite music; since he was the house pianist at Detroit's Blue Bird Club nearly 40 years, Harris has commanded the stature and respect due the consummate artist. (He was part of the Detroit renaissance that also produced Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna. and Hank, Elvin and Thad Jones among others.)
As a pianist who is in constant demand, Harris has performed and recorded over the years with everyone from Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, and Coleman Hawkins to Lee Morgan, Johnny Griffin, Benny Golson, and Yusef Lateef. He was granted a NEA Jazz Masters Award in 1989, and his eclectic talents and versatility are probably best illustrated by the fact that he has also composed music for strings and (according to his manager Louise Billotte] is even working on a musical comedy -"about a sock"!
Often viewed as the quintessential bebop pianist, his playing does maintain the tradition of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. However, his consistency, grace, energy, and style transcend the bop idiom. Barry Harris' approach is polished and insightful, and there is a humanity and warmth in his music that truly touches the heart, even when he's playing at a breakneck tempo.
He is also a highly respected educator, who travels around the world performing and giving intensive workshops (he was in Spain, on his way to Holland at the time these notes were written). Students flock to Harris wherever he is because of his talent and reputation and his singular ability to communicate. He enjoys the teaching process, and conveys that spirit and his love of music directly to his students.
That same spirit is clearly evident in his playing, and never more so than at this concert at the Maybeck Recital Hall. His first recording on the Concord Jazz label, it shows the full spectrum of his talents, highlighting the softer, introspective side of his art with numerous ballad interpretations as well as displaying the electrifying speed with which he can construct a magnificent solo (no one can carry the furious pace of a bebop chase with more aplomb).
The concert opens with a sensitive rendition of It Could Happen To You, in which Harris' tone somehow exudes a poignant empathy with the human condition.
He then sets the stage for All God's Chillun' Got Rhythm with an announcement - "I have a special tape of Monk... I'm going to start it out like that and then play it fast." And with that warning, we are treated to a slow and twisting introductory tribute which captures Thelonious Monk's spirit perfectly before breaking out into some exuberant bebop.
Bud Powell's I'll Keep Loving You takes the pace back to the lyrical, with fluid wit and discerning sensitivity.
She is a George Shearing composition, taken at a medium tempo in which Harris captures a touching mixture of soulful and bittersweet.
A standard by almost any definition of the term, Cherokee was first popularized by Charlie Barnet in 1939, but it quickly went on to become a jazz classic in the hands of Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown. Harris' interpretation here is lightning fast and reminiscent of that later tradition while still sounding fresh and imaginative.
Gone Again is a hauntingly beautiful ballad which once again inspires Harris' expressive, unpretentious lyrical grace before the pace is stepped up again for Lucky Day, with fervor.
Harris' keen sense of humor is given free reign on the medley. Who else would even think of segueing a reflective rendition of Richard Rodgers' It Never Entered My Mind into hard-driving versions of two of the most popular TV themes of all time - (Meet The) Flintstones and I Love Lucy? It would have never entered their mind...
Buyers of the CD format are treated to a wonderfully laid back, funky version of Parker's Mood in which Harris seems to contemplate each note after it's been played with soul and grit.
Would You Like To Take A Walk? vividly portrays a light-hearted stroll through the neighborhood. Listen to the fluid, almost Tatum-esque way in which Harris moves between graceful multi-note flurries and glissandos and an effortless stride style.
In talking about the Maybeck Recital Hall (which only houses 50 people). Concord president Carl Jefferson noted that "the place is conducive to making a good performance, because of the intimacy and the room itself."
Of Harris and this concert, he remembered that "everyone went away with this wonderful feeling about what a wonderful gentleman he was. He's a class act, and I felt very proud to have him included in this series." I should point out that the series itself is fast gaining a reputation as one of the more intriguing collections of music to be produced in recent years.
A masterful pianist, a tasteful program of tunes, an enthusiastic audience, an excellent piano, and a marvelous recital hall which seems to inspire the very best out of all who enter its fold. All of the ingredients are here for an outstanding concert. With Barry Harris at the helm, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy.”