It’s Barry Harris’ 84th birthday. Here’s a link to a post I uploaded on his birthday two years ago, with a “director’s cut” DownBeat feature on the maestro from 2000, and an oral history conducted by Aaron Graves for the Smithsonian, after Mr. Harris was awarded his NEA Jazz Mastership.
Below, I’ve appended the interviews that I conducted for the DownBeat piece. One contains Mr. Harris’ remarks when he joined me on WKCR in 1999; the other two are transcriptions of phoners that we did after DB assigned me the piece. There are also interviews with Tommy Flanagan, his close friend and contemporary; Leroy Williams, his drummer of choice for 18 years; Don Schlitten, his producer for 20 years or so; and Charles McPherson, one of his most distinguished students.
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Barry Harris (WKCR, 4-8-99):
[MUSIC: BH/GM/LW, "I'll Keep Loving You"]
TP: A few words about this particular group of musicians, and what they do for you in articulating the music. George Mraz, first of all.
HARRIS: Well, George Mraz is a very-very special bass player. I felt sort of privileged to play with him on this record, because he’s one of the fastest cats! I don’t mean tempo-fast. I’m talking about fast catching-on. He’s a very special person.
TP: Have you played with him much over the years.
TP: Because you’ve both done your share of playing what Cedar Walton would call the piano saloon emporiums of New York.
HARRIS: He played mostly with Tommy Flanagan. I never really played with him. So this is a first meeting, and I really enjoyed it.
TP: I’ve heard you with other drummers than Leroy Williams over the years, like Vernell Fournier for a while in the ’80s and Billy Higgins, and there are others, but it’s hard to think of Barry Harris without thinking of Leroy Williams.
HARRIS: That’s been a union of about 30 years. What I found out about Leroy, one time I was working at Bradley’s and I couldn’t find a bass player. So then I decided, “Well, later on the bass player; I’ll use Leroy on drums.” What I found out from that is that Leroy knows me the best. Well, after all those years don’t you think he should?
TP: What do you think it is that made him so empathetic to you in the beginning?
HARRIS: Well, Charles McPherson said to me, “Barry, you’ve got to hear this drummer; I think you’ll like him.” I said, “Oh, yeah?” So that’s the way it started.
TP: Well, he knows how to break rhythms without breaking up the flow.
HARRIS: Well, we have a special relationship. I’ve played with other drummers. I like Billy Higgins, too. Billy Higgins is a very special drummer, too. But between Billy Higgins and Leroy I’m sort of selfish.
TP: Do you play off the drummer?
HARRIS: Oh yes. That’s part of the deal. I think it’s all a matter of heartbeats. We have to adjust our heartbeat to each other, so I think between Billy Higgins and Leroy we do a better job than most people. [LAUGHS]
TP: Back in the day in Detroit, before you came here, you used to play with Elvin Jones.
HARRIS: Oh, he was special, too. It’s years since I played with Elvin. People come to New York and we’d end up on different tracks. It’s weird, too, what happens to the closeness we might have had in Detroit. When you come to New York, it’s like you go separate ways. I used to play with Frank Gant.
TP: He’s on your first recording, for Argo.
HARRIS: That’s right. He’s a Detroiter, and he’s one of the first cats I played with. There were a few cats. But Detroit was a very special place. We had so many good musicians.
TP: What was it about the climate there? Was it because of the quality of public education, Cass Tech…
HARRIS: I think it had something to do with the public education. We played in the orchestras, in bands. We had bands at school. I mean, it’s a big drag now that whenever they cut something, they cut the music, which is the most ridiculous thing. The thing about is, we have the instruments. The instruments are all in a warehouse somewhere, rotting. There’s a school on Ninth Avenue where the instruments are in the basement rotting away. But we had music in the schools. Most of us were too poor to have instruments of our own. So the bass player, Ernie Farrow, he’d borrow the school bass, we’d borrow the school drums, and go to a gig on the streetcar. That’s the way we went to the gig! So we had music in the schools. Plus we had good musicians around. I can name cats you’ve never heard of. Willie Anderson…
TP: Piano player.
HARRIS: [LAUGHS] That’s right. Will Davis, piano player. So many players. We had Cokie, who was an alto player. To us he was like Bird. We had really good musicians.
TP: Detroit was a musician’s town all the way back to the ’20s…
HARRIS: Oh, that’s what I heard. I heard that Art Tatum and them used to be on St. Antoine, which is a street where there were bars, and all the musicians had been there. We must have been the carryover from that period. Because we really learned the music.
TP: Well, Teddy Edwards has described coming to Detroit from Jackson, Mississippi, when he was 16, and playing at a Black-owned club called the Congo Club which had elaborate floor shows, the acts would come there after their stints at the Paradise Theater. Musicians in the band there included Howard McGhee, or Wardell Gray, Kelly Martin who was later with Jamal…
HARRIS: A whole bunch of people who contributed to the culture. So we had a good group to listen to. We listened to records, too, but we had a bunch around Detroit. I had a tenor player tell me one day, “Barry, you’d better learn how to play ‘I Got Rhythm.'” I said, “I thought I was playing it.” He said, “No-no, no-no. ‘I Got Rhythm’ is not the blues.” I was playing two choruses of the blues, then played the ‘Rhythm’ bridge, and then a chorus of the blues — which is all wrong. But there were people there who told us how to do it right. Plus we jammed all day, man. We had a ball. Donald Byrd, Sonny Red, Yusef, Kiane Zawadi, all these musicians.
TP: So you had a felicitous blend of the oral tradition at its most practical plus quality pedagogical education.
HARRIS: And plus, this was the Golden Era of the music. We had Lester Young, we had Coleman Hawkins, we had Ben Webster, we had Charlie Parker, we had all these good musicians.
TP: Now, when you were a teenager, were you listening to all the latest records by each of them and memorizing…
HARRIS: Mostly. I guess we were, yes. Because we started out as teenagers. That’s the odd thing about now. All the people trying to learn to play jazz, they’re grown folks, 20-something years old. Which is sort of hard. Because when you’re a teenager and you’re home and somebody else is taking care of you, you can learn to play very well. But when you’re a grown person and you’re going to try to learn to play music, most people have to go to work every day, so a person would have to be very special. He would have to learn what to do in an hour, where we had eight hours to mess up, or six hours to mess up. And not know what we were doing, but we’d learn in those six hours. But these people nowadays have to learn in one hour. So it’s very hard.
TP: Now, you are well known particularly in the early part of your career for being a devotee of Bud Powell, and someone who assimilated that vocabulary into your own particular take. But before you encountered Bud Powell, who were the pianists who struck you?
HARRIS: It’s hard to say. Art Tatum struck everybody! But you know what happened with me? I could chord. I could chord when I was young, a teenager, maybe 13-14-15. I didn’t solo too well. Then I started going to the West Side of town. See, I lived on the East Side. I started going over to the West Side. And the cats on the West Side could solo. The piano players. They couldn’t chord as good as me maybe, but they could solo. So when I got back to the East Side and went home, I said, “Oh, Lord, I’ve got to learn how to solo.” So I took this record by a blind girl named Bess Bonnier in Detroit… She’s got stuff out, and plays very well. She had a record player, and this record player was very special, because you could take this record player and you could stop any place and go all the way through. She loaned me this record, and I took this record, and that’s how I learned how to play. So the first thing I learned how to play was “Webb City”! Now, see, “Webb City” is Sonny Stitt and Bud Powell. So that’s what I learned. It just happened it wasn’t Oscar Peterson. It just happened it was Bud Powell with Sonny Stitt.
TP: Well, if that was contemporaneous, you would have been 17 years old or so, before Oscar Peterson emerged.
HARRIS: Well, Oscar Peterson came out with Jazz at the Philharmonic and stuff like that. So this probably was before him, yes.
TP: When did it become apparent to you that you were going to be a musician, that this was going to be your career, your life, your profession?
HARRIS: All my life. I knew it at the age of 4.
TP: Were you playing piano that early?
HARRIS: That early.
TP: Who started you?
HARRIS: My mother.
TP: You had a piano in the house?
HARRIS: Oh yes. Every house had a piano almost. Like people nowadays have televisions? Every house had a piano. Somebody could play the piano in almost every house. Because the piano was the form of entertainment then.
TP: There wasn’t any television.
HARRIS: There wasn’t any television. Myself, I regret the television now, because it’s made… I look at the teenagers and I say, oh, it’s such a drag, because they all… They don’t travel, see. But if they could go from one city to the next city, they could see that they all do the same thing. They all dress the same way. They all got the baggy pants…the same thing. When I grew up, 20 miles away in Pontiac people played different. 60 miles away was Toledo, where Art Tatum came from; people played different there. Not only did they play different, they dressed different. See, people were different. They were individuals. [LAUGHS] Now it’s like everybody’s got to have Nike sneakers. To me, the only way you’ll see Tommy Hilfiger on my back is he’s going to be paying me. I’m not going to be paying him. He’s going to say, “Please wear this so people will buy it.” And I would wear it. It would be nice to make some money off of him. But to see people walking around with stuff like that makes me mad. Somebody bought me some sneakers and it had Nike on it, and I gave them away.
New York… I’m a transported Detroiter. I call myself a member of the world. Because I got tired of people saying they were from Brooklyn, or they’re from here, and Brooklyn’s much better or Queens is much better. I’m tired of that. Because musicians are everywhere in the world. So I’m from the world. I consider New York the center. See, I don’t consider New York as the followers. I regret that the young people here don’t see it. We aren’t supposed to be followers. We are leaders, and we’re supposed to act like leaders. So that means we do not go to the front of the store and buy stuff. We go to the back of the store, the stuff that is not in the window.
TP: Well, it’s certainly hard to resist the power of television.
HARRIS: Oh, of course… [END OF SIDE 1]
TP: You began playing at 4, and it sounds to me like you were gigging and doing neighborhood things as an organic thing all the way through.
HARRIS: Well, the way it was, you began at 4. You began at 4 and you played church. Most of us were church piano players. We grew up going to church. We grew up playing in church. And then there comes a time when there has to come a separation. My mother was a very gentle and beautiful person. One day my mother said to me, “What do you want to do? Are you going to play the church music or are you going to play the jazz?” I said, “I’ll play jazz.” She said, “Oh, that’s cool, then.” So that’s where I went. And she was cool with that. So I played jazz.
TP: Did you do it through really studying soloists, like Bud Powell, etcetera, or did you do through functional means, like the gigging situations you were referring to?
HARRIS: Well, you start out a certain way. You start out taking things off records. We didn’t have any schools to go to. These people have schools to go to now, which aren’t too good in the first place. But you start out with records, and then you have people who could play around you. See, when we were in school we played for high school dances. We played for dances in the first place, so we had a lot of gigs. And we played for dances, and our contemporaries danced to the music. Probably the biggest drag for us… I remember Donald Byrd one day saying, “I don’t want to play in a bar, I don’t want to play in the dance hall; I want to play on the concert stage.” That might have been the biggest drag thing that ever happened to us, to separate the music from dancing. You aren’t supposed to separate the music from dancing. If you listen to Monk, you will not hear Monk play “Round Midnight” as slow as Miles Davis played it. I don’t know why Miles Davis played it that slow, because he sure wasn’t thinking about dancing. But if you listen to Monk’s version of it, you will hear that it has a tempo, and it has a tempo where somebody can get up and dance to it. See, that’s the way they played.
So we played for a lot of dances. We had a lot of musicians who knew how to play! I could tell about a cat, Leo Osbold(?)… See, I went to integrated schools…
TP: Detroit was one of the few in the nation that did that in the ’40s.
HARRIS: Oh, we had it. Probably one of the worst things that happened was integration! [LAUGHS] Sometimes I think that’s the worst thing that happened. I could tell you about that. I got to think about integration. See, when I grew up as a musician, when I went to different towns, of course we weren’t allowed to go to certain hotels, but we had black hotels in all these cities. I can remember being in the black hotel in Cleveland, a black hotel in Philadelphia, a black hotel in New York, a black hotel in Indianapolis. See, when integration came, we were the ones who said, “I’m going to see if they’re going to let us in,” but they didn’t say, “I’m going to see if you’re going to let us in.” So our hotels went out of business.
So it was a different situation back then. We had a different thing. We played for dancers. We had dance-halls. We went to these dance-halls. We had the Grand Ballroom, the Mirror Ballroom, the Graystone Ballroom — all these ballrooms. I heard Bird in a ballroom.
TP: And you had the Paradise Theater, too, the Black theater in Detroit.
HARRIS: Well, every town had a theater like that. Just about every place had a theater like that. We had the Apollo. The Apollo was a jazz place. That’s where Sarah Vaughan and a lot of people got started — in the Apollo. It’s been separated. We separated the music from dancing. We knew how to dance.
Why I say that is this. Bird could play “Cherokee”… Wait, let me tell you about an incident. There was a shake dancer. Now, the shake dancer’s name was Baby Scruggs. Now, Baby Scruggs would come out and she would say, ‘Play ‘Cherokee’ as fast as you can play it.’ And we played “Cherokee” fast, my brother, and if… I wish people could have seen Baby Scruggs shake-dance while we played “Cherokee” fast. Because Baby Scruggs could do very special things. She could make tassels move individually from different spots. She could do so many things…
So we played for shake dancers, we played for dancers, we played shuffle rhythm, we played rhythm-and-blues. We played all of it. All of it was part of the deal. Recently I’ve become reacquainted with Berry Gordy. See, now, Berry Gordy…when we were in high school, the two boogie-woogie piano players were Berry Gordy and Barry Harris. We might have got messed up when Theodore Shieldy came to town, a cat from Georgia who came in and and went to the school. See, because when he came, he not only played better boogie-woogie, he could improvise. So we got Theodore Shieldy, we had Will Davis. All these cats could improvise. So you’d go around… What I would do, you’d go to the dance and you’d stand in back of the piano player and you’d steal a couple of chords and you’d go home and play them chords, just learn how to play them. That’s how you’d learn how to play.
TP: Among the people who were roughly your contemporaries, some a few years older, some a few years younger, who all came to New York around the same time, give or take a few years, were Billy Mitchell, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Elvin Jones, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, Frank Foster, who came to Detroit…
HARRIS: Now, one of the best things that happened to us in Detroit was that Frank Foster came to Detroit. See, Frank Foster learned… Pepper Adams, Bess, myself, all of the Detroit musicians, we learned a lot from Frank Foster, because Frank Foster could really play. Frank Foster really knew a lot. We had a music society in Detroit of 5,000 people. We had a music society before I even heard any other jazz society. Kenny Burrell was the first President. It was called the World Stage. It’s weird, because Billy Higgins has a place out in L.A., and it’s called the World Stage. So we had a World Stage, and we had about 5,000 memberships. Everybody played there. Max Roach played there. When piano players came to town, they came looking for me. You see? Piano players would come looking for me, because they’d heard about me, you see.
But we learned from each other, and we learned from records. See, I’m more a Charlie Parker disciple. Bud Powell is important to me. Charlie Parker became very important to me. Even more so now… Coleman Hawkins was very important to me. I was very lucky; I played with him. That really was a lucky period. I played with Lester Young for a week in Detroit at the Rouge Lounge, where I was the house pianist..
TP: What sort of place was that?
HARRIS: Just a jazz club. Not really in Detroit. I guess it was in River Rouge, which was a little bit out. I played there with Flip Phillips, I played with Lester, I played with quite a few people there. I can’t even remember all the names.
