In 1948, when I was about nine years old, my mother and I moved from Joplin, Missouri to Detroit. We just happened to move into a house around the corner from Barry Harris. In the same neighborhood, a five-minute walk down the street, was a very important local jazz club called the Blue Bird Inn. Barry was the house pianist at this club.
I met him a few years later, when the trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer and myself sat in on a Sunday-afternoon jam session at the Blue Bird. (We were only 15 or 16, and we were only allowed in because we brought our parents.) Barry could tell that we had some raw talent, but we didn’t really know anything. He said, “You need to learn some of the academic elements of this music, harmony and theory, if you’re really going to play it.”
So that’s when we started going over to his house after school. I think I was his first real student. He was always willing to show things to younger and less experienced musicians, and he was known for that, but I think I was the first to go to his house every day.
Barry knew about a lot more than just music. He was an intellectual, someone who kind of lived in his own head. One day I came over with my report card, and he saw that I had all Cs. He looked at me and he said, “I see you’re quite average.” I had no idea that was an insult, so I just said, “Yeah!” And he said, “Well, the kind of music you want to play and the kind of people who play it are anything but average. There’s nothing average about playing music like this.”
He started making me do the crossword puzzles in the newspaper. He said, “You need to build your vocabulary.” So he gave me the paper and a pencil, and put a big fat dictionary on the table. “Now try to do this puzzle, and any word in there you don’t understand, look it up.” And then I started actually reading, concerning myself with this whole aspect of being. He impressed upon me that to be considered hip, yeah, you had to know about Charlie Parker, but you also had to be able to sit down and talk about Nietzsche or Sartre. And in that way, Barry changed my whole life. I had been a person who was satisfied with getting Cs; now I wanted to get As. Barry opened that door, and it stayed open.
Barry had a reputation for having an open-door policy, so you would always see musicians coming by. I can remember being 15 or 16 and meeting John Coltrane at Barry’s house. He came in, put his feet up, and said, “Just what is it that you’re working on these days?” That was the climate at his house.
We went to New York at about the same time, in 1960, but our musical lives diverged: I started working with Mingus, and he went off touring with Cannonball Adderley. But we did record together in 1964, and then in the late ’60s we started working together in a group with George Coleman. But when I left Mingus in 1972, I worked more and more often with Barry until I finally left New York for California.
Even with all that time working together, though, I never felt that I was a real peer of his. That 10-year difference from when we first crossed paths was a big gap. It got smaller over time, but even when we were both old men, he was always the senior; I was always the kid.
We only saw each other intermittently after I went to California, and if we played together it would be a one-off concert, or sitting in on one tune, rather than a five-day booking. But I would call him now and then, definitely on his birthday, and he might call me on my birthday. I knew that he’d had a lot of health issues in recent years—issue after issue after issue, in and out of the hospital, and he’s 90 years old. So it wasn’t a surprise when someone called me up and told me he had passed.
But there is still a certain kind of shock: After having Barry here for all this time, he’s all of a sudden not here anymore. I’ve already seen people pass, and that takes the edge off the darkness of it all. But I’m still feeling that sense of the loss of Barry—I have to be reminded, “Oh. Barry’s not here.” The goodbye of it, that takes a long time to fade.
[as told to Michael J. West]