Barry Harris: Young-hearted Elder

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Barry Harris
By John Abbott

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Barry Harris is at home seated at his Steinway piano working on a tune.

“I’m trying to put words to a tune that Bird wrote called ‘Bird Feathers,’” he explains to an early morning caller. “Call me back in half an hour.” The breathtaking view out the expansive window of his Weehawken, New Jersey pad—formerly owned by the late Baroness Nica von Koenigswarter and once dubbed “Catville” by Thelonious Monk for its overabundance of feline inhabitants—overlooks the majestic midtown Manhattan skyline. (It’s pictured on the cover of Harris’ recent Evidence release, First Time Ever, a sublime trio outing with bassist George Mraz and drummer Leroy Williams. And on this crisp Sunday morning in autumn the city sparkles like a thousand jewels across the Hudson River.

Harris is cramming for a rehearsal, trying to ready some new material for his troops in preparation for a late November gala at Symphony Space in Uptown Manhattan. It’s become a ritual some 20 years running. Rather than just another trio gig at some hip New York nightclub, this annual Symphony Space showcase has allowed the acknowledged standard-bearer of bebop to present his writing for voices and strings as well as highlight his invaluable work with children. It’s also an awards ceremony, of sorts, in which the elder statesman bestows a rare honor on deserving individuals. “You know, other people give their awards,” he points out. “They got the Grammy and the Emmy and the Oscar. I give out a Barry to people who have been good for jazz.”

Past recipients Jimmy Heath and Walter Bishop, Jr. only recently picked up their Barries from previous years. Benny Powell, Milt Hinton and John Bunch each have a Barry. “This year I’m gonna give one to Clark Terry,” says Harris. And with good reason. Few have dedicated themselves to the art of jazz and devoted themselves as unselfishly to the cause of jazz education as Clark...except for maybe Barry himself. When it’s suggested that maybe he should be in line for a Barry of his own, he laughs, “I’ll have to think about that one.”

Truth is, Barry Harris has been good for jazz all his career. With the zeal of a missionary he’s been out recruiting young people into the fold. Barry’s got disciples in all five boroughs, each of whom has gone out and spread the word to dozens of other impressionable young minds. It’s an extended family of folks who all got turned on to jazz by this venerable teacher, either by hearing him firsthand on a gig somewhere or by attending the open sessions at his long lamented school and nightclub, the Jazz Cultural Theater.

It’s been a little more than ten years since Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theatre was forced to close its doors due to a fiscal crunch. “And to think that it’s never been rented in all that time...it’s a crime. The (for rent) sign is still up there! What a waste.”

Once a haven for developing young players and cats just arriving to town looking to hook up, the Jazz Cultural Theater on 8th Avenue between 28th and 29th streets was the hang out in New York City from August of 1982 to August of 1987. Harris was constantly struggling to cover the $3,000 a month it cost to operate the place. When the rent suddenly doubled, it was more than he could handle.

“These landlords in New York are crazy, man,” he continues. “They want huge rents for hovels. My place had a low roof that had developed a leak from the apartments upstairs. I had to keep garbage bags over it to catch the debris. I put in a new floor and it warped right away because of water damage. You know, they never do anything, you’re responsible for everything, and then they wanna double your rent. It’s ridiculous!”

An all-too familiar scenario of New York’s cutthroat go-go ’80s. The money got funny, landlords got greedy, rents doubled and tripled while folks panicked or stopped trying altogether. Net result—the arts invariably suffered. Olatunji’s Culture Center on 125th Street in Harlem closed around that time as did Cobi Narita’s Universal Jazz Coalition, both victims of insurmountable rent hikes.
So the Jazz Cultural Theater closed up shop and the Big Apple was deprived of yet another important cultural institution. What’s new? Happens all the time in the so-called jazz capital of the world and continues to this day. The New York City School system has already axed its music program due to budget cuts. Currently, the daily tabloids are screaming about the rise of gang violence around the city and the need for more cops. Yet no one—either in City Hall or in the media—seems to be making the connection between the decline of cultural programming and the rise of gang violence. Eliminate creative alternatives for kids—like music programs in the schools—and gang violence goes up. Barry Harris understands the connection.

“I grew up in Detroit in a very poor neighborhood,” he says. “I never called it a ghetto, it never was called a slum. It was a poor neighborhood and a mixed poor neighborhood at that. But you know what, man? In every school there were instruments. The first gigs we had, the bass player borrowed the bass from the school, the drummer borrowed the drums from the school, the alto player borrowed the alto from the school. Their parents couldn’t afford those instruments. But the kids were able to use the instruments on the weekend, and that’s how we played gigs.”

Meanwhile they’re warehousing band instruments in New York City and the kids are running amok. Go figure. Which is one reason why Harris continues to devote himself to spreading the good word about jazz to young people wherever he goes. “See, that’s all I try to do,” he says. “We need to cultivate an audience so the music can survive. We have to turn people onto jazz, make ’em like it, turn children onto it. You gotta have children involved.”

Harris gets ’em as young as five and six years old, emphasizing ear training over theory and charts. He figures, if toddlers can memorize Barney ditties like “Row Row Row Your Boat” and “Old MacDonald Had A Farm,” they can also learn Monk tunes like “Rhythm-A-Ning” and “Little Rootie Tootie.” As he mentions, “You think that they can’t learn at that age, but you’d be surprised. Children are very open and susceptible to learning a second language when they are two, three years old. And what is jazz but another language? So you gotta give it to ’em young and you begin to find they catch on fast.”

Aside from his ongoing duties as a jazz educator, Harris remains one of the great living interpreters of Monk’s music, a direct line to Thelonious’ hallowed legacy. “I have this thing about Monk,” says Harris. “We need to celebrate him. When he died I went and played a gig and I refused to play any tune other than a Monk tune. And you know what? I played all night long. And the reason was, see, Monk wrote tunes on the blues, he wrote beautiful ballads, he wrote tunes based on rhythm. So I had all this material plus things like ‘Blue Skies’ and ‘Tea For Two’ and ‘Just You Just Me.’ You start dealing with Monk and you begin to realize, ‘Hey, I can play all day!’”

Inexplicably, Harris was not included in Lincoln Center’s recent gala tribute to Thelonious Monk. But he is prominently featured on a recently-released two-CD set, Interpretations Of Monk (Koch Jazz). Recorded on November 1, 1981 at Columbia University’s Wollman Auditorium, this rare document (part of Verna Gillis’ Live From Soundscape Series) features the great pianist and educator in the company of Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, Roswell Rudd, Charlie Rouse, Richard Davis and Ed Blackwell on a stirring set of Monk music. Pianist Muhal Richard Abrams is featured with the same crew (with Ben Riley subbing for Blackwell) on a separate disc.

Meanwhile, the 67-year-old pianist and educator stays vital by the company he keeps. “One has to do all kinds of things to keep one’s old ass young,” he notes. “That includes surrounding yourself with young people. So I work with my singers and my various piano students, I learn from them and they keep me on my toes. I feel just as young as they do. They try to hit on me too (laughs). It’s all part of the thing...they keep me alive.”

Originally published in January/February 1998

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