TP: But the people who would come through on the circuit, you’d…
HARRIS: Yes. But you’d be surprised. We really tried to learn how to play. I might have known a little bit more than the rest. You know, there’s a book…
TP: Were you more schooled than they were?
HARRIS: I don’t know if I was more schooled. I think Tommy Flanagan was more schooled than me. I mean, as far as playing Classical. We did a recital together as youngsters. It’s like… I was really into it. Because I was very quiet and kind of the shy cat. I was the cat who was very quiet. Wasn’t no baseball, none of that stuff; no basketball, none of that. No sports. I was a piano player. [LAUGHS] Down Beat Magazine in 1958 or 1957 had a yearbook (I think it’s ’58), and in this yearbook there’s a picture of Paul Chambers half the page. On this side they’re talking about the Midwest, and they say, “Mostly all the musicians who come from Detroit come from Barry Harris.” See? So what happened, my house was like a mecca. All the musicians came to my house. Joe Henderson came to my house and learned. I was a cat who… I don’t know what you would call me. I’m not the catalyst. I’m the thing that gets set off by the catalyst. What would you call that?
TP: The reactive agent.
HARRIS: Maybe that’s it. But you know what happens with me? A cat can say something about music, about chords or something, and then I can say, “Oh, if you’re going to do it like that, you’d better do it like this.” Don’t ask me where that comes from. That doesn’t come necessarily from me. It comes through me, whatever it is.
TP: You’re a born teacher.
HARRIS: It’s almost like that, some kind of thing. I know how to show you… If you come up with something, I can say, “You should do this, too, then. If you don’t do that you should do this.” It’s that kind of thing. So I’ve been doing that for years, and I’m probably the oldest jazz teacher in the world. See, I go to schools, and they don’t have me back too often because I sort of upset things a little bit in schools. And I can upset things in schools. There are a few schools, like Virginia Commonwealth, in Richmond, Virginia, where I go quite often. The reason I go there quite often is because the teachers want me to come there. In most of the schools the teachers wouldn’t want me to come back.
TP: It’s too orthodox, and you’re anything but.
HARRIS: I’m anything but. I’m too unorthodox. Plus I tell students things, and the students will go back to teachers and say, “Why didn’t you tell us that?” [LAUGHS] So I’ve got a problem.
TP: They’re paying tuition.
HARRIS: That’s right.
[MUSIC: "I'm Old Fashioned" & "To Walter Davis with Love"]
HARRIS: [LYRICS FOR WD] “Who knows just when one’s life is bound to end. Perhaps it’s written in the stars. Some of us learn to live and cherish every breath, fulfilling dreams, bringing beauty to the scene. Such was his life, so short but oh, so long. He filled our hearts with a song and brought us, oh, such a joy, just with his precious gift. It’s not goodbye, but so long. We will meet again. It’s not goodbye, but so long.”
TP: We took Barry Harris through his years in Detroit, when he established his considerable reputation. You came to New York about 1960?
HARRIS: No, it was before that. See, I came first and made some records with people. I came in ’56, the year Clifford Brown and them got killed. Donald Byrd and I joined Max Roach’s band, so we traveled with Max. Then I went back to Detroit, because we didn’t stay with Max that long, and left out again in 1960 with Cannonball. After that I’ve stayed mostly in New York. I still have family in Detroit.
TP: Cannonball was one of the people you’d played with in Detroit?
HARRIS: Oh, no. Well, when he came through, he knew me and I knew him. I guess Bobby Timmons was with him, and Bobby was going out on his own to do some trio stuff, so he had me come join him. Something like that.
TP: So you came to New York on a gig, and that began. Then you signed with Riverside, which was through Cannonball as well?
HARRIS: That was through Cannonball. I made my first record out on the West Coast, Live At the Jazz Workshop with Sam Jones and Louis Hayes while I was with Cannonball. I had made one before that on Argo. I went to Chicago from Detroit with Frank Gant and Will Austin, and we recorded with Sonny Stitt there. See, what happened, we recorded with Sonny Stitt, and after that was over the cat said, “Why don’t you all make a trio record?” I said, “Okay,” and we made a trio record.
TP: You mentioned several musicians who played extremely important roles in your life as mentors, people you learned from, and also friends. Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Monk. A few words about your experiences with each of them.
HARRIS: Well, one time Charlie Parker came to town, and his band didn’t show up on time. He came to the Graystone Ballroom. So what I did…me and a bunch of young musicians who were there, he let us play with him. So when he did come to town, to the Mirror Ballroom, I sat in with him there, and we young ones, we played with him at the Graystone Ballroom when his band didn’t show up. I played with him in this bar, which I forget the name of…
TP: Not the Bluebird.
HARRIS: No, not the Bluebird. This was on Grand and River. I can see the place, but I can’t name it now. I was very fortunate. I got a few chances to sit in with Charlie Parker. Then I was in the house band, as I told you, with Lester Young. That was luck. Then Coleman Hawkins; that was luck. When I came to New York, see, I went to a place, and I sat in with Coleman Hawkins, and the only thing he could say was, “Oh boy, another one of them Detroit piano players.”
TP: He worked with Tommy Flanagan at the time.
HARRIS: Well, he worked with Tommy Flanagan, with Roland Hanna, with Hank Jones — and that’s all Detroit! Then here I come, and it’s another Detroit. We really worked together until he died.
TP: I’d like you to talk a bit more about Charlie Parker, the impact he had on you and the people of your generation, and why.
HARRIS: Well, he had a… I couldn’t even tell you that, man. This was like the greatest thing that ever happened in the world for us. See, it was sort of like a breakaway from the big bands. That’s part of what the thing is. It allowed for a little more creativity. With the big bands, I can see where the same background in back of you could make you maybe play the same solo over and over. But the breakaway… Look, man. Everybody…all the young people… We didn’t hear Charlie Parker on the radio. They didn’t play Charlie Parker that much on the radio. This was like an individual grapevine thing. You could be walking down the street, and the cat over on the other side would holler and say, “They’ve got a new record by Bird!” That kind of thing. It was some other kind of thing. So to us, it was the most modern… It was everything.
TP: He was giving you the language that you wanted…
HARRIS: Whatever it was, it was the language we wanted to hear at that time. So we learned from it. Sonny Stitt learned from it. All of us learned from it. Sonny Stitt learned from Bird, same thing, and then he became Sonny Stitt. Fortunately, Bird and them were very correct playing people. Correct changes. Correct movements, I’ll say. Because Coleman Hawkins would say, “I play movements; I don’t play chords.” People get confused today. Most people think you play chords. You don’t play chords; you play movements.
TP: Would you elaborate on that?
HARRIS: A lot of horn players, unfortunately, they sit at the piano and they think they’ve learned how to play the piano. So what they do is, they sit at the piano and they hit a chord and then they hit another chord and they say, “Oh, they sound good together!” Then they proceed to say, “Ooh, I’m going to write a melody on that.” In the first place, that’s wrong, because what they’ve done is learn to melodize harmonies as opposed to harmonize melodies. See, the old cats, they harmonized melodies. [LAUGHS] My illustration of that is a cat ran in one day and said, “Oh, man, I’ve got this good melody; put some chords to it for me.” He sang [...MELODY OF "WHITE CHRISTMAS"] That came first. See, “White Christmas” came first. The chords were put down after. That’s why that melody is going to be remembered through history. Melodies are remembered. See, these cats melodize harmonies, and what happens is, you melodize harmonies and most people don’t remember a thing you played. It’d be hard to hum what you played. They just sort of miss the boat. That’s all.
TP: And everything Charlie Parker played was a melody.
HARRIS: That’s right, just about. It was melodic. See, those people knew how to run correctly from one place to another. There are only so many moves.
TP: It’s how you put the moves together. There’s an infinite number of ways to put them together, but there are only so many moves.
HARRIS: That’s right.
TP: Like the chessboard.
HARRIS: That’s right! All the chessboard moves have been done before. It’s just the way the person puts them together at that time. Shoot. It’s all the same. They were very special for us, every young person at that time. And all of us played instruments. There were at least 20 or 30 cats who played instruments. Not that they all continued, but they all played instruments. So we had a ball.
TP: A few words about Bud Powell.
HARRIS: Well, I didn’t hear Bud Powell in person until much-much later. I came to New York around 1953. Doug Watkins and I were working with a cat called Rudy Rutherford, and Rudy said he was going to New York for a vacation, and we said we’re going to go too. So we saved our money, and then when the time came Rudy Rutherford couldn’t go, so we just went anyway. So we came to New York. We stayed with Sheila Jordan, who is a Detroiter, and with Jeannie Dawson. Sheila Jordan almost got me killed, too. I always tell people the story about her almost getting us killed. We were working at a bar in Hamtramack, Michigan, which had a big Polish community. So we’re working in this bar, and here comes Jeannie Dawson and this other girl, they come in the bar and come right over to us — “Ooh, hey!” And boy, every eye in the bar was talkin’ about, “What’s going on here?” I’ll tell you this. We left that bar just in time. A streetcar came, and we left just right to catch that streetcar before they caught up with us. They were trying to catch us and mess with us. So that’s how prejudice… That stuff goes way back.
See, Sheila… I learned a lot of soloing from a scatter named Skeeter. Skeeter and Sheila and another fellow, they were the special people who could scat. I learned something about soloing from listening to Skeeter scat. Now, Skeeter could scat, man! So we learned a lot from all this.
TP: Now, 1953 was the year Bud Powell was playing at Birdland almost every week.
HARRIS: He was playing at Birdland, yes. So I had a chance to hear him in person. Which is special. Because I didn’t get too much chance to hear Bud in person, until… I heard him when Francis Paudras brought him back to New York. Then he worked at Birdland a week. I went there every night to hear him. Well, that was a different kind of Bud, in a way, because he wasn’t the Bud Powell. He was just something…
TP: Was Bud Powell to you the pianistic equivalent of Charlie Parker?
HARRIS: That’s right. Exactly. Well, you see, I’ll give you a little assignment. You’ll have to go get some records. This is the record you have to get. Cootie Williams. There’s a record of Cootie Williams with his band. “Round Midnight” is on that record, “Cherry Red Blues” is on that record, “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” is on that record. Now, if you go and listen to that record… You have to be in some place dark, too, where sound sort of… Because underneath that record, while Cleanhead Vinson is singing “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” you’ll hear this piano player, and all he’s doing is double-timing and running minor arpeggios — the most beautiful stuff in the world. You say, “What is this?” But when you listen to the record, you won’t hear this. And if you listen, Bud Powell is on this record.
So Bud Powell was with Cootie Williams; Bird was with Jay McShann. To me, they were heading towards a summit. I don’t think that Bud was influenced by Bird, and I don’t think that Bird was influenced by Bud. I think that they were heading for a clash, and I think they clashed really. I think in some way they might not have been the most compatible pair. [LAUGHS] I can understand it, too, because they both had this special something. I’m sure Bud… [LAUGHS] I don’t know. To me it’s a combination thing between the two of them. I think they were heading together. I don’t think one influenced the other that much. I think whatever they were going to do, they were doing… Bud was with Cootie Williams doing his, and Bird was with Jay McShann doing his, and then they suddenly met, and with Dizzy… See, there are records where Diz sounds older.
TP: By which you mean older stylistically.
HARRIS: Older stylistically, yes. Then there’s a Diz that sort of caught up with them. I think that’s what happened, that Diz caught up with them. Special people, that’s all. We loved them.
TP: You listened to all the Bud Powell records as they came out, the Blue Notes and Norgrans?
HARRIS: Yes, all of those things. We were beboppers. That’s all. It looked like in every city there were beboppers. This was like a real revelation for us, a musical revelation. And it was like a renaissance. We were different from… You know, I went to Jaki Byard’s memorial service, and I was thinking about Jaki Byard. Some people played a lot of Jaki Byard on the radio. Jaki Byard could stride so good… See, Jaki Byard was born in 1922 and I was born in 1929. Now, him being born in 1922 means that he was a teenager in the ’30s. Me being born in 1929, I wasn’t a teenager in the ’30s. I became a teenager in the ’40s. So him being a teenager in the ’30s, he learned more about the Stride stuff…
TP: Earl Hines.
HARRIS: Yeah, he learned more about the Stride. Art Tatum and everybody. Whereas when we came up, when we became teenagers, we heard Al Haig, Bud Powell, George Shearing, all these cats accompanying… These people were slightly different from the stride piano players, so we aren’t striders. [LAUGHS] We aren’t the best of stride piano players; there’s no kind of way.
TP: Coleman Hawkins was in many ways the bridge between the two periods…
HARRIS: I think [Hawk] he was like a chameleon. He could adjust to anything. I always wanted to hear him with, oh, maybe Max Roach or Bud Powell, those kind of people… Well, he did do that thing with Bud in 1960. I always wanted to hear him in… Because he could just play, man. See, I heard Coleman Hawkins play “All The Things You Are.” When I think of “All The Things You Are,” I think of Bird and Diz and Bud. But when I heard Coleman Hawkins play it I said, “Unh-uh, there’s something else, too.”
TP: Talk about your years with him. You were his pianist from basically 1963 until he stopped playing.
HARRIS: I was with him until he died. I put him in the hospital. He didn’t want to go to the hospital, but I had to put him in. I had gone to live with him, and he had gotten too heavy for me to move him around. But being with him was one of the highlights of my life. Because I learned more about music, a different thing… I learned about movement. He used to say he played movements.
See, I was very fortunate. I learned from Monk. Monk and I…I wish somebody had taped… One day Monk said, “Come on, let’s play the piano.” I said, “Okay.” So Monk started playing a tune. It was called “My Ideal.” He played a chorus, I played a chorus. He played a chorus, I played a chorus. I guess we played about 100 choruses apiece, where he’d play one, then he’d make me play one. I wish it had been recorded. It just wasn’t. We recorded a lot of stuff, but not that. [LAUGHS] He was a very special kind of cat.
I have the thing that Monk was hipper than most of the jazz musicians today. Where he was hip, Monk didn’t practice practicing. Monk practiced playing.
TP: Where is the difference?
HARRIS: Oh, it’s a great deal of difference. You could hear a piano player sitting at the piano, play in tempo one tune by himself for 90 minutes. That is practicing playing. You know what happened one time? Frank Hewitt told me this story. He’s a New York piano player. He’s one of the best piano players, too. He’s never recorded. He plays around New York. He’s a very special cat. He told me a story. He said him and some cats, they went by Bud Powell’s house early one day and said, “Come on, let’s go and have a ball.” Bud said, “No.” So they left out and they went and did whatever they were going to do, and messed around all day, and when they went to Bud Powell’s house he was playing “Embraceable You.” This was early in the morning. So they went out and spent the whole day. And when they came back that night and knocked on Bud Powell’s door and went inside, he was still playing “Embraceable You.” That’s practicing playing.
TP: You were saying off-mike before that you don’t really listen to your records so much, but you said that Monk did listen to his records and listened only to Monk.
HARRIS: I think he did.
TP: And we sort of made the point that he could distance himself, or so it seems to us, to say, “That’s Monk playing” and not “That’s me playing.”
HARRIS: I think one probably should listen to oneself to correct whatever one doesn’t like. See, if there’s something you don’t like, then you say, “okay, I shall correct that.” So you correct it. Oh, it’s hard!
TP: Had you met Monk before coming to New York?
