There’s nothing like a first love, a consuming passion that burns so brightly it casts a glow over the rest of your life. For Barry Harris, lightning struck the first time he sat in with Charlie Parker. More than six decades later, the pianist seems to recall the encounter as if he just stepped off the bandstand. “Lord, have mercy-the chills engulfed you,” he remembers, on the phone at his home in New Jersey. “It spoils you. When you do something like that, you end up looking for the same thing to happen with somebody else. I would go out expecting others to give me the same feeling and it didn’t happen too much.”
Born in Detroit in 1929, Harris didn’t arrive in time to experience the birth of bebop firsthand. But he absorbed the idiom directly from Bird, and he’s spent his life helping other musicians come to terms with its intricacies. More than a keeper of the flame, he’s a serial arsonist who’s kindled a fervor for bop-based improvisation in hundreds of musicians, both experienced and aspiring. Though capable of playing at the breakneck tempos that defined bop’s first generation, Harris has often expressed himself best at a more considered pace, when you can hear every dark, gleaming timbre in his personal distillation of Bud Powell’s steeplechase effusions and Monk’s percussive attack and chiaroscuro harmonies.
As a bandleader he’s recorded more than two dozen albums, including solo recitals (his contribution to Concord’s Maybeck series is one of the best), trios (the 1961 Riverside album Preminado, with Joe Benjamin and Elvin Jones) and occasional sessions with horns (1967’s Luminescence! on Prestige, which feels like a defiant coda to the fading hard-bop era). He’s even more distinguished as a sideman, having provided inspired support to a procession of masters including Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, Cannonball Adderley, Harold Land, Thad Jones, Kenny Dorham, Yusef Lateef, Lee Morgan, Charles McPherson, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Criss, Al Cohn and Sonny Stitt. His playing can be heard on many canonical records, among them Morgan’s The Sidewinder and Lateef’s Eastern Sounds.
Harris’ latest album, Live in Rennes (Plus Loin), captures the pianist at his magisterial best, thoughtfully navigating Great American Songbook material and tunes by Powell, Monk, Bird and Ellington, as well as several lovely originals and an impromptu composition coaxed out of the audience at the Jazz à l’Ouest festival in November of 2009. Accompanied by the effective tandem of bassist Mathias Allamane and drummer Philippe Soirat, two top-shelf Parisian players, Harris evidences no signs of the stroke he suffered in 1993.
If his discography defined his legacy, Harris would easily qualify as a heavyweight, but his contributions off the bandstand are equally as important. For Harris, passing on hard-won musical wisdom is, literally, a calling. Long before he started to systematize his pedagogic method in the 1960s, musicians sought him out for informal study sessions. On the Detroit scene, he attained a rarefied status as an essential repository of bebop expertise and lore, a guru available to almost anyone willing to climb the stairs to his apartment. After all, Harris had gleaned a good deal of insight directly from the source. “I’m a firm believer in Bird,” Harris says, during a conversation interrupted several times by students arriving for lessons. “We never hung out with him, but he allowed us to play with him. I played with Bird three or four times, at the Mirror Ballroom, the Greystone Ballroom, the Grande Ballroom-mostly at dances. They played as fast as they wanted, but the dancers were so hip they didn’t have a problem. They were just regular people, and they’d double the time or cut the time as needed.”
In an era when Detroit boasted an intensely vital jazz scene, Harris was at the center of the action. Though the city possessed a wealth of keyboard talent, he maintained a steady stream of coveted house gigs, including significant stints at the Blue Bird Inn, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and the Rouge Lounge. Hank Jones had already moved to New York by the time Harris established himself, but his colleagues included Tommy Flanagan, Hugh Lawson, Roland Hanna and Kirk Lightsey. Initially shadowed by Motor City musicians, he soon attracted a national following as his reputation spread via the musicians’ grapevine. “A lot of piano players, like Sonny Clark, came to Detroit looking for me,” Harris says. “Most of the Detroiters came through my house. Roland Hanna and Sonny Red would climb those stairs to learn those chords. Joe Henderson came for lessons. John Coltrane came to my house and wanted to know what I was teaching. In the 1958 DownBeat Yearbook there’s a page with Paul Chambers, and he talks about this young piano player who teaches all these pianists. I ended up being a teacher because I knew a little bit more. It happened without me knowing.”
The great alto saxophonist Charles McPherson credits his teenage apprenticeship with Harris as an essential chapter in his musical education. He lived in the same neighborhood as the pianist, and at 14 he and his friends started hanging around outside the Blue Bird to catch Harris with players like Pepper Adams, Thad Jones and Elvin Jones. Too young to go inside, McPherson would accost the band as they stepped outside to take a break, and after a while Harris became familiar with him and let him know it was OK to come by his place. “He was just beginning to organize his methodology,” McPherson says. “He always leaned toward showing people things about harmony and theory, and his house was always a hub of activity. Musicians would come by and hang out with him. He had a reputation that extended not only to local musicians, but to musicians coming through town from New York. I saw everybody there: Sonny Rollins, Cannonball [Adderley]. Trane came when I was there, saying, ‘OK, Barry, what are you doing these days? What are you working on?’ He’s a master pianist, but it’s more than knowledge that you can get from someone like Barry. You also get an element of musicality. You get the nuts and bolts, but you also get a sense of how to think about the aesthetics of music and art.”
The first time he hit New York City was in late 1956, with Sonny Rollins and Donald Byrd in the band that Max Roach assembled shortly after the car crash that killed Clifford Brown and Richie Powell. He was so deeply ensconced in the Detroit scene that he never really considered moving to the Big Apple, but working with Cannonball in 1960 brought him back to Manhattan and he ended up sticking around. He quickly struck up a close friendship with Monk, and before long they could be seen all over the city together checking out music. From the mid-1970s until Monk’s death in 1982, both pianists lived in the Weehawken, N.J., house owned by the “Jazz Baroness,” Pannonica de Koenigswarter. (Harris still lives there.) The pianist has often been admired for his interpretations of Monk’s music, but he notes that he rarely learned a piece by watching the composer. “I played [Monk’s compositions] more how Bud Powell would play them,” Harris says. “But we were close. One time we did sit at the piano at my place, and we played one song over and over again, ‘My Ideal.’ He’d play a chorus and I’d play a chorus, maybe 50 choruses apiece. I wish somebody had recorded it. That was very special, and it didn’t happen again.”
Harris has been teaching classes and workshops in New York City since the early 1960s, a practice that he’s taken international due to steady demand. (These days he holds court at the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Community Center most Tuesdays.) He didn’t plan to turn teaching into a formal commitment, but an experience with trumpeter Joe Newman’s Jazz Interaction program changed his mind. As the story goes, Harris was scheduled for an afternoon session, but a scheduling mix-up found him at off-track betting instead. By the time he realized his mistake, grabbed a cab and made it to the classroom, he was nearly two hours late. “[But] they were all there waiting for me,” Harris recalls. “From then on, I decided, I’ll be teaching. I was teaching in Detroit, and I really never thought I was going to leave. I would have never thought I would be traveling the world teaching music and playing. I teach everywhere. My favorite place right now is Rome. When I taught there last I had 108 students from 12 countries. They come from everywhere.”