Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Barry Harris 1929 – 2021

The master pianist and teacher proselytized tirelessly for bebop, and was one of its finest practitioners

Barry Harris
Barry Harris in 1999 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Barry Harris, a pianist, educator, and bebop true believer who spread its gospel far and wide—to audiences, record buyers, and students in equal measure—died on the morning of December 8 at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, New Jersey. He was one week shy of his 92nd birthday.

His death was reported widely on social media and confirmed by a friend, Kira von Ostenfeld-Suske, who told National Public Radio that Harris had been hospitalized for two weeks. Cause of death was complications of COVID-19.

Although the term “authenticity” has lost some of its luster in discussions of jazz, Harris was absolutely redolent of it. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he was part of a bumper crop of musicians from that city who became crucial players in the second wave of bebop. Along with fellow Detroiters Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, he was a key pianist in that wave, working with the likes of Max Roach, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, and Cannonball and Nat Adderley in the late 1950s and early ’60s. He also launched an impressive solo career that included 25 albums under his own name across five decades.

Far more so than his contemporaries, however, Harris was a scholar and theoretician of the music. Listening to records by Thelonious Monk and (especially) Bud Powell, he puzzled out the structures and devices of bebop piano and translated them into rubrics that could be taught, studied, and replicated. He even formulated his own approach to harmony, the Barry Harris harmonic method, still a bedrock of jazz education.

“Harris codified the language of modern jazz into an integrated system,” journalist Mark Stryker wrote in his seminal book Jazz from Detroit, “and, like a swinging Socrates, has guided students for more than 60 years in a quest for truth, beauty, and the hippest chords to play on ‘Embraceable You.’”

Unlike many other postwar jazz didacts, however, Harris did little of his teaching in a classroom. His academic CV was entirely in the realm of temporary residencies and master classes; his real work as an educator was done at the piano, whether in one-on-one interfaces or on bandstands. Thus, only a small handful of musicians can claim to have learned from Harris in a formal-education sense, but those who learned from him at an open workshop, in private lessons, at a jam session, or just in conversation are innumerable.

His playing style, while showing an undeniable Bud Powell influence, was much like his learning had been: thoughtful, logical, and careful—even at the breakneck tempos he could easily achieve. Never, however, did it lack for soul or a full embrace of the music’s cultural heritage. “Watching him was like getting transported via time machine back to a 52nd St jazz club in 1945 [and] hearing modern jazz from the source,” music writer and historian Ted Gioia wrote on Twitter.

“The balance between intellect and soul or intuition is something that cannot be explained in words,” Harris explained in a 2017 email to interviewer Simon Sargsyan. “It is a feeling — soul is of the spirit- it can not be broken down into discursive language — intellect is in some ways acquired – soul or spirit is your original being-or pure being so its passive not active — you do not acquire it-you can not study your way into it.”

Barry Doyle Harris was born December 15, 1929 in Detroit, the fourth of five children. His father, Melvin, was a factory worker for the Ford Motor Company and later a mechanic; his mother, Bessie (née Johnson), was a church pianist. It was from his mother that Harris began receiving piano lessons when he was four. (He had little relationship with his father, who split from his mother at an early age.)

Harris recalled that for the first 10 years of his life, he heard nothing but church music. In his teen years he became enamored with Fats Waller, Earl Hines, and Art Tatum—the giants of swing piano—then, at 17, he encountered Bud Powell, playing on record with trumpeter Fats Navarro. He immediately began pursuing bebop, learning Powell solos by ear and analyzing them for their harmonic language. Before he turned 21, Harris had learned enough to make his first recording, “Hopper Topper” (with tenor saxophonist Frank Foster), for the New Song label.

In 1954, Harris became house pianist at the Blue Bird Inn, Detroit’s top bebop jazz club; the band also included baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and drummer Elvin Jones, and would accompany top-line musicians who passed through Detroit. Between the Blue Bird Inn and the nearby Rouge Lounge, Harris worked with Miles Davis, Roy Eldridge, Lee Konitz, Lester Young, and others without ever leaving Detroit. However, he did leave eventually—first to tour with Max Roach in 1956, then, permanently, with Cannonball Adderley in 1960. He settled in New York later that year. In the mid-’60s, he would move into the house in Weehawken, New Jersey, owned by the Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter; he lived there until his death.

Before he had even left Detroit, twentysomething Harris had come to be seen by fellow musicians (including Donald Byrd and saxophonist Charles McPherson) as a teacher, mentor, and father figure. This role only intensified once he relocated to New York—and it didn’t stay there either. Harris used his touring dates as platforms to teach and workshop with musicians, forging lasting relationships with players and educators across the U.S. and around the world.

In the hours after his death was reported, social media was awash with stories of playing with and learning from Harris, including tributes from Christian McBride, Jason Moran, Monty Alexander, Sheila Jordan, Russell Malone, Ethan Iverson, and multitudes more. Each shared stories of performances, jams, lessons, or just simple questions and answers with the pianist. That enormous legacy outstrips even his finest recordings.

He continued throughout his life to advocate and express concern for the future of the music. “When I came up, we’d perform for our contemporaries. We played at dances where all the young people came,” he told Sargsyan. “I feel sorry for the young musicians today because they don’t bring their contemporaries with them. I think maybe they should try to perform on television, because that attracts large audiences, and there hasn’t been much jazz on TV for many years. Something needs to be done to bring jazz back on a larger scale with new audiences.”

Harris is survived by his daughter Carol Harris Geyer and son-in-law Keith Geyer, both of Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.

Inside the Barry Harris Method

Barry Harris: Teacher Man

Barry Harris: Young-Hearted Elder

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.