HARRIS: No, he’s someone I met here. Monk… Well, we lived together for ten years, that kind of thing. I had a good relationship with Monk. We were good friends.
[MUSIC: BH/KB, "Embraceable You"; BH solo, "Parker's Mood"]
TP: First we talked about your days in Detroit. In the second one we touched on Detroit, and talked about getting to New York and establishing yourself here. Here just some various things about the last few years. First, for listeners who may not be familiar with Barry Harris’ discography, you’ve been recording with fair regularity between 1960 and about 1980. There were some strong records for Riverside, then a lengthy relationship with Don Schlitten for both Prestige and Xanadu on which not only were you featured as a trio player and leader of groups, but as sideman supreme with your pick of the great instrumentalists of the period. Then you’ve recorded more selectively in the last 15-20 years. Barry Harris set up the Jazz Cultural Theater, which as we said at the beginning of the program, was only around for five years, but from its impact seems it was around for 20, and many of those relationships still hold to this day.
HARRIS: That’s true.
TP: Talk about the Jazz Cultural Theater, its impact, and your idea behind it.
HARRIS: Well, there are still people who come looking for it! [LAUGHS] One time I went in the store that’s two doors down, and the cat said, “Boy, they still come and say, ‘Where is the Jazz Cultural Theater?'” Well, it was just an idea. Larry Ridley and myself and a couple of other people had an idea, and we opened it up. We stayed there five years, and it was classes, and we had entertainment there on the weekends. Looks like we started the tap dancing again, because we had the tap dancers, we had a couple of shake dancers… It was a nice little thing. Jaki Byard’s big band used to play there every month. Sun Ra played there. It was really a nice little place. So from that, like now, I give a big concert. I started a big class. The only reason I started a class is because occasionally we would teach for an organization, I think it was Jazz Interaction, and one day I was supposed to teach and I forgot. I was supposed to teach at 4 o’clock, and I forgot, and at 7 o’clock I remembered. At 7 o’clock I jumped in the cab and said, “This is ridiculous; ain’t nobody gonna be there.” When I got there, everybody was there waiting on me from 4 o’clock.
TP: Had you ever taught in a formal situation before that, or was it an extension of what you’ve done all your life?
HARRIS: No, it was just an extension of what I’ve done all the time. So what I did, I said, “Okay, I’ll keep the class going.” So all we had to do was pay the rent. That’s what we do right now. I still have a class going, and I give a big concert every year. I have a big concert coming up on May 22nd at Symphony Space. People should remember that date. Generally on my concerts I have about 200 little children who sing jazz, I have a big band and a string section and the adult chorus, and the adult chorus and the children’s chorus sing together. I have tap dancers, like Tina Pratt and David Gilmore. I generally have featured horn players. At the last concert I featured Jimmy Heath and Charles Davis. I feature musicians on the concert, and I do arranging for the whole thing. So we have the whole thing arranged for 200 people, which is fun.
TP: You’ve continued to grow and develop in a very purposeful way as a piano player, more so than the average, in that you’ve continued to study…
HARRIS: You know what it is? If you teach, really… See, I have a thing about teachers. We’re the teachers, but we’re the dumbest members of the class because we’ve been in the class the longest. So what we have to do… Then on top of that, I’ve got some young piano players who’ll be trying to overtake you. When you have this challenge put up to you, I look at them and I say, “I’ll be doggone if I’m going to let you outplay me.” So you’ve got to practice and you’ve got to keep going and you’ve got to keep learning things. As a teacher you’ve got to do this. It’s been fun.
TP: I notice on your records and hearing you live that your sense of melody has become much more essential. When I’d hear you even 15 years ago, you’d play a lot of notes, very fast lines, but now you get to the core of the matter on almost everything I hear you do.
HARRIS: That’s the way we do it… I hope that’s aging properly! [LAUGHS] Because I think that’s what ends up happening.
TP: One other thing, which is about the tune we’ll send you off with. Every time you’d hear Barry Harris, he’d stand up at the piano and start playing this very lovely Latinish vamp, which is “Nascimento.” The origin of “Nascimento.”
HARRIS: Don’t ask me, man. No, what it is, tunes just come. You don’t know how they come. You don’t know how a melody comes. See, it’s not chords that come; it’s melodies that come. And this is one of those melodies that came. I named it after a little drummer from Brazil who played the tall drum with a mallet. He was playing with Sun Ra’s band. I never even heard anybody play this kind of drum. I named for him. Most people think I named it for Milton Nascimento. He was a nice little cat. Couldn’t even speak English. It just comes.
TP: I was going to ask you about Sun Ra. You mentioned him twice; he played at the Jazz Cultural Theater. You’re supposed to be “conservative.”
HARRIS: No-no-no. Well, let me tell you, man. One time at the Jazz Cultural Theater we had Sun Ra come in. I was teaching there most of the time, and usually when I got through teaching I’d leave. I wouldn’t stay for nobody’s performance. You know what? I stayed for Sun Ra’s performance, and that was one of the best performances… He was very in. He was playing some Fletcher Henderson. He had these little things he did that he called out, but he was very in. And I loved it when he went into his thing and turned his back and played the piano like that backwards.
TP: A real showman.
HARRIS: A real showman. Really-really. One time I went into a place, and they started singing, and all of a sudden I heard my name. They were singing, “Welcome, Barry Harris.” The most beautiful melody. I tried to find the melody. We recorded it, but I never found it. But he was a sort of special person. So we had a special relationship. All I can say, he was very in! When I heard him, he was playing his Fletcher Henderson… I was so happy to hear that, because it reminded me of when I used to go to the Paradise Theater in Detroit!
First Phone Interview with Barry Harris in 2000:
TP: When we were on the radio, you talked about playing piano from a very early age, piano lessons from your mother, and you didn’t really play jazz until you were 15 or so.
HARRIS: I was younger than that. But I didn’t start out playing jazz; I started out playing boogie-woogie.
TP: But you said that what happened is that you started hanging out on the West Side of Detroit…
HARRIS: Oh, that was later on. See, we all took lessons from a preacher named Neptune Holloway. He taught quite a few of us. I saw a picture somewhere, and I think Dorothy Ashby was in that picture, myself, Harold McKinney who was another piano player from Detroit… Some of us took classical lessons from him. I guess the hanging out on the West Side came later.
TP: So you were taking classical lessons from the Reverend, and your mother as well?
HARRIS: Well, no, my mother was the church thing. Classical was with Neptune Holloway and Mrs. Lipscomb, which was in a private home. Then Tommy and I took from Mrs. Dillard, Gladys Dillard. We were on a recital together one time.
TP: So you’ve been playing piano all your life.
HARRIS: Oh yes.
TP: In the liner notes it says that around 1946, or so, “then I got to be hip.”
HARRIS: Oh, that’s when I messed up in my high school. [LAUGHS] Not too much to say. I was one of those people who was good. My brother was always trying to get ahead of me on the honor roll, and he couldn’t do that. But in my last year I got sort of trifling. I changed because I was playing music, and you sort of changed a little bit! I missed cum laude by a point or two, something like that. But I had been on honor roll every time.
TP: That would be the year you found Bud Powell; it’s the year “Webb City” was recorded.
HARRIS: I don’t know; it was something like that. Berry Gordy and I were the boogie-woogie piano players in high school together. We both was playing pretty good until a cat named Theodore Shieldy came along. Theodore Shieldy could not only play boogie-woogie; he could improvise, too.
TP: So you had a two-handed thing going as a high school player.
HARRIS: Well, see, at the high school we played for dances and stuff.
TP: You went into a lot about the dancing on the radio. I want to get into your starting to play professionally. It says in ’51 or so…
HARRIS: No, I started pretty early playing professionally. I had to ask my mother could I go to Pontiac, and then I had to have a place to live there in order to stay there and play a couple of days. I was pretty young then.
TP: Who were you playing with? Do you remember anything about that situation?
HARRIS: There was a little girl that played drummer. I wanted to say Barbara, but I’m not even sure. There was a girl who played drummer and Landis Brady I think played guitar and sang.
TP: What sort of music?
HARRIS: We’d be playing songs…
TP: Was it a blues type of gig, or jazz as such?
HARRIS: It was jazz and other things, too, I guess. We probably played some shuffle rhythm, too, and stuff like that. But we played some jazz tunes, too, because it’s all sort of related. [MENTIONS 1958 DOWNBEAT YEARBOOK]
TP: the note says by ’54 you were house pianist at the Bluebird.
HARRIS: I thought I was playing before that, though.
TP: The note says, “Barry turned fully professional in 1951. By ’54 he had taken over as house pianist at the Bluebird Club in Detroit…”
HARRIS: That might have been true.
TP: “…where he worked with many famous visiting jazzmen, including a three-month stint with Miles Davis.
HARRIS: I’m just trying to figure out when I became 21. 1950. I celebrated my birthday in the Bluebird. Because before that, I would come and knock on the window. The pianist there was a fellow named Phil Hill. The bandstand was in the window, and I’d knock on the window and Phil Hill would see me, and after they finished their song he would get down and I would run in and jump up on the piano, and play a tune, and run back out.
TP: Because you weren’t of age.
HARRIS: I wasn’t of age. 21 was the age thing in Detroit. So when I became 21, I definitely celebrated my birthday in the Bluebird to let them know that I was 21! [LAUGHS] So that would be 1951.
TP: Let’s talk a bit about the Bluebird.
HARRIS: The Bluebird was a very special place, man. You know how Marvin Gaye sings, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”? I think there was truth to it. The Bluebird closed as 2 o’clock, and at 1:30 Sarah Vaughan would come in or Bird would come in. And do you know what? Before ten minutes that joint would be packed with people. And you didn’t see people running the phones; it wasn’t even like that. It was like some kind of grapevine or something. Because somebody would come in there, all these people would come to the Bluebird. Yeah, the Bluebird was a very special place.
TP: When you were there who was the rhythm section you played with?
HARRIS: Oh boy, don’t ask me. Probably Beans Richardson on bass fiddle. Who would be on drums…I couldn’t even tell you…it might have been Elvin Jones. Well, Elvin Jones, Yusef and I, we played there, too. It might have been Elvin, too, some of the time. I played with Yusef and I played with Kiane Zawadi, Luther McKinney…I think I mentioned his brother Harold McKinney earlier. Plus we went to the dances before that, and I sat in with Bird and stuff, too. I sat in with Bird at least three or four times.
TP: In one of these liner notes you were emphatic that you had only sat in with him for one set. But it was more than that.
HARRIS: Oh, no, it was more than that. I sat with him at the Crystal Bar, so I must have been of age then. We have to find out when Bird came through Detroit at the Crystal Bar. Then I sat in with Bird at the Graystone Ballroom. I think I sat in with Bird at the Mirror Ballroom.
TP: Did you talk to him at all?
HARRIS: He let us play with him. His band didn’t show up one time, they were late, and so we played with him — just one song. We played a blues in C. I remember that. C-blues, that’s all I can tell you.
TP: And you heard all his records as they came out.
HARRIS: Oh, yes. We all were doing that. Somebody would let us know that something new was out. All of us, that’s what we did. We were strictly Bebop people. Almost strictly.
TP: Now, for you, learning the Bebop language as a young guy, did it just come very naturally to you? Was there anyone who was sort of a hands-on stylistic mentor?
HARRIS: No, not really. Really I got mine off of records.
TP: So you learned from listening to the records how to play Bebop. The fingerings and all…
HARRIS: Yes. Well, I don’t know about the fingerings and all that stuff, because you can’t see how the cat is fingering. But that’s how I learned. As I said before, when I went to the West Side, the people over there could solo. I wasn’t good at soloing. So what I did, I came home and I tried to learn how to solo. So I was pretty lucky then. I had this record with Sonny Stitt and Bud Powell and Fats Navarro, “Webb City,” and that sort of started me. I can’t tell you the rest. I can’t tell you even how it went. It’s like you do it and then you say, “Oh, I can solo.”
TP: Any anecdote about when you played with Charlie Parker.
HARRIS: He was beautiful to us. I think the best experience that I always tell people is he was playing with strings one time at the Forest Club, which was a roller rink. It was a dance at this time, and we stood in front, and the strings started, and the most spoiling thing of all was that when he started playing chills just went all through, starting on your toes, and went on through your body, man. It was everything imaginable. Orgasms, everything to us. It’s really a spoiler, because I don’t like to go listen to people because I’m expecting somebody to make me feel like that.
TP: Did Bird have a huge sound in person?
HARRIS: Oh yeah. I remember one time when he was at the Crystal, he was at the back of the room when Lee Konitz had come in and was sitting in with him. (?)Emperor Nero(?) was playing alto, too. Bird was over to the side, in the back by the kitchen or something, and Bird just started playing from there. He had a great big sound. Gene Ammons used to do that, too. He’d stand in the back of the Club Valley… Frank Foster, Leo Osbold(?), Billy Mitchell maybe were at the mike playing. He was up… There was some kind of thing that went up at the top, he started playing — he had a great big sound. He always let me sit in with him. When I was very young, he used to make Junior Mance get up and let me sit in with him. I always loved to see him come to town, because he was one cat really I could sit in with.
TP: Describe what the Bluebird looked like, what sort of joint it was.
HARRIS: A very ordinary place.
TP: Just a bar that had a music policy.
HARRIS: That’s all. A bar that had a music policy. There were a couple like that. I played in another one that was called the Bowlodrome, which was a bowling alley that had a bar, and I played there with Frankie Rosolino. That might have been one of the first steady gigs I had, was with Frankie Rosolino.
TP: That was in the early ’50s.
TP: So you think you might have been playing in the Bluebird before ’54, though, as the house pianist.
TP: How long were you house pianist there?
HARRIS: Oh, I don’t know. Not that long.
TP: A number of years.
HARRIS: Nothing like that.
TP: Did you do a three-month stint with Miles?
HARRIS: No. I played with Miles there, but it wasn’t that long. Positively. I think I might have been the first pianist to play “Solar.”
TP: Then you went out in ’56 with Max Roach. How was that experience?
HARRIS: It was nice. It was good working with Max. But it was hard for Max to get over Clifford and them…
TP: He was having a hard time.
HARRIS: He was having a hard time. So I stayed for him a little while, maybe two or three months, mostly on the road.
TP: You mentioned coming to New York in ’53 with Doug Watkins and hearing Bud Powell at Birdland.
HARRIS: That was my first time. Then we went to another place in the Bronx and heard Art Blakey. There used to be a joint over in the Bronx that New Yorkers could tell you about, by the overhead El, and cats played at this place.
TP: Did you meet Bud Powell at that time, or were you just looking at him from afar?
HARRIS: No, just looking at him from afar. Maybe I met him later.
TP: You met him in ’64 when he came over here with Francis Paudras.
HARRIS: Yeah, he was over here a little while; he came over a day or two. He was up here, then we didn’t know where he was. We had to call the police…
TP: I read Paudras’ book. Is that accurate?
HARRIS: Oh yeah.
TP: So you got back to Detroit after you were on the road with Max Roach, and then you went in the Rouge Lounge.
HARRIS: I don’t know. I might have been at the Rouge Lounge before that. I forget when it was. I really don’t know. I think it might have been the Rouge Lounge before ’55…
TP: The liner note says in ’55 you joined Max Roach, but after only a few months on the road you decided to return home, becoming house pianist at the Rouge Lounge.
HARRIS: Okay. Maybe that’s the way it happened.
