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Barry Harris: Teacher Man

Barry Harris

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.

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