Kenny Barron: Live at UCLA Friends of Jazz

Ed Hamilton catches pianist and NEA Jazz Master in performance in Los Angeles


Kenny Barron

A rare opportunity to hear Kenny Barron play compositions written after tenures playing with Dizzy, Yusef and Stan Getz was presented by Friends of Jazz (UCLA). As well as hearing about his inspirations who moved him to seek jazz as his music profession. And there was also the opportunity to find out about his book Something Else co-written with Yusef Lateef.

Kenny Barron was the guest pianist for the Friends of Jazz Salon at UCLA’s Fowler Hall. Barron’s performance paired with an interview session with pianist Eric Reed gave salon members samplings of music in his inimitable stylings of his favorites: Monk, Duke, Tommy Flanagan, Bud Powell and Art Tatum.

FOJ was started by a financial gift from piano merchant David L. Abell who for many years marketed Steinways and on many occasions throughout the years before his passing, provided pianos for Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson performances at Shelley’s Manne-hole, The Lighthouse, Concerts by the Sea and The Jazz Bakery.

The Jazz Studies Department and Director Kenny Burrell has been assisted by FOJ”s continued promotions of Jazz Salons with membership contributions and financial gifts from Herb Alpert's Foundation and KJJZ’s support.

Barron’s solo piano showcased “Love Walked In”; A Dollar Brand song he wrote—“For Abdullah”; “Lullaby” - an original; Monk’s “Well You Needn’t’”; “Spring Can Really Hang You Up”; and a medley of Ellington/Strayhorn music: “Lotus Blossum,” “Flowers for a Lonesome Thing,” “Melancholia,” “Star Cross Lovers”; and finished with “Like Someone in Love” and “Yardbird Suite.”

He’s presently teaching at Juilliard and was at Rutgers for 20 years. He started playing with Dizzy on the recommendation of James Moody, joined Ben Riley, Charlie Rouse and Gary Bartz to form Sphere, a group dedicated to the music of Monk. His first recorded compositons were written when he was 17. He met Yusef in Philly who asked him to write a couple of compositions and explained how this came about, “I was playing around Philly and Yusef happened to hear about me and came and asked would I write a couple of compositions “Revelations” and “Each Day I Fall in Love” for his next album Centaur and the Phoenix.” Barron later played with Yusef in the 70’s and co-wrote a book about his first gigs on the road called Something Else that I bought from him and Yusef at their 1973 gig at Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse.

In his question and answer session with young pianist Eric Reed, he reiterated to the salon what he thought made Philly so important with all the jazz players from there: Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath and others. Jokingly he said, “It must be in the water. It was a great place with 2 major clubs—Pep’s and the Showboat. I broke into jazz at 14 years old with my brother Bill Barron who got me my first gig playing at the Elks Lodge---no pay. Then, I played at cabarets where everyone brought their own liquor and I played for shake dancers or exotic dancers and singers. Philly was a great learning ground.”

Eric Reed: “Were things different in the 50’s and 60’s when you were coming up than today?”
Barron: “Oh yeah. Young kids today can’t get that kind of experience. One thing I learned playing all those gigs was repertoire. Dancers, shake or tap, danced to standards like ‘Duke’s Caravan’ or ‘You Go To My Head.’”

Reed: “What would you recommend to young aspiring musicians?”
Barron: “Young players should listen to the music and learn the harmonics and intricacies that are inherent in the music.”

Reed: “Who were the musicians you were excited to hear?”
Barron: “Willie the Lion Smith, Earl Fatha Hines, Eubie Blake, and Bud Powell.”

Reed: “Let’s talk about your favorite—Tommy Flanagan.”
Barron: “Definitely true. I first heard Tommy when I was in Junior High on Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus with Doug Watkins and Miles. His sound was played with touch, not running up and down the scales. He played real ideas. I became a fan from that point on.”

Reed: “You’ve been called the most lyrical player of our day.”
Barron: “That’s nice, but it’s because of who I listened to---Art Tatum had great harmonic conception. Hank Jones and Tommy had great touch and ideas.”

The evolution of Sphere began the day Monk died: Feb. 17th 1982. Barron, Ben Riley, Charlie Rouse and Buster Williams had just finished recording their first LP in the Van Gelder Studios. When asked about Sphere, Barron remembered, “I and Buster Williams had been playing with Ron Carter and he decided that he would add another bass and regroup. So we decided to form a group dedicated to Monk’s music and got with Ben Riley his drummer and got his sax Charlie Rouse and called it Sphere after Monk's middle name. We got permission from his wife and son Nellie and T.S. We fixed the recording with all Monk tunes exclusively so they would get all the royalties. And ironically as we finished recording at the Van Gelder Studio, we heard Monk had died that day—February 17, 1982. And when Charlie passed in ‘86 we broke up and after we reformed in 1998 we got Gary Bartz to assume Charlie’s place.”

When Kenny Barron was informed he had been selected as an NEA Master, he responded, “A National Endowment for the Arts Master award is the greatest award you can receive for jazz. (An honorarium of $50K is also given.) It’s unique that I’ve been around that long to now be honored.”

Kenny Barron has been added to the Friends of Jazz past honorees:Randy Weston, Barry Harris, George Cables, Cedar Walton and Horace Silver. And
Tony Tolbert President of FOJ along with KJJZ’s Stephanie Levine, Program Director, concertedly pledged to continue the FOJ prominence in bringing piano artists to UCLA for performances and one on one interviews manifesting for young jazz musicians, the important preservation of America’s only stand-alone art form—Jazz.

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Ed Hamilton