TP: “There his on-the-job training included working with Lee Konitz, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster,” and you developed a theory of jazz instruction…
HARRIS: Put Flip Phillips in there. I don’t know about all those names you called. I know about Lester Young and Flip Phillips. That’s what I remember.
TP: At the Bluebird did you play with visiting cats, or young…
HARRIS: No, that was stuff that happened. Cats would drop in there.
TP: So you had a local group with young guys and people would drop in, but at the Rouge Lounge they brought in national acts.
TP: Can you describe the Rouge Lounge?
HARRIS: It was in River Rouge, Michigan, right outside Detroit, sort of like a suburb. I can’t tell you thing about it! [LAUGHS] It had a nice stage. I remember seeing Carmen McRae there and hearing her sing for the first time. There was a song she sang called “Guess Who I Saw.” Someone else sang it, but I could never appreciate anybody else singing that song except Carmen. I was in the audience that day, and that’s all I can remember.
TP: Were you playing for singers then, too?
HARRIS: I did one time. I played with Nancy Wilson at Baker’s. The only way to be able to tell what year that was is because Nancy Wilson was pregnant. The most beautiful pregnant woman I think I ever saw in my life. So however old her first son is, that’s when I played with Nancy Wilson.
TP: Did you stay at the River Rouge until you played with Cannonball, then.
HARRIS: No. These were all just little gigs; you’d get a gig here and get a gig there. It might have been some other piano player who played at the Rouge Lounge. I might have played with a few there and Tommy might have played with a few of them there. I don’t know. That kind of thing.
TP: I guess Tommy came here in ’56.
HARRIS: Yes, he came here a little earlier than I did. We had a lot of piano players. Will Davis. Boo-Boo Turner. Abe Woodley who played vibes, too. We had Theodore Shieldy, who could play…
TP: Was he just a boogie-woogie player, or did he play other…
HARRIS: Oh, no. Theodore Shieldy was one of the first cats I heard really improvise. I really thought he was going to be the best of all of us. But he went in the joint and went there for a long time. I think he worked with King Porter or someone. But he went in a long time, and he wasn’t quite the same. I really thought he was going to be the greatest of all of us.
TP: Just a few words as an overview of Detroit, what the music scene was like…
HARRIS: Very special. Because we had a lot of older musicians, and they were good. That’s how we learned. We had older musicians who were good musicians. We had Cokie, we had Warren Hickey, we had Billy Mitchell, we had a whole lot of cats who could play. Thad Jones was around there. Frank Foster was there. I learned more from Frank Foster than anybody. I still have a sheet here… When Frank Foster got ready to go in the Army, I said, “Frank, can you write me out a sheet where I can know how to maybe arrange for a band?” I’ve still got the sheet. I would never part from that little sheet where he told me how to arrange for a band. So there are a lot of things.
Second Phone Interview with Barry Harris in 2000:
TP: Let’s talk about the affiliations you made when you first came to New York. You got there after the “Jazz Workshop” date.
HARRIS: Well, before that I’d recorded with Thad Jones on Blue Note. And you know, I recorded with Frank Rosolino. That might have been the second recording that I ever made. I had a cat tell me I recorded with a cat named Willie Wells, who was a trumpet player, but I don’t remember that one. But I recorded with Frank Rosolino. You’ll find “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”; that’s me on piano.
TP: Were you pretty much determined to get to New York? Was that your aspiration?
HARRIS: No. I really had no plans to come to New York. I was a scary kind of cat.
TP: You mean you were feeling a little wary of New York?
TP: You had a nice setup in Detroit, I guess.
HARRIS: No, not really. I was a poor son-of-a-gun! [LAUGHS] I was so poor I just sat on my foot! No, I was very poor in Detroit. Then I had a little daughter. I was the cat who went to the supermarket when they had sales.
TP: What was it like when you settled in New York. Talk about your first being here, and the people you met, and the places you hung out in getting yourself established.
HARRIS: Well, for one thing, I stayed downtown. Where I stayed, if you went there now, all you’d see is big buildings. I stayed on Broad Street. I used to go down to the Staten Island Ferry and walk on South Street a couple of blocks, and then you’d come to Broad Street. I stayed on Broad Street in an unheated loft. Well, we had a coal stove. We were lucky because around the corner was some kind of place that made stuff with wood, and so they had scrap wood all the time, so we could get that scrap wood.
TP: Were you living with some other musicians?
HARRIS: Oh yeah. I was there with Ira Jackson, a fellow who plays tenor and piano, who is still around New York. Harry Whitaker stayed there. There was a bass player whose name I can’t remember; it was almost like his pad. There was the bass player and another fellow who ended up playing the lute. It was Frank Ayler(?) or something like that. Frank used to read about Greek history a lot. Now he lives in Paris and he played the lute. It’s real weird. He didn’t play an instrument here, but it ended up where he played the lute. I’ve forgotten the bass player’s name; he’s probably still around. I wonder whatever did happen to that bass player…
TP: But you were sharing a cold water loft with a bunch of musicians.
HARRIS: Yes, it was a cold water loft. So I ended up catching up pneumonia.
TP: Did they have a piano there?
HARRIS: No. There wasn’t no such thing. I used to go to Kiane Zawadi’s loft on East Broadway where they had a piano, and I used to practice at Colin Studio on 53rd Street, which is still there.
TP: Did you start getting gigs right away?
HARRIS: After I left Cannonball? Yeah. I worked with Yusef, who had a few gigs, and I started working at Junior’s, which was around the corner from Birdland on 52nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, right down the street, a little bar. They had a piano in there, and it would be a duo. I worked with Hal Dotson there. They had a good chef who cooked good food! I’d meet a cat (he isn’t working there now) who was one of the men who worked out in front of the Port Authority putting people in cabs and stuff, making sure the cabs do right, and this one cat would always say, “what’s his name asked about you,” and he would always say the name of this cat who… He could cook!
But see, between Junior’s and then running around to Birdland. I might have worked a few times at Birdland, too. The real Birdland; I’m not talking about anything else.
TP: You already knew a good chunk of the New York musicians just through their having passed through Detroit. It wasn’t like you were coming in as an unestablished young guy.
HARRIS: No, it wasn’t like that. A lot of the cats knew about me before I even knew about them.
TP: What was your sense of the New York scene when you got there. That was right in the middle of “the times, they are a changing” stuff going on. Mingus was doing all that Jazz Workshop stuff, Coltrane was developing his thing, Ornette Coleman…
HARRIS: It was a little different. I might have heard…let’s see… Bud Powell came back. I guess that was later.
TP: Well, that was 1964. When you got there, what was your sense of the scene and your relation to it.
HARRIS: Well, the scene was entirely different, because Bird was dead, Art Tatum was dead, Prez was dead. Coleman Hawkins was still alive. I was lucky to end up working with Coleman Hawkins, but that was later, too…
TP: I think the listed date is ’62.
HARRIS: Well, see, around that time I was working with Yusef. Yusef had a few gigs, and I worked at Junior’s. I worked in quite a few joints. I worked at the old Five Spot with Wes Montgomery. I worked with Charles and Lonnie at the new Five Spot at St. Marks Place and the Bowery. I worked at Slugs later…
TP: You recorded with Lee Morgan, too.
HARRIS: Yes, a couple of times. I worked with Sonny Red, who worked at Slugs. I had to walk out of Slugs, because Slugs had a piano where all the middle notes didn’t play. I told Sonny Red, “Sonny, I’ll see you; I’m going to show(?).” [LAUGHS] I couldn’t make that at all.
TP: So basically, you got to New York and you were working. It’s not like you were getting rich, but you pretty much could hit the ground running.
HARRIS: Yes, I was able to do it.
TP: But could we get back to this question of how you perceived the musical scene around you. Because when people wrote about you, the attitude that came out was you as a keeper of the flame, as it were.
HARRIS: Well, that’s all I knew. What I knew was Bird and them. That’s all Coltrane knew! [LAUGHS] Coltrane decided late in life to really take care of business. Which is what he did. He started very late and started practicing very hard. That caused Sonny Rollins to do the same thing; he used to go back by the bridge or something. There was a different thing going on.
I recorded with Hank Mobley. I had already recorded with… I don’t know when I recorded with Carmell Jones.
TP: “Jayhawk Talk” is in ’64.
HARRIS: [GETS OUT HIS DISCOGRAPHY] This cat in Holland, Piet Koster, did a discography that says I recorded with Willie Wells and Wild Bill Moore, Doug Watkins was on bass, and Bob Atchison on drums. I wish I could remember that. We recorded a thing called “Football Boogie,” “Blue Journey,” “Bubbles”… I recorded with Frank Rosolino in September 1952. I recorded with Donald Byrd… Oh yeah, we recorded in Detroit in 1955 with Yusef Lateef, Bernard McKinney, Frank Gant, Elvin Jones on bass.
TP: For Transition maybe.
HARRIS: Yeah, that’s right! For Transition. Then I went to New York in 1956… Well, I had gone to New York in 1955 after Clifford Brown and Richie Powell died…
TP: Well, that was June of ’56.
HARRIS: Oh, all right. Well, I joined Max Roach’s band then. So I recorded with Thad Jones in 1956 in July. Then in July again I recorded with the Hank Mobley Quartet. It’s weird. The same year, July 14th, July 20th with Hank Mobley, then with Hank Mobley on July 23rd for Savoy. I did more recordings that month than the year…
TP: Those Hank Mobley dates and the Thad Jones dates are all ’56. I know all those dates.
HARRIS: There was another one, a Donald Byrd-Art Farmer thing for Prestige. I recorded in 1958 for Argo with Sonny Stitt and my trio. Then in 1958 with Benny Golson for Riverside. “The Other Side of Benny Golson.” I don’t remember that at all!
Now, let’s get up the ’60s. I recorded with Cannonball. That’s when I came back to New York.
TP: You did “Live At the Jazz Workshop,” your trio record, which is very popular among younger players. I know a couple of players who that’s their bible of trio playing.
HARRIS: It’s a good one. When I listen to it, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, in some kind of way. The way I played together with Louis Hayes and Sam Jones.
TP: Well, you were a unified rhythm section.
HARRIS: We’d been playing together for about three months. Then I did a trio with Joe Benjamin on bass and Elvin Jones.
TP: Oh, “Preminado,” a very different record, and the solo record for Riverside.
HARRIS: Right, and I did Dave Pike. Yusef Lateef Sextet with Voices. I don’t remember that one at all. Then Sonny Red I did June 28, 1961.
TP: Can I interrupt you for a minute on the discography. When I spoke with Tommy Flanagan, he said Tatum was in Detroit a lot, and he played a lot at an after-hours club. Did you hear him there?
HARRIS: Tommy did. I found out about that later. Tommy did see him in these spots. I didn’t. I saw Art Tatum in person at the Rouge Lounge. I know there’s an instance where he played at an after-hours place and Tommy had seen him.
TP: Tommy said he had almost a house gig at Baker’s also, and the after-hour place was called Freddie Ginyard’s.
HARRIS: Freddie Ginyard’s, that’s right. I never went there.
TP: Was Tatum like your first love among the piano players?
HARRIS: I don’t think so. Man, I don’t know really. All I know is, I think I was… We used to play… When you think about high school and stuff… We used to have a band, and we’d play stock arrangements. I remember playing “9:20 Special,” one of them pieces that there’s a stock arrangement on. I think that’s our first sort of encounter with jazz. Then I think I started hearing Bird. I didn’t hear that much of Monk. I don’t think I paid that much attention to Monk when I was getting started. Monk might have sounded very hard. I could play some boogie-woogie, and a few changes to the songs. I learned something about changes. Other cats could solo better on the West Side, and I’d come back… [ETC.] I heard “Webb City,” which was Sonny Stitt and Fats Navarro with Bud Powell. That’s how I started learning how to play.
TP: Did you listen to Tatum’s records, or study with him before?
HARRIS: I had heard Art Tatum before.
TP: I’m not so interested in the particulars as I am in the impressions and the essence and what you have to say about him.
HARRIS: [LAUGHS] Art Tatum was the person that I could listen to a little while. Because you’d end up with “Oh, my head hurts” or something. It was sort of complicated, listening to Art Tatum. He was so much, it was like ten piano players playing at once.
TP: The level of complexity but also just so beautiful.
HARRIS: Beautiful, oh yeah. Beautiful, complex. Oh, man, I think we all loved him.
TP: So no matter how deep you got into Bebop… A lot of people say that everything that was ever played in Jazz was contained in Tatum.
HARRIS: Well, that’s what they say. It’s almost like the way you hear cats play, and individually you might say that Erroll Garner was Erroll Garner, but Art Tatum was also Erroll Garner, Art Tatum was Bud Powell, and Art Tatum was all of them… Art Tatum was Monk and Art Tatum was Duke Ellington. All of them, in some kind of way. That’s the one felt.
TP: Did you ever go so far with trying to transcribe Tatum?
HARRIS: No. But they had books with his solos; Art Tatum, Pete Johnson, all that kind of stuff.
TP: When you were listening to Bud Powell and “Webb City,” were you transcribing at that time, or was that more trying to correlate by ear what was happening and put that on the piano.
HARRIS: It was by ear. That’s the way you did it. You had to learn by ear, slow it up and get it. There was one piano player… Did I ever tell you about Johnny O’Neill?
TP: The one who played with Art Blakey for a while, right?
HARRIS: That Johnny O’Neill. He can play so close to Art Tatum, it’s unbelievable. I used to wonder. One time he came over to my house, because he was in town and people told him he had to come over to my house because, like, you had to be accepted by me — or some kind of nonsense like that! I was in Detroit. So he came over, and I heard him play. I heard him first play in Chicago, and I couldn’t understand it, because he sounded sort of like Art Tatum, and he was a young cat. Not too many young cats you hear trying to sound like Art Tatum. So he came by my house and he played, and he still sounded like Art Tatum! I said, “Now, how the heck do you sound like Art Tatum, young as you are?” He said when he played for church, boy, if you could hear what he played… My Lord. If that was playing for church, my brother… You ain’t never heard nothin’ like that. He could have played Chopin’s Left Hand Octave Concerto easy as the devil — and that’s a hard one, too! [LAUGHS]
But I asked him one day, “How in the hell did you learn how to play like Art Tatum?” Well, he decided he wanted to play jazz, and his mother had these records, these Art Tatum records. He said, “So what I did, I sped them up.” I said, “You sped them up? What the hell does that mean?” He said, “Well, that’s what I did. I sped them up, and then when I slowed them back down to regular, I could hear everything.” Dig that. He listened to them sped up, and then he’d slow them down and heard everything. That’s the funniest thing I ever heard in my life.
TP: Makes sense.
HARRIS: Well, it makes sense. But we used to do the opposite. We slowed it down. He sped it up! You know, I still haven’t done that. I’m going to do that one day. Now I’m really going to do it, now that I’m talking to you! I’m going to speed up one Art Tatum and see.
TP: With Bud Powell you slowed it down, too?
HARRIS: Oh yeah. Well, we had a machine that you could slow it down in any key. See, they stopped making them real proper machines so that young people could really continue learning to play the music more by records than by education. They’d be better to learn by records, I think. This education thing is ruining the music, some kind of way.
TP: When did you begin to relate to Monk’s music?
HARRIS: Oh, I think I always did.
TP: But you said early it seemed hard to you.
HARRIS: Well, it seemed complicated. But the pieces… You heard these beautiful songs. Because Monk made up some of the most beautiful melodies, like “Round Midnight,” the first recording of Cootie Williams…
TP: Then he did his own for Blue Note. He did so many versions of it.
