Inside the Barry Harris Method

A visit to a bebop master’s long-running workshop for improvisers

Barry Harris (photo: Melanie Futorian)

As one of Dr. Barry Harris’ weekly New York City jazz workshops was getting under way on a Tuesday night in December, a friendly stranger gave me some advice: “Leave your ego behind.”

For years I had heard about these public sessions where anyone with $15, regardless of ability or previous experience, could spend six hours with the bebop piano legend. After seeing Harris play two exhilarating sets at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club last August before an adoring crowd, many of whom had attended his master class earlier that day, I realized that I, a New Yorker and jazz pianist, needed to visit the workshop and report on the experience.

There was, however, one thing holding me back: I was nervous about playing before the master. I decided to attend anyway and defer my decision about whether to play until I got there.

The location was a large rehearsal studio on the 10th floor of a building just off Broadway, around the corner from the Ed Sullivan Theater. I was among a diverse group of 20 pianists of various ages and skill levels, all crowded around Harris as he sat at the grand piano. The workshop is actually three workshops: piano from 6 to 8 p.m.; vocals from 8 to 10; and improvisation for all instruments from 10 to midnight. By the time the singing started, there were upwards of 50 people in the room, and it got more crowded still when the improv class began.

At 89, Harris is still intellectually agile even as his stride has slowed, the result of a fall two years ago in Bologna, Italy, in which he fractured two ribs. Named an NEA Jazz Master in 1989, he was a key player in bebop’s early years, sitting in with his idol Charlie Parker “three or four times,” he told me in a pre-workshop interview, as well as with Lester Young, Max Roach, Coleman Hawkins, and Dexter Gordon. In the 1970s, he famously lived with Thelonious Monk in the Weehawken, N.J., house owned by the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, where he still lives.

“He and Monk would sit for hours and play one song, and find all the different ways to play it,” jazz pianist, educator, and Harris acolyte Eli Yamin told me in a phone call a few days earlier. “The workshop is an immersive experience. I’ve never seen anything remotely close to what he does. He’s teaching all levels at once, from a 12-year-old kid to [bassist] Chuck Israels, who comes by whenever he’s in town.” Among his other students over the years: John Coltrane and Paul Chambers.

Although Harris’ teaching style is famously unorthodox, over the years jazz studies programs like that of the New School have begun to adopt his approach to building technique, especially his unique harmonic theory. In January, he was named a “Legend of Jazz Education” at the annual Jazz Education Network (JEN) conference in Reno, Nev.

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Isaac Raz, 50, the stranger who had advised me to lose my ego, told me he’d been coming to the workshop almost every Tuesday night since 2012. “I went to Berklee,” he said, “and learned a lot there. But I always knew there was some underlying logic that I was not able to get. Then when I came to Barry’s workshop, I realized this is it: the secret. Where else can you study with someone who can say, ‘When I played with Coleman Hawkins, he said such and such?’”

The class began almost imperceptibly with one student picking out chords and Harris softly commenting by his side, the other students hanging on his every word. The tune was Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels.” “As Coleman Hawkins told me,” Harris said, “you don’t play chords ‘up there’ [in the higher registers], you play ‘down there.’ Little chords,” he emphasized. When Harris demonstrated an idea, the cellphones came out to capture the moment on video.

Old-school to its core, the Harris approach to improvisation is fundamentally different from the methods prevalent in jazz academia that encourage students to match each chord with a particular scale. Instead, Harris has his students focus on the melodic and harmonic flow of the original song. “Most jazz approaches teach chords in a very static kind of way,” Yamin said. “Barry doesn’t teach it like that—he talks about moving chords through scales. He’s constantly talking about how music is movement.”

Pianist Ethan Iverson echoed the Harris philosophy in a recent column for his blog Do the Math, when he wrote, “Bebop melodies are rarely purely scalar… The problem is that no master ever played any changes of any song without consulting the melody first. The melody is the song. The song dictates the aesthetic.”

Harris’ emphasis on songs, melody and movement, and his singular way of analyzing jazz harmonies are on display on his own YouTube channel and in videos made in collaboration with Canadian pianist Howard Rees, available at jazzworkshops.com and at BarryHarris.com.

Although he could restrict his teaching to advanced students—and charge plenty—his policy remains come-one, come-all. “Advanced players can afford colleges,” he told me. “There’s a lot of people who can’t afford colleges, so I cater to them, the ones who have to work every day. This is their salvation, the thing that helps them stay all right, so that’s what I do. I never wanted to teach in a school. I just came here from teaching a class at the New School, but two hours is not enough.

“I should teach the teachers,” Harris added. “Most of these young musicians don’t know the damn songs and the words. If you’re gonna play the song, know the words.”

He insisted that he does believe in using scales, “but there are scales that most people don’t know that I’m sure Chopin used. This music is an extension of classical theory. They may call me ‘jazz,’ but I know I’m a classical musician. I’m sure that if Bach were alive today, we’d all be in a class like this.”

Ultimately, I did take my turn at the piano, accompanying four of the singers as, one by one, they took their best shot at the song Harris had chosen for the evening, Joe Raposo’s “Bein’ Green.” Was I the best pianist there that night? Probably not. But I held my own, and Harris smiled at me when I got up. I’ll take that to the bank.

Allen Morrison

Allen Morrison is a music journalist, musician, jazz critic, lecturer, and a regular contributor to JazzTimes and 
DownBeat. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, Jazziz, American Songwriter, and Departures. He lectures frequently on jazz history aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. Before becoming a full-time journalist, Allen worked as a music publicist and a pianist. He is working on a book on how musicians and non-musicians hear music. He maintains a blog at AllenMorrison.com.