HARRIS: Well, see, Bud Powell was on the first one with Cootie Williams. The very first recordings of it were really nice. So you gradually grew into Monk.
TP: As far as getting into Monk’s style of playing, that didn’t begin for you until you knew him…
HARRIS: No, if you deal with Bud Powell, you deal with part of Monk. Bud Powell was influenced by Monk in some kind of way. You could tell by the way Bud Powell…the whole tone scales and some things that Bud Powell would do, that he was influenced by Monk. And you would be influenced by Monk, because Monk was odder than all the rest. He did more unorthodox things, not the regular, run-of-the-mill stuff. Monk played the whole-tone scales a lot. It gave him a certain sound. There was an East Coast sound as opposed to a West Coast sound.
TP: Do you think that sound comes out of the stride piano legacy?
HARRIS: I don’t know. I know there’s a difference. The East Coast sound is strong and very virile. West Coast is wishy-washy. The Midwest is dulcet. [LAUGHS]
TP: well, not in Chicago.
HARRIS: No, not in Chicago. No, there you think of Albert Ammons, boogie-woogie.
TP: I think of a shuffle rhythm when I think of Chicago.
HARRIS: Oh, that’s right. Well, we had to do it in Detroit, too.
TP: But you didn’t meet Monk until you moved to New York, is that correct?
TP: Was that at the Five Spot? Do you remember when you first met him?
HARRIS: I can remember playing at the Five Spot and Monk coming in and walking back and forth through the joint all night with his hat and coat on. That might have been when I first met him.
TP: Do you remember when you first talked to Monk?
HARRIS: No, I can’t tell you that. And you’ve got to realize, Monk didn’t talk that much.
TP: Let me put it this way. When you first started communicating with him.
HARRIS: Well, we became sort of friends through the Baroness. I think that’s what it is. Through the Baroness we became good friends. I went with her by his house and stuff, and we’d pick him up and we’d all three be going some place. That kind of thing. I think that’s how I knew him mostly.
TP: So it began as a social relationship through your musical connections.
HARRIS: The social more than the musical. Social because we were musicians, but I don’t think he’d ever heard me play and I might not have heard him in person. Or I might have heard him in person… I’m trying to think when I first heard Monk; I couldn’t tell you.
TP: But you knew his records, though.
TP: And when you met him, did his personality seem to totally correlate the music you knew? Did he seem at one with it?
HARRIS: yeah, he was that kind of cat.
TP: Did you feel like you knew him already from knowing his music?
HARRIS: Yeah, I think so. Well, he was an odd fellow. He didn’t talk. He didn’t waste any conversation. Monk never wasted words.
TP: Or notes.
HARRIS: Or notes. That’s the same thing. That’s what I’m talking about. That was like his music. And that’s really true, too. He certainly didn’t. Oh, I don’t know. How long we been talking, man? I’d better go.
TP: Did you meet the Baroness in New York?
TP: Shortly after?
HARRIS: Something like that. I don’t like to talk about her too much, so let’s talk about some other subjects. Let’s go elsewhere.
TP: Can we say anything about her for the purposes of this story?
HARRIS: Well, we could say that she was beautiful towards musicians. All the musicians knew it, too. And she probably helped us all in some kind of way. She was a help… [LAUGHS] One of the greatest ways she helped us, I think, is that it was the one time you could go to a jazz club and find a Bentley or a Rolls-Royce parked out in front of the jazz club. I think she drew people! I think people came to the club to see who was in there with this Rolls-Royce or who was in there with this Bentley. They protected that car, like up in Harlem and stuff. She never locked the trunk and she never locked the glove compartment, and the car was never touched. Nobody ever touched that car. If you touched that car you probably got beat up! Nobody would let you mess with that car up in Harlem. The only time that car got messed up was when I opened my joint at the Jazz Cultural Theater, and she parked around the corner, and somebody took a knife and went all along the top of the car. Slashed the whole top. Unbelievable. In midtown. It didn’t happen in Harlem. It wouldn’t have happened in Harlem. You know, it’s real weird about that kind of thing. There was a different kind of feeling about that car. And I think people looked out for her no matter where it was parked. She could park any place up there. Nobody would mess with that car. In front of Wells, in front of Smalls Paradise, in front of Minton’s. Nobody would touch that car.
TP: And she made all of those scenes.
HARRIS: Oh yes.
TP: It sounds like she made it her point to hear everything that was going on.
HARRIS: Oh, she was a jazz lover. That’s no stuff. She was one of our assets. She was a good one for us.
TP: And you and Monk became…
HARRIS: Yes, good friends because of her.
TP: Is there anything you can tell me about living with Monk, the way that was?
HARRIS: Well, Monk was sort of sick then. So that’s like a different thing.
TP: So he couldn’t really communicate…
HARRIS: He didn’t communicate much.
TP: You did tell me that one time you sat down in a room…
HARRIS: Oh, now, one time we played. One time he was very clear and we sat down and played “My Ideal” over and over, maybe 100 choruses apiece. He’d play one, I’d play one; he’d play one, I’d play one. And we did that back and forth for a long time.
TP: This may be impossible for you to answer, but if you could talk about how being around Monk inflected your sensibility about music, how would you describe it?
HARRIS: Well, his songs you wanted to know. I never transcribed particularly in later times. I may hear something and learn it, learn the melody or something. But there’s a lot of cats who can play a Monk piece that maybe they try to play note for note, that kind of thing. I’ve never done that particularly. I just learn the piece and I play it. Learn the melody, see how it goes. He showed me “Round Midnight” one time, parts of “Round Midnight.” That’s why I get mad when people play “Round Midnight.” They play the changes so wrong. They don’t have that too good. The way he voiced things, the way he did it, the way he…how simply he did it. He did it much simpler than cats try to do it. Cats try to take it all out and everything, but he just did it real simple. Just three notes sometimes.HARRIS: I don’t plan a record date much. I just do it.
TP: So for you, going into a record date is just an extension of what you’re doing at the time?
HARRIS: That’s all. I’m one of those people that like… My preference is the live recording. But I also had a good time recording with Pepper and Slide Hampton, Junior Cook… I recorded with a lot of…
TP: Well, you recorded a number of group dates, which you had done much with Riverside.
HARRIS: No, but they did let me do it, so I did it. I enjoyed those because I had a chance to try to arrange. I was sort of young at arranging. I’ve still got a sheet right now… I was showing this to somebody the other day. Frank Foster showed me a sheet when he went into the Army. Frank Foster went into the Army in I think 1950, and before he left (this was in Detroit) I said, “Frank, why don’t you leave me a sheet so I can learn something about arranging.” And he left me this sheet which says stuff like… How did he say it? I can’t even remember, but it was “MF.” [LAUGHS] And so, from that sheet that helped me tremendously. Most of the stuff that I try to do comes from that sheet.
TP: Was it mostly harmonic information, or things about voicings?
HARRIS: Voicing information. Like how to voice for the four trumpets, or how to voice for a big band, how to voice for a small group — all kind of things like that.
TP: At the time you met Schlitten you were pretty established in your own way on the New York scene…
HARRIS: Pretty much so. Don was an A&R man for Prestige. We just had this strong relationship. No contract or nothing, just a handshake. And I always sort of stuck to that, except I might not have stuck to it too much lately.
TP: The way he put it was he came up with the idea for Prestige to play the “Classical repertoire of jazz,” as he put it, and he said, “there was no other choice than Barry for the piano bench.” Then I asked him if your style dovetailed with playing the repertoire of classical music in its ’60s incarnation. He said you knew all the tunes; everyone knew the changes, but you knew the melodies, and had a way of comping and playing the changes that inspired the guys playing… [ETC.]
Had you before this played with people like Illinois Jacquet or Dexter Gordon or James Moody in rhythm sections, or were these dates the opportunity to do that?
HARRIS: The dates were the opportunity to do that. Of course it was nice, because you always dug those people, so it was a nice opportunity. I came to New York before I even lived here to record. I recorded with Thad, I was with Benny Golson, I recorded with a lot of people… So it was an honor. It’s not that I worked with Dexter or… I think I did one concert. We did a concert on one of Dexter’s birthdays at Lincoln Center, and he asked me to have some singers, and we took some of his music and I arranged it for the singers and we backed him up. Now, that was my time playing with Dexter. I played a few things with Moody over the years; I can’t much remember them.
TP: I’m asking you more in general than the specific about how you developed over that time. Perhaps it’s for me to say, not you.
HARRIS: I don’t even know how to answer such a thing as that. I just think I was lucky. I call it luck, because I was sort of trifling. I was a cat who loved to go to the racetrack. When I first came to New York, I was really a practicer. I would go to a studio. Riverside had a studio across from their place on 46th Street that was on the third floor, a little building that’s still there. I had a key to that building, see, and I could go up to the third floor, and there was a piano up there (there was an old grand piano brought in there that I never played), and I would… I had a Greek cat who would give me breakfast in the morning. He gave me breakfast in the morning, made sure I had a nice meal, and then I’d go up there and look up and it would be night. People who knew about this kind of thing (you’d have to ask them), Joe Zawinul, Harold Mabern…a lot of people knew Barry was at that studio, because a lot of cats joined me there. Sometimes they would join me there. I was a cat who just practiced all the time for that little…
Then there was a trifling period where I went to the racetrack every day, or went to OTB and stuff like that. But I was fortunate that I continued in some kind of way to learn things. I think the reason why I started my classes and things like that was to keep me out of trouble.
TP: To have something to do with that excess energy when you weren’t playing music.
HARRIS: Right, besides hanging out in OTB or going to this show or this and that. I used to see Wes Montgomery all the time. He’d be going to the cowboy movies just like me. [LAUGHS]
TP: It sounds to me like, say, between the trio section with Cannonball’s rhythm section or Chasin’ the Bird or Preminado and the record you did at the end of the ’60s with Ron Carter and Leroy Williams, there’s something… It’s very intangible, but you sound like a more confident player, and you sound somehow more interpretive of the material. It may or may not, but is it possible, or is it bullshit…
HARRIS: Well, I can’t really say. I can say that I feel like I’ve improved. [LAUGHS] I felt like I improved. I would say I imagine that I did improve. Anyway, I was lucky.
TP: Well, could that have to do with being in New York, and playing for five years with Coleman Hawkins…
HARRIS: That was a very important part of my life. I can remember the first time sitting in with Coleman Hawkins. He said, “Doggone it, another goddamn Detroit piano player.” I think he was playing at the new Five Spot on the corner of 8th Street and 3rd Avenue, and I sat in with him. He called some tune that, in my head, I knew the melody, and I figured I could figure out the chords, if you know what I mean. So we played it, and all he said was, “Another Detroit piano player.” [LAUGHS] Because he went through Detroit piano players, you realize. Hank Jones, Roland Hanna, Tommy Flanagan, me… So he had a Detroit relationship. So I worked with him quite a while; I worked with him til he died. [MET HIM AROUND '65]
TP: Can you pinpoint anything that you particularly gleaned from him?
HARRIS: There’s not too much I wouldn’t want to talk about, because he was always a beautiful cat. I felt I was lucky to have worked with him, because he gave me a little different outlook on things. One time (I’ll never forget this) he called out “All The Things You Are,” and we played it, and after he played it I just said, “Well…” See, what he would do is play a phrase, and… I was a cat always thinking, “What was that phrase?” and I’d be trying to get that phrase. He’d laugh his butt off because he knew I was trying to get the phrase. I wasn’t chording. I was trying to steal his phrases! He played so good on that, it just gave me a different kind of outlook. It sort of let me know that there’s a lot more to be played than what we’ve heard. We can’t think of anybody really as the end. There’s a lot more. Maybe the closest… It’s just a lot more, man. We were the kids who were…the bebop boys. That was our music. But playing with Coleman Hawkins sort of showed one that there was a lot more to play than Bebop, than what Bird and them played. So one had to work at trying to reach this other level and see if one can do some of this stuff.
TP: So he could still access that even toward the end of his life…
HARRIS: Oh, you kiddin’? He had a special philosophy. For one thing he would always say he never played chords; he played movements. And I’m a firm believer in that; it isn’t chords, it’s movements, and how you go from one place to another. A chord might come in there, but you’ve got to know how to go from one place to another.
TP: So that it goes beyond the chords and becomes purely about melody.
HARRIS: There you go. It’s purely a melodic kind of thing. Knowing how to go to the relative minor, knowing how to come from back the 4 to the 1 — all these different little things. That’s what one should know, but what these young cats don’t really know nowadays.
TP: Why do you think that is?
HARRIS: For one thing, right now we have a lot of horn players who sit down at a piano, and they play one chord to another chord and they think that’s hip, and then they make up a melody. And see, music is more than that. Music is movement. They have to play a chord that moves… We should know more about movement; then we can venture away from it. You can’t venture away from something if you don’t know it. Most of these people don’t know it, and these horn players will be writing these tunes and writing for these bands, and they don’t know anything about movement. How to go from here to there. And that’s the first thing they should be learning about.
But see, they’re messing up our young now, because they’ve got them learning these funny songs that don’t have movement. So the young people aren’t even getting a chance to learn how to play. And this is quite true all over the country, all over the world. There’s some dumb stuff going on. And it’s quite wrong, because everybody should know how to move from one place to another. Their main thing must first be, “I must first know how to move from one place to another.” It is a case of these horn sitting down and knowing something about chords, and they hit one chord and then they hit another chord and say, “Ooh, that sounds good.” That ain’t right.
TP: Let me get back to Coleman Hawkins for a second. You took care of him for a bit.
HARRIS: Nothing too much to say. I moved in with him, because he wasn’t doing that well. He was living on 97th Street. Finally I had to put him into the hospital. He was a recoverer. He always recovered. He might overdo things a little bit, and then he’d cool out and he’d recover and he’d be all right. You know what I mean? It just happened this time he didn’t recover.
TP: I hear he loved opera.
HARRIS: Oh, he loved Classical, period. That’s why he kept talking about movement and stuff. He loved Classical.
TP: Did that spark an interest for you in absorbing Classical, or were you already…
HARRIS: Well, I already was into Classical music. I was taking lessons, which I still do. It helps me technically, and it helps musically, too. Because these cats knew about movement. See, there’s no jiving.
TP: Is there a difference for you between Classical technique and Jazz technique?
HARRIS: I don’t really understand that. Technique is technique as far as I’m concerned. I can’t say anything about Classical technique.
TP: I’m thinking about in terms that Monk, say, developed a technique to play the music in his mind, which might not have been appropriate to articulate Classical repertoire.
HARRIS: It might have been very good! [LAUGHS] I don’t think you can say that. A lot of people assume that Monk didn’t have technique. I can tell them that they’re lying on that issue because he really did. I saw him play a run, and I tried to play it and I couldn’t play it. That’s one thing. Monk danced a lot. And he would sit behind the piano, and any note Monk wanted to hit, he hit it. That’s the only thing I can say about him. He suddenly threw his hand out way at the top of the piano to hit a note. That note was hit. You see? The way he would play a whole tone scale coming down, I don’t know if anybody ever played like that before! So he was very influential. He influenced Bud, and other cats, he influenced them some.
TP: My favorite record of yours is Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron.
HARRIS: That’s the one with Gene Taylor. Personally, I like Live At The Jazz Workshop with Sam Jones and Louis Hayes. I think it’s because it’s live. And I think some of the engineers record better live than you do in the studio.
TP: Live In Tokyo, where you do the Bud Powell is also wonderful.
HARRIS: I like that one, too. I never would stay for mixing and stuff like that. I never could stand it. I always felt that it didn’t sound right. And it’s so strange, one time I did stay, and the engineer cut off my part of it and was doing something with the drums. And what I heard coming through the drums of me, that was me. What I heard coming through that was supposed to be me, that wasn’t me. A run I played, I didn’t play my run staccato; I played my run legato. Why should my run come out staccato when I played it legato. So it’s something about engineers; one gotta really watch ‘em.
TP: Schlitten said one reason he moved away from Rudy Van Gelder was that he recorded all piano players the same, and he wanted to get your sound the way that it was.
HARRIS: Well, I don’t know about engineers. I heard that Art Tatum recorded and the mike would be up towards the ceiling. See, when we record, they put the mike inside the piano. The mike picks up a lot of metallic stuff, and the mike picks up clicks and things from the metal or something. Not like a piano. I don’t think I’ve been recorded right. I’m convinced of that. I just haven’t heard anything that sounds right to me.
TP: That represents your sound.
HARRIS: That represents my sound. I’ve heard very little. I think that Live At The Jazz Workshop… I think some of the live things come closer. Otherwise, it’s like engineers…I don’t know. See, we have a bunch of engineers now who are young people who know nothing about jazz. I mean, they know so little about jazz that you can go in, and when they have something on to test their equipment, that is the worst music you ever heard in your life — but they’re using it to test the equipment. And then they want to record you, and you’re a jazz musician — and they know nothing about it. Not a thing! You can’t even trust them. Like, if you give a concert and you get somebody for the sound, you know you come in and, damn, they’re playing some Rock-and-Roll stuff! And here you are, a jazz musician. They don’t even know anything about jazz. That’s what’s wrong with the advertising. The advertising people know nothing about jazz. That’s why no jazz is on the television too much. Because the dumb people, all they know is this Rock Guitar sound or something. It’s ridiculous. They’re young and dumb. They don’t know anything about American music. It’s almost like they cut off… We lose a radio station that did play some old standard stuff, so you could hear it. We had Great American Composers. Get out of here! To me, the worst thing that ever happened to the USA was the Beatles. I consider them the worst thing that ever happened to us. They messed up our whole thing, over some dumb stuff. And they wrote a few things that were nice; that’s all right, but they messed up our thing. It’s always England. I’m sort of mad at England; they sort of mess up our thing all the time. The new plays, the Phantom and stuff, they’ve got some of the ugliest music. I’m almost convinced they don’t know a thing about music. They’re horrible, man. Good gracious. It’s like they try to take us over another kind of way!
TP: Can I get back to Tadd Dameron?
HARRIS: Well, Tadd Dameron was very special to everybody. There was something about Tadd Dameron, that’s why I wanted to try to learn how to…one tries to learn how to arrange like Tadd Dameron. Because Tadd Dameron was very special at arranging. But I think it was a special thing about Ohio. I’ve heard other arrangers from Ohio.
TP: The Wilberforce College influence maybe, where Horace Henderson and Benny Carter went…
HARRIS: I think Frank Foster went there, and Joe Henderson, too. Joe came from someplace like that when he came from Detroit — I think. [ETC.] But there was some special stuff. I know some arrangers you’ve never heard of. There was an alto player named Willie Smith, not the famous one; he used to arrange for Little John, Little John and his Merrie Men, they were called, which was a nice…about four horns…a real nice sound. Then there was another cat who came to New York whose name was Bugs Bauer; I don’t know his real first name. They all arranged alike. There’s something very similar… There’s something about Ohio, I don’t know… And Tadd Dameron is the epitome of it.
TP: Were you listening to him with the same avidity as Bud Powell and Bird when those records were coming out?
HARRIS: No, I doubt that. But I was listening to him. Because I liked Tadd’s arrangements and stuff. Yeah, I was listening to him pretty good.
TP: It’s such a lyrical record.
HARRIS: Oh, it was a special project. It was one I wanted to do. Because Tadd wrote a lot of beautiful songs. So to get a chance to play his songs, that’s all.
TP: Did you ever get to meet him, or know him before he died?
HARRIS: Not really. What year did he die?
HARRIS: No, I never really met. I never really knew him. I can’t say I never really met him, because I might have met him and just don’t know it. I just don’t remember, that’s all.
TP: You did a lot of great records with Sonny Stitt as a sideman. He’s someone who seemed to have an impact on a lot of musicians through the strength of his personality.
HARRIS: Well, he was a special kind of cat. And it ended up where I was… The record owner knew that I was a good influence on him…
TP: You mean you kept him concentrating and focused.
HARRIS: Yeah. Towards the end, the A&R man said he may as well forget about being the A&R man; I should be the A&R man. Because, see, Sonny, if he was messing around and wouldn’t want to do nothin’ and taking his time, I would say, “Sonny, let’s play ‘Idaho,'” and he said “okay,” and we played it. See, I would say something like that, and he would do it. It ended up where I was sort of a good influence on him. He would do it!
TP: There’s one of those dates where he plays a 10-minute “I Got Rhythm,” the first solo is on alto, then the piano solo, then a solo on tenor.
HARRIS: Yes, that kind of thing… It really took me some time to get him started. So we had a pretty good relationship.
TP: You seemed to get his creative juices stirring.
HARRIS: And he would go ahead and he would wail. We had a good time.
TP: You did a lot of good records with Dexter also.
HARRIS: Yeah, we did about two or three.
TP: Did you meet him through those projects, or had you known…
HARRIS: I think I met him more through those projects, and just knowing he was Dexter Gordon, if you know what I mean. Because he wasn’t here that much.
TP: Do you remember the dynamics of working with him?
HARRIS: Oh, he was a lot of fun. Dexter was a lot of fun. He played standards. So one had a lot of fun with Dexter. That’s all I can say.
TP: In comping for him, was he very dominant in taking the lead, or was he interactive with you?
HARRIS: Well, I think those cats were more interactive anyway. It isn’t a case of anybody being dominant as it is everybody sort of blending in together or something like that. Probably the hardest part about a record date is that there are so many heartbeats. That’s the way I like to talk about it. You got five cats with five different heartbeats, and what ends up happening is five different interpretations of what the tempo is. So what has to happen is a compromise from all the individuals. So we have to compromise, and then we can make the record. You know what I mean? It takes this compromising one to another. And I think we were able to do that pretty good.
TP: It’s kind of the magic of jazz, isn’t it.
HARRIS: Oh yes. It’s the magic of… I mean, it’s ceased to happen for us. Everybody is writing their original stuff mostly nowadays. The reason they’re doing that, of course, is because that’s one way for us to make some money. Record companies aren’t the most trustworthy things in the world, so the only way for you to really make something is to have your original music. What happens is that now we can’t have the jam session thing too much, because people are playing their original music. You can’t go in the joint and the cat says, “Come on up and play with me a song.” I could go in when Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins be playing, and I could go on up there and play, because they’re going to play something I know. They’re going to play a standard or something… There’s a bunch of standards that everybody in the world should know, and you will find that you can go to Japan and play with some musicians there, you can go to Australia and play with some musicians there because of these special tunes, like “How High The Moon,” “Just You, Just Me.” You could name off these songs, and those songs everybody should know. The young people nowadays don’t even have a chance to go to a jam session. It’s terrible. That’s why when I had my place, I tried to keep a jam session going, even though it never was anything. It never made any money, but I had a jam session every Wednesday night. So the young people could play if they want to.
TP: Tell me about your own writing.
HARRIS: It’s funny. I don’t even play my own music. I never have. I’ve always played Monk and Bud and Charlie Parker music. I’m still the same. It’s about time for me to change that.
TP: You had a beautiful group with Clifford in the ’80s, and I remember you playing “Bean and The Boys.”
HARRIS: Oh yes. I loved that song with Clifford. There were a few songs Clifford and I loved to play. We loved to play “I Waited For You,” which was Diz’s song.
TP: You were talking before about how when you got to New York, you were a practicer. Talk about practicing versus live playing?
HARRIS: Really, one should be more like when it comes to practicing. See, what Monk did, Monk practiced playing. He didn’t practice practicing. He practiced playing. So that Monk would play by himself in tempo a song, and maybe play it for half-an-hour, maybe play it for 90 minutes. You understand? Really, it’s hard for me to do this… I think I do most of my practicing mentally now, and I do most of my practicing through my class. Not that I should, because I should be practicing more myself. See, I did that when I first came to New York. I got away from it, but yet I need to get back to it. Because there’s just so much to learn. I’ve got one piano player who sort of inspires me to want to practice more, because he takes the stuff that I talk about in my class and he really knows how to play it — and it’s unbelievable.TP: When did you start teaching formally? Have you had students since you came to New York on a formal level, or did that start with the Jazz Cultural Theater?
HARRIS: No, it started before the Jazz Cultural Theater. It started probably with Jazz Interaction, which was Joe and Rigmor Newman’s group. They’d get money to have a class about once a year. Once we were in a school on 76th or 77th Street, then another time we were at Storyville which was on 58th Street. I think it’s from the 58th Street Storyville that the class continued.
TP: So it’s early and mid-’70s, which is when Storyville was around.
HARRIS: Uh-huh. One day I was supposed to be there at 4, and I didn’t get there until 7 o’clock, and everybody was there.
TP: Leroy Williams told me a story where you were coming back from Japan, and then you got in a cab and went right to your class. He said, “Why are you doing that?” and you said, no, you had to go to your class.
HARRIS: That has happened. That’s right.
TP: Talk about what your ideas were at that time, 25-30 years ago, about teaching jazz, and how they differed from the orthodox?
HARRIS: Well, it differs from the orthodox in that I believe in scales. And I don’t mean a whole lot of scales, like most people believe in a whole lot of scales. I don’t believe in a lot of scales. I wanted to pay attention to the pentatonic scales and stuff like that. My thoughts have changed since I started. I believe in the dominant 7th scale. Because I figured dominant means dominating, and so if it’s supposed to dominate, then it dominates. So I believe in the dominant 7th scale. Then to figure out how to apply it to everything that one runs into is the question. And one can apply it to just about everything one runs into. So now I am more of the opinion that you need more than that to the students, because what they need is a little basic harmony about how to go from one place to the other. Then to combine that basic harmony with the scales, and then I think one will be on the right track to teach. I don’t know if there are too many teachers on the right track.
TP: How hands-on do you get with students? Do you instruct privately as well as in the group?
HARRIS: No, I don’t. I just instruct within the group. Every once in a while I may take somebody privately. That’s very seldom. I wouldn’t encourage that. Because everybody wants a private lesson, and then I become a piano teacher for real. That’s why I insist on having a class. You want a lesson, come to my class. So I’ll keep the class going. I don’t care about making money and stuff. I’ll keep the class going, just pay the rent, and that’s it.
TP: Do you enjoy having relationships with younger piano players? I’ve written liner notes and articles on several who love you a lot, like Michael Weiss, Rodney Kendrick…
HARRIS: There are a lot of piano players who I’ve come into contact with. I’m a person who is… I’m not the catalyst. People are the catalyst, and I’m the one who gets set off by the catalyst. I can come up with things that we need to learn.
TP: So you’re the catalytic agent.
HARRIS: Yeah, okay, like that. I’m the agent. That’s all it is. So it comes from someplace. I don’t know where it comes from.
TP: Do you listen to a lot of the records that come out, or what younger musicians are doing?
HARRIS: I don’t listen to records too much at all, because I don’t like too much what the younger musicians are doing.
TP: Is there anyone you’d care to mention amongst the younger musicians who you do like?
HARRIS: I’d hate to even say something like that, to say I like this one or that one.
TP: Why is it that you don’t like so many of the younger players?
HARRIS: Because I can’t understand their logic when it comes to jazz, or their understanding of jazz, their disrespect for older musicians, and why they play certain ways. I don’t understand why they play this way, and Monk didn’t play that way, Art Tatum didn’t play that way, Bud Powell didn’t play that way, Al Haig didn’t play that way, Bill Evans didn’t play that way. So I don’t quite understand where they come up playing like they play!
TP: Can you describe how it is they’re playing?
HARRIS: Well, the left hand has suddenly become the chord thing. The last couple of weeks I went to a school, and two places I’ve run into this the last couple of weeks where the piano players play chords with their left hand. They can’t play two-handed chords. They think that the right hand is just for single notes — and that’s bull. And whoever taught them that is full of shit, and whoever came up with it is full of stuff. This music is two-handed music, and they come up with this stuff with this chord only in the left hand, and it’s just ridiculous. It’s not supposed to be that way. And the music isn’t that way. All you got to do is listen. And yet, these people will say that they’re listening to Monk and different people, and I know they’re full of stuff. They aren’t listening to them. It’s impossible to listen to them and play the way they play.
TP: How are they disrespecting older musicians?
HARRIS: Well, for one thing, they don’t show the proper respect, man. Some of them act like they know it all. Some of them, you have to prove that you know more than them, and then they still aren’t even hip enough to say, “I’d better check him out” — which is what they should do. I had one of them in a class, he’s suddenly a great musician now, but I showed him some stuff he never knew existed in the music. I’ve never seen him since. So I judged them by that. They don’t believe. Even when they get the real deal, they don’t believe — and that includes all of them.
TP: No exceptions.
HARRIS: Hardly any exceptions.
TP: To listen to you, it would seem that you’re very pessimistic about jazz…
HARRIS: Well, I am.
TP: …and yet you persevere, and it would seem the opposite of your actions which are those of a profoundly optimistic man.
HARRIS: I am pessimistic, but I insist on being optimistic in trying to see if I can’t… Well, what it is mainly is to leave something. I’m older now, and I don’t know how much longer I have. Any knowledge that I have, I’m not supposed to die with it; I’m supposed to pass it on, I’m sure. So I try to pass on my knowledge of this thing. And hopefully, some of it will win out in the end. See, I know some of the stuff I pass on is the right stuff. I’ve got piano players playing stuff that no other pianist has ever played in life, because we’re thinking totally different about the piano. We think about scales. We have a scale for chording. Most piano players don’t know anything about that. They don’t know anything about a scale for chording. And there is a scale for chording. That means that every scale that a man plays… Every chord that a man plays comes from a scale of chords. 99% of the chords we play come from a scale of chords. And if you don’t know the scale, that means that you’re missing out on 7 or 8 different chords that somebody never told us were chords. See, they tell us about augmented ninths, but they don’t know that augmented ninths comes from a scale. So you should be able to take that augmented ninth chord up a scale and find out what the second chord is, the third, the fourth, the fifth, and then you’ll start hearing sounds that you never heard before in your life. And nobody can come up and say, “Oh, that’s a so-and-so with a so-and-so and a so-and-so.” These are chords… They gave us one chord out of a scale of chords. That’s not enough.
TP: How did you figure it out? Did it just sort of come to you piecemeal, by trial and error?
HARRIS: It came piecemeal. So don’t ask me how.
TP: but it’s a homegrown thing.
HARRIS: Oh yeah.
TP: You did have instruction and so forth, but you didn’t… I mean, did you study Schillinger…
HARRIS: No. I could show you examples of it in the playing of different musicians, where I know that in some way they do know a little bit of it. They know a little bit of it, but they don’t know the whole deal. What I’d like to do is line up all the piano players, the ones who are considered the best, and one time sit down and have a discussion with them and show them about this scale. Because every one of them should know this. It isn’t just a case of I’m doing it or a few people know it. Every musician in the world should know about it; classical musicians, everybody should know about this. There’s a scale that we’ve neglected, and we shouldn’t neglect.
TP: To what extent is music to you mathematics, and to what extent is it about color, for lack of a better word?
HARRIS: Well, of course, mathematics is endless. The more you find out about music, the more you believe in God, too. It’s almost like the scientists. The more they find out about how this universe is put together… This isn’t haphazard shit! This isn’t haphazardly put together. This stuff is exact.
TP: It’s a science of sound.
HARRIS: It’s a science, man, and part of the music is science. But we think there’s something above the science part; there’s something above the logic. There’s a freedom at both ends of the barrel, man. There’s a freedom in anarchy, but there’s another freedom that comes from knowledge, then there’s another freedom that comes that really is the freedom we seek. And that’s what all of us want, is this freedom. I think by knowing that the music is not chordal, but scalar, changes the whole thing.
TP: What do you think jazz has to contribute to the 21st Century, to the Millennium. Why is it important that Jazz survive?
HARRIS: It is important that Jazz survive because Jazz is the music. Jazz is Classical music. Jazz is everything. If Beethoven and Chopin and them were alive, what would they be playing? Where do you play original music? They don’t play original music in symphony halls. They play dead people’s music. See, symphony halls play… Carnegie Hall plays dead people’s music. Lincoln Center is the same thing. Very seldom do they play somebody’s music living. Every once in a while they’ll commission somebody. But God, we have more inventors, people who can play…
TP: When you say that, are you referring to Classical music at Lincoln Center or Jazz at Lincoln Center.
HARRIS: Everything at Lincoln Center. Generally it’s dead people’s music. That’s all.
TP: Are you saying that articulating the Ellington repertoire or Jelly Roll Morton…
HARRIS: I’m not saying that you aren’t supposed to do that. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that our main thing…not so much articulating that as learning from that. That’s the main thing, man! Okay, so we have cats… I remember hearing one band, the band arrangements was Charlie Parker licks, and then Dizzy’s solo was part of the band arrangement. But when they soloed, they couldn’t solo. And yet when you learn the solo of Charlie Parker and them in an arrangement, what you’re supposed to do with that solo is learn how to solo from it. Not how to play the solo. Learn how to solo from the solo.
TP: Take it as the springboard for your own invention.
HARRIS: That’s right. A springboard to find something. That’s all it is mainly. The same thing with Ellington. What are we supposed to do with Ellington? We’re supposed to learn from Ellington.
TP: Among your peers, who are some of the people you really admire who you’ve shared the same time span with? I’m not talking about Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, your mentors as it were; I’m talking about your peers.
HARRIS: It’s hard to get away from the mentors! Well, I like… Probably one of the best tenor players in the world is Charles Davis, who…I can’t even explain it…who knows about improvisation. Who really knows about improvisation. To explain what I mean by “really knows about improvisation,” I can’t even do it. It’s hard. Really can play. He’s a person who really can play. Of course he’s underrated and you don’t hear that much about him and stuff. But man, when he puts the stuff together, it’s some of the best-put-together stuff that I’ve heard. And he really can do it.
Tommy Flanagan. I’m so used to Tommy Flanagan, because I like to watch his hands. I’ve spent my life watching his hands! [LAUGHS] Watching his hands and learning from him. Hank Jones. These are beautiful people.
I wish that I could have a meeting with the teachers who are supposed to be teaching this music, so we could have a little discussion about how you teach this music. I hate to go to a college and find students that can’t even play a major arpeggio, can’t even play a diminished 7th, can’t even play diminished 7ths all over their instrument, or play major arpeggios all over their instruments, all inversions. I mean, if the people don’t know the ABC’s of the music, then how are they going to learn the music? We’d be funny walking around here not knowing our ABC’s. It would be a funny thing. You have to know the ABC’s of the music, and a lot of people don’t. You’d be surprised at these schools. They have stage bands, and so these kids practice in bands, and they don’t know anything about music. Now, that’s not right. Some of the schools are terrible. See, that’s why I don’t go back to these schools that often, because once I go, the kids know.
TP: Within a year, about how often do you go out teaching?
HARRIS: To schools? Quite often.
TP: Like 15 weeks in a year?
HARRIS: Maybe something like that.
TP: So maybe you spend a quarter of your year in academic situations as an artist-in-residence.
HARRIS: As an artist, yeah, and performing, too. There are a couple of good ones, too.
TP: How about in your own teaching around New York? Where do you do it?
HARRIS: I have a class at Lincoln Neighborhood Community Center, which is on 250 West 65th Street, right in back of Lincoln Center. I teach there every Tuesday that I’m in town. It’s for anybody; anybody can come. There’s a $25 registration.
TP: How many people?
HARRIS: It varies. I have singing… See, my class is different. I start out with piano players. Then I have singers, who are the greatest number, and the piano players help me accompany the singers, so they learn about accompanying. Then after the singers, the horns come in and we have an improvisation class, which also includes the singers who should stay and be a part of the improvisation class. So it all works together like that. So I don’t know actually how to say how many. Over the years I wouldn’t even know how to estimate it.
TP: How long have you been in this location?
HARRIS: I haven’t been there that long; that’s just where it is now. I was at Ry Baltimore’s music store at 48th and 7th Avenue after he closed for a long time.
TP: What do you personally get out of teaching?
HARRIS: I have nothing.
TP: I don’t mean materially.
HARRIS: That’s the whole thing about teaching; you just learn from teaching. I have them trying to catch up to me, and I insist that they don’t. So that keeps me on my toes. It really keeps me on my toes, because I ain’t gonna let ‘em catch up to me.
* * *
Tommy Flanagan on Barry Harris:
TP: He and I have been talking some about Detroit, and I just wanted a few memories of him within the Detroit scene and his position. What are your first memories of him? You had the same piano teacher?
FLANAGAN: I don’t think we had it all the time, but I think at one point we had the same teacher.
TP: Was that Gladys Dillard?
FLANAGAN: Yes, that’s right. Did he mention it?
TP: Yes, that you both… Well, I remembered that you had studied with her, and then he mentioned that he had studied with her.
TP: And he said that you did a recital once together in high school? A Classical recital?
FLANAGAN: I forgot that one, but maybe… They did happen.
TP: I guess he remembered it better than you did. What are your early memories of him, and what are the nature of those memories?
FLANAGAN: Well, he always had a nice dynamic attack and approach to the piano, and he had a lot of confidence, too. He was one of the few guys who would just wait for Charlie Parker to come to town and go up and sit in with him. That’s more confidence than I had. I just didn’t have the nerve.
TP: Were there any older bebop pianists in Detroit, or did you have to learn it off the records pretty much?
FLANAGAN: We had quite a few pianists there. They weren’t all in the bebop school, but they played very well, like from the Art Tatum school. We had one, just a natural musician, who played about six different instruments very well, named Willie Anderson. He was a great pianist. He could play all kinds of styles. Then there was Will Davis. Will is a dynamic type pianist. We had so many.
TP: He said that he and Berry Gordy in high school were the two boogie-woogie players, and then a guy came to town named Theodore Shieldy…
FLANAGAN: Oh, Ted Shieldy, yes.
TP: He said he had high expectations for him that weren’t realized.
FLANAGAN: Well, yes. I can’t remember them all, but he’s one of them.
TP: But the gist of what I’m asking is, in terms of assimilating bebop and learning the vocabulary, did that come mostly from records and memorizing solos?
FLANAGAN: Mostly from my records.
TP: Barry also said that he was always a natural sort of teacher. This may or may not have had to do with you, it was probably after you left Detroit. But that he always seemed to have a knack for finding a correct way of approaching a situation.
FLANAGAN: Well, I know he always had that bent toward teaching. He had a lot of young prospects that really went on to become well known. Charles McPherson, Lonnie Hillyer, guys like that. Those were the two most outstanding.
TP: He’s listed as having been house pianist at the Bluebird in the early ’50s, and you had some sort of residence yourself there, didn’t you.
FLANAGAN: Yes, I did.
TP: When was your residence?
FLANAGAN: It was before I went in the Army. I guess it had to be late ’50s, because I went into the Army in ’51 and came back in ’53.
TP: That makes sense for hm. Because he said he celebrated his 20th birthday there, which was in late ’50, and then in ’51 he sort of got that gig a little bit.
FLANAGAN: Also there was Terry Pollard, who was a fine pianist, one of the woman pianists in town. She had that gig for a while, too.
TP: Did you ever play at a place called the Rouge Lounge?
FLANAGAN: Yes. I played there with… Sometimes they used to augment a band or look for someone to fill out a headliner that came in without a group.
TP: From the way he described the Bluebird, it sounds almost like a Bradley’s of Detroit, like a place where everyone would gather, where all the young talent would appear. He said things just happened there. Could you describe it a bit from the perspective of being a musical center?
FLANAGAN: It was on the West Side of Detroit, which was kind of the hipper side of Detroit. There were a lot of musicians there, and their styles… Even the laymen were very hip. And the Bluebird, being a corner bar right in the heart of that neighborhood, when they started having music it attracted a lot of the people who wanted to be on the scene. It attracted all of the good musicians. I mean, there were always fine musicians working in the club. So it was more than a Bradley’s, because we had all kind of horn players who came in from out of town, like Joe Gordon, Clifford, Miles, Sonny Stitt and Wardell Gray.
TP: Oh, I see. They’d gig at the Bluebird.
FLANAGAN: That’s what I’m talking about.
TP: Oh, what I gathered from Barry was that the national acts came into the Rouge Lounge, but the Bluebird was local young bands.
FLANAGAN: Well, no. Also I played there a long time with Wardell and with Sonny Stitt and with Miles. For about two months Miles was there.
TP: Was that after the Army?
FLANAGAN: I think so.
TP: I think someone on a liner note confused you with him. They listed him as playing a three-month gig with Miles. And he told me no.
FLANAGAN: Not in Detroit.
TP: That’s where they thought he did it, so it must have been you.
TP: So the Bluebird was just a bar that had a music policy, as it were? Did it have a music policy for a very long time?
FLANAGAN: Yeah, it did. But I think it really became well-known when Thad Jones and… Well, even before Thad, Philip Hill had a group there I think with Billy Mitchell. That’s when they started bringing in guest saxophonists like Wardell, and Frank Foster was there for a long period. Of course, all the main Detroit musicians.
TP: Barry said he and Yusef Lateef and Elvin Jones were in there for a while.
FLANAGAN: Oh, right. I almost forgot Yusef. Also that place in almost midtown; there was a place called Klein’s Show Bar. Yusef was there, and Pepper Adams played that place a lot, and Paul Chambers. But everyone played all over the city.
TP: Why was the West Side of Detroit hipper than the East Side of Detroit?
FLANAGAN: I don’t know. It was just more collectively together. It wasn’t spread out like… Well, it was kind of, you could say, like a Harlem, only it was… Just a part of town… Of course, I can’t say it was like a Harlem either. There were several sections of Detroit that used to have labels on them, like the north end, the west end, the east end, the east side, the west side, and where I lived, Conant Gardens… Oh, there were several places like that.
TP: He said he didn’t start getting hip until he started going to the West Side of Detroit where people could solo.
FLANAGAN: Yeah, that’s right. [LAUGHS]
TP: So basically what you could say is that he always had a very dynamic style and command of the piano and that he was very confident.
FLANAGAN: Yeah, he was. Well, he was quick to get hip to Bud Powell, more into it than anyone else on the scene then.
TP: Before you did, huh?
FLANAGAN: Well, about the same time. But he took it another step. I mean, he devoted a lot of time to it.
TP: How was it different for you dealing with Bud Powell’s music? Was he more obsessed with it or something?
FLANAGAN: I wouldn’t say obsessed. He gave it more attention than I did. I was still dealing with Tatum and stuff like that.
TP: Would Tatum be playing in Detroit during that time? Did you get to see him?
FLANAGAN: Oh yeah, I saw him a lot. He stayed in Detroit a lot, because his home was in Toledo, which is about 60 miles away. He almost had like a house gig at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, so he was there quite a lot. Then I saw him some at an after-hour place called Freddie Ginyard’s. He always loved to hang out and play late, so that was a good place to see him.
TP: There was a place called the Congo Club that was around in the earlier ’40s and late ’30s. Was that around later when you were coming of age?
FLANAGAN: I know what you’re talking about. It was the same location, but they changed the name to the Club Sudan. That was a pretty hip little club, too.
TP: It was owned by a gambler and everything was pretty much a first-class situation.
FLANAGAN: Yeah. Well, most of the clubs were run by somebody with a shady background.
* * *
Leroy Williams on Barry Harris:
TP: When did you first meet Barry Harris? Were you in Chicago or New York?
WILLIAMS: No, I was in New York. The first time I heard Barry in New York he was playing in this club with Paul Chambers, just a duo. So I went there with a friend of mine to listen. When I first heard Barry, I told this guy I was with, “That’s how the music is supposed to be played.” Those were my first words that I uttered about Barry. I said, “That’s it; that’s the way the music is supposed to be played.” Then I went and told him that.
TP: How so? Can you analyze that a bit?
WILLIAMS: Well, it was the feeling, the beauty, the touch, the depth of his music. It was perfect to me, coming out of the Bebop period and Charlie Parker and Monk, which is the music I like. He just sounded perfect.
Anyway, when I first had a chance to play with Barry was through Charles McPherson. We were playing in Brooklyn somewhere, and he said, “Barry Harris sure would like the way you play. I’m going to have a jam session at my house — come out.” Anyway, I went out there and we played. That was our first… We just kind of fell in love and jammed. That was my first meeting with Barry.
TP: When was that?
WILLIAMS: It must have been about ’68-’69.
TP: Was that when you came to New York, or had you been here awhile?
WILLIAMS: I came to New York around ’67.
TP: And you’d been in Chicago before that.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I was in Chicago. Anyway, we played at Charles’ house, and he said, “Man, I got a record date; do you want to record with me?” I said, “Yeah.” So we did…
TP: That’s Magnificent with Ron Carter.
WILLIAMS: Exactly. So that was my initial experience with Barry, and it was just a marriage.
TP: Did Barry sound substantially different than other piano players at the time you heard him? Did he stand out?
WILLIAMS: He stood out to me. Barry had a lot more depth to me than a lot of piano players. A lot of musicians, really. Barry’s deep, man. He has the depth and he has the beauty, all those things it takes to make the music so wonderful.
TP: Does it seem to you that he feeds off you a lot when you’re playing together?
WILLIAMS: I think we have a special thing. We’ve always had a visual thing together, because we can just look at each other sometimes…
TP: And know where the thing is going.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, we have some kind of a magic going. More so than with anybody else, when I play with other people.
TP: It’s been thirty years.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, that’s a long time. I think about that.
TP: Let’s analyze a bit the components of what he does that make him so exceptional. Is it any one of the things — his harmonic knowledge, his melodicism, his sense of rhythm. I guess it’s the whole thing, isn’t it.
WILLIAMS: Right, it’s all of that. What Barry has to me that a lot of other people don’t have is the depth of his playing and the sincerity and the beauty. He has all that. It’s the depth, the conviction, all of those things that make him so wonderful.
TP: Is he a man on a mission, do you think?
WILLIAMS: Oh, yes. [LAUGHS]
TP: What’s the mission?
WILLIAMS: The mission is beauty. The mission is to spread this… He believes in the music so much. That’s why he has this class… He believes in it so much. One time we came from Japan, and we did a two- or three-week tour over there. We got off the plane and this jet lag and everything was on everybody. I said, “Oh, man, I’m going home.” Barry said, “I’ve got to go to my class.” I said, “Are you going to your class now?” He said, “Yeah, man, I’ve got to go to the class; I can’t miss that.” When he said that, it’s just another thing about him; I said, “Man…”
TP: You have to match it.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I said, “Not today.” He said, “Yeah, I can make it.” But I’ll tell you, there’s another thing that makes me know how tolerant and patient Barry is. When he had the Jazz Cultural Theater he was coaching a singer, a girl, and she was pretty bad, and I sat and watched, and when he finished I said, “She was pretty rough,” and he said, “Man, you should have heard her last week.”
TP: He has a long-range perspective.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I said, “Man, okay…” So Barry is long-suffering, and he’s so dedicated. He’s the most dedicated person I’ve ever met really.
TP: What do you remember about when he began the Jazz Cultural Theater?
WILLIAMS: Well, that was something he always wanted to do. He was really up about it and he was happy about it. He wanted to have it there for the music and for the teaching also. It was like a dual thing. He wanted to have the classes and he wanted to perform. He was very adamant about not having any alcohol there. Barry’s into that, and he believes in that. He was very adamant. I know sometimes the rent would be due, and I’d say, “Why don’t you get some beer in here or something to make some money?” and he said, “No, I want to keep it cool, and I want the kids to come in and make sure they’re around a positive environment.” So that’s a part of him…
TP: Well, I guess he’s seen just about everything there is to see. What’s he like in recording sessions?
WILLIAMS: Barry is very relaxed. That’s how he plays. That’s who he is. He’s very relaxed, and things are pretty loose. He’s not too structured. The main part is the music. Some guys record and they want everything to be just so, but the inside is really what’s happening. But Barry is very relaxed in the studio. He’s relaxed, he’s confident and he knows what he wants to do.
TP: There’s an impression from people who don’t know him as being a sort of hard-assed purist.
WILLIAMS: No. I know what you mean, but no. Barry loves the music of that period, and so do I. I think it’s some of the most profound music that’s been on this planet. So purist? That music is deep and Barry is deep, and he realizes how great that music is.
TP: When you were coming up, Leroy, who were your role models musically? Were you on the Chicago music scene?
WILLIAMS: Yes, I was there. When I was growing up in Chicago, Johnny Griffin and all those guys were a little older than me, and those were the guys I listened to.
TP: Well, they were on the jukeboxes and all.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, Gene Ammons and those people were around. I met Wilbur Ware, Wilbur Campbell; all those guys were a little older than me. Those were the guys I looked up to. So I’m sure that’s why Barry and I… We come from the same place.
TP: Did you go to DuSable?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I went to DuSable High School.
TP: Any Captain Dyett anecdotes?
WILLIAMS: Actually, I wasn’t in the band. See, when I was in DuSable, I started taking music my second year. You had to be in the band four years. So when I attempted to join the band, Captain Dyett said, “Well, you have to have four years of band.” So I didn’t play under Captain Dyett. So he recommended a drum teacher for me named Oliver Coleman.
TP: Who played with Oliver Coleman. He taught Smitty Smith. He was a teacher for a long time.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, Oliver Coleman was a great guy. So Captain Dyett said, “You go see Oliver.” Me and Steve McCall! We took lessons from Oliver.
TP: When did you start gigging? I guess that had to be the mid and late ’50s.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, the late ’50s is when I started playing professionally?
TP: Was it a local thing? Did you play with people like Nicky Hill?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, pretty much. And (?) with all the guys. Wilbur Ware was a real influence on me. He was kind of a mentor in Chicago. He was a great bass player, and he kind of guided me away from things and not to things.
TP: Were you ever involved in any of the AACM activities in Chicago?
WILLIAMS: No, I wasn’t. But I was at the first meeting. I remember when it was formed, and I was at the very first meeting. I knew Muhal and a lot of the guys, but no, I wasn’t really in there. I was the other way. I was more into Bebop, for lack of a better word. I was more over there.
TP: I think a lot of them, for whatever reason, didn’t want to pursue that direction at that particular moment.
WILLIAMS: Well, I know Muhal was always a great musician. Muhal was the sort of musician who could do anything he wants to.
TP: How do you see Barry’s playing having changed over the years. I don’t mean in terms of his physical capacity so much as the evolution of his ideas and content and so forth.
WILLIAMS: Over the years, Barry has really grown. I don’t know if a lot of people can see it. I can see it and hear it. He might not play as much, as long as he used to. But what he plays now, he could probably put more in. He’s probably got himself condensed down to a point where he probably doesn’t have to… When I first heard him, he played long, fast and hard all the time. But as he’s gone on, just like anything else, you get to where “I don’t have to do all of that to say this!” So he’s grown in that way, and I think that’s the ideal way for most people.
TP: Do you think being around Monk had something to do with it?
WILLIAMS: Oh yeah. Monk was a spaceman.
TP: Well, it seems half Barry’s personality is the spaceman and half this eminently practical, pragmatic, utilitarian person, and he seems to have the two in perfect balance. Does that make sense?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Because he’s both of those. I know one time where we played a duo gig at Bradley’s, Barry and I. Usually the duo is piano and bass. Barry said, “Come on, man, we can do it.” So we played a gig for a week at Bradley’s, just Barry and I, and you talk about really free… Man, I was really free. I didn’t have to worry about no bass player… Oh, he kept going, reaching things I’d never heard him play before. He wasn’t restricted by a bass player, and he was free to do anything he wanted to do. It was a wonderful time.
TP: He did that wonderful solo record, too, Bird of Red and Gold. Would you say that was a highlight of your association with him?
WILLIAMS: That particular gig? Every time we play is a highlight. Barry never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes I play some of these old records, and I say, “Oh my God.” Barry is just amazing. I talk with some of his students, and they tell me, “I have this record of Barry playing Tadd Dameron,” and then I go home and listen to it, and I say, “Wow.” It’s beautiful. And Barry is beautiful. He’s like Tadd Dameron in that way. Tadd Dameron was a guy who just loved beauty, and Barry is that way.
TP: But at the same time, he’s also a theorist of jazz. Can you talk about the theoretical component of what he does?
WILLIAMS: Well, Barry had something worked out that he believes in. I don’t know exactly what it is, but he has a formula…
TP: So he’s into the mathematics of it as well.
WILLIAMS: Oh yes. He’s so orderly, and yet at the same time it’s free within that order. It’s really hard to describe in words, but when I play with him, I can hear it all. But he has a basic thing that he believes in.
TP: What do you think it is about the way you play that gives you such an affinity. I always heard you as one of the modern masters of Bebop, breaking up the rhythm, Kenny Clarke type of thing, and I always assumed that he and Max were your two role models.
WILLIAMS: Well, they were. All those guys, Philly Joe and Art Blakey…all those guys.
TP: But those are references I make when I…
WILLIAMS: That’s probably true, because I was into Max in the beginning, and Kenny Clarke, but naturally you try to get out of there, but the shit is so embedded…
TP: I guess if you’re playing with Barry, the idiomatic way to play that music… Billy Higgins is a Kenny Clarke man, too. I guess you and Higgins are the two drummers Barry likes the best, I think.
WILLIAMS: Well, that’s the language that we all grew up under. Billy and I are about the same age and came around at the same time, and you know, everything was happening at the same time. He was in California and I was in Chicago, but everything was in the air. So we drew from the same sources. So those are the things… Barry is a little older. Those are the things that make the music what it is, because we all come from the same place.
TP: Who are the pianists you played with in Chicago?
WILLIAMS: I played with Jodie Christian, and a pianist named Don Bennett I used to play with a lot, then a girl named Judy Roberts I played with a lot.
Don Schlitten on Barry Harris:
TP: When did you first hear Barry Harris and become aware of him?
SCHLITTEN: Well, being involved in this music since I was 12 or 13 years old, I was very aware of who was coming to New York to play. I don’t remember whether I saw him or heard him on record for the first time.
TP: Well, he got here in ’60, but he had that little recording flurry in ’56 when he recorded with Hank Mobley and the Thad Jones Blue Note record…
SCHLITTEN: Then I probably heard him at that time. In other words, I was very involved in all the new records that were coming out, going back to 78 days. That probably would have been my first hearing of him. Of course, I was always a Billy Mitchell fan, so that helped that particular situation.
TP: But he moved to New York I guess in the summer of ’60. Is that when you can remember seeing him on a regular basis, or what clubs they were?
SCHLITTEN: You are asking me about things that happened 40 years ago. It’s more than likely. I couldn’t swear to where and how, but I certainly did listen to the records, and probably saw him in various joints.
TP: Let me reorient the questioning to how you and he started to become professionally affiliated, and what qualities in your mind at that time made him such a felicitous sideman for the sound you were trying to bring out.
SCHLITTEN: Well, I think the first time we worked together was when we were at Prestige during my decade there, and I had… I’m trying to backtrack now. The first session that I think we did together was Bebop Revisited with Charles McPherson, so obviously I’d heard Barry before… At this point, I’ve convinced the powers-that-be of Charles McPherson. So obviously Barry had been heard by me, though he may have been with Riverside at the time, I don’t remember…
TP: Well, he’d just finished with Riverside, or Riverside had just shut down at the time he did that record or was about to, and he was working with Charles and Lonnie at that time.
SCHLITTEN: That’s right. And I was working with Carmell Jones, and I came up with this idea to play this music, the Classical repertoire for the music, and there was no better choice than he on the piano bench. I believe that was the first time we had worked together.
TP: So it was with Charles McPherson and some sessions with Dexter, Moody…
SCHLITTEN: Oh, they came on later.
TP: Right, they came on later. But does his style dovetail with your idea of presenting the classical repertoire of the music in its ’60s incarnation as it were?
SCHLITTEN: Well, that’s an interesting way to put it. He knew all the tunes. Everybody knows all the changes, but he also knew the melodies to these things. He had a certain way of comping and playing the changes that was inspiring to the cats who were playing this music, and he brought a certain kind of enthusiasm and joy which, as far as I’m concerned, is what makes jazz what it is, and turned the other cats on. So therefore, he became a very integral part of whatever it is that I was trying to present in terms of preserving this particular form of music. I always felt that that little difference that he had would inspire people who might not have been listed under the category of Bebop musicians, like Illinois Jacquet or somebody like that, but he would push that kind of thing and make those kinds of people play even better. And it seemed to work all the way down the line.
TP: So initially for you it was his comping and spirit. Did that also interest you in his own concept, in terms of Luminescence and Bull’s Eye and those dates.
SCHLITTEN: Well, yes. Then I loved the guy and I loved the music, and I wanted to present him in every way I could. Unfortunately, none of the people I worked with were really superstar sellers. I’m sure you’re aware that this music is not really commercially oriented. Some of the guys would do a little bit better than some other guys. Barry, unfortunately, did worse than anybody. Barry is the only artist I have ever worked with during all my years and knowledge of Prestige, which goes all the way back to 1949, that the company said, “Let’s give him the money we owe him rather than record him; his records don’t sell even that much.”
TP: Why do you think that was?
SCHLITTEN: I don’t know. There’s no way to explain any of that. You just put your heart and soul into the music and whatever it is that you’re doing, and you hope that somebody responds. Sometimes they respond and sometimes they don’t. Who knows about that? It’s some kind of weird magic.
TP: When I listen back to something like Luminescence or Bull’s Eye, I think he was getting his chops together as a small group arranger, and I think the trio and solo stuff was more his forte.
SCHLITTEN: Well, all that is possible. But you’re talking about an attitude of jazz fans at a certain time in history, which is certainly a different attitude than was presented 20 years before or 20 years later. How do you figure it? It’s weird. It’s weird, because sometimes there are some things that you say, “Shit, this is not right,” and then all of a sudden somebody says it’s great. Then by the same token you say, “Listen to this; this is fabulous,’ and somebody on the other hand has a long face and doesn’t hear it.
TP: You had a really ongoing association for about 18 years, and even longer than that. How did you see his playing grow and progress and his sensibility grow and progress through the years, whether or not it had anything to do with that steady recording and the situations he recorded in with you…
SCHLITTEN: Well, all of that adds to it. Life is full of experiences. Now, I would imagine that this person would never have played with half of the people that he played with had it not been for my producing those particular artists and using him as the pianist. I doubt very much whether he and Al Cohn would have gotten together, or he and Illinois Jacquet would have gotten together, or whatever. Part of my job is to try to create the proper atmosphere for the best music to be played, and one of the prime important parts of that is to create the proper band to play with. So it’s not only a musical meeting; it’s also a psychological meeting. Most of the time I would have to say, in all humility, it worked. Of all the things that I’ve tried to do in my lifetime, I seem to have done a pretty good job in that area.
TP: Let me just say, as far as the way he was playing in 1967, when he did Bullseye, or ’69 when he did Magnificent, and let’s say in ’76 when he did the Japanese tour and he’s doing that great record where he plays “Poco Loco” or Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron, to me, I hear a pianist who’s increased in confidence and lyricism and is more interpretive, and I wondered if you had any comments on that.
TP: What was his demeanor like during the sessions he did with you, particularly as a sideman?
SCHLITTEN: Oh, he always came to play.
TP: But how was he in relation to the other musicians? Did he sort of take charge of those sessions?
SCHLITTEN: Oh, no. It would depend on the people. That’s what jazz is all about. It would depend. Now, for instance, you could bring one guy in and he’s in charge of everything. You could bring another guy in, and you’re in charge of everything. And you could bring a third guy in, and he’s looking around for his colleagues to help him. So everybody is different, and depending on the mix of all your elements it will all be always different. The end result has to be that the music is cooking, that’s all. And my job would have to be to figure all that out in front.
TP: It seems he was adaptable to a wide range of situations and functions.
SCHLITTEN: Oh yes, that’s the beauty of it. That’s why we continued. That’s why it kept going. If at one point that didn’t work, then that was the end. But that’s how I felt about things. I’m painting a picture, and if the red isn’t red enough, then I’m going to go for orange or whatever it is.
TP: Do you feel he was head and shoulders over the other pianists who were available… Well, Jaki Byard you had a similar relationship with.
SCHLITTEN: That’s a different world. That’s a different kind of music.
TP: All I’m saying is that with what you were trying to do… Not that they were the only ones you used, but the two pianists who created that palette for you were Barry Harris and that very fertile period with Jaki Byard.
SCHLITTEN: Well, for what I was trying to do, Barry was the right pianist for certain projects and Jaki was the right pianist for other projects. I believed in both of them as talents that had been neglected, so I saw from a lot of press that Barry gets… Jaki never even got that. My karma was to do what I can to help these people, because I really believed in what they were doing. Other players were good players. I worked a lot with Tommy Flanagan…
TP: Like The Panther.
SCHLITTEN: Well, no, before that, the very first record I ever produced… Red Rodney worked with Tommy Flanagan, and the first record I produced at Prestige, Dave Pike Plays Oliver, Tommy Flanagan was on that. But Tommy, for whatever reason, didn’t need my help.
TP: Well, he was on the road with Ella, steadily employed.
SCHLITTEN: Well, whatever. Guys would come off the road and I’d use them, and sometimes I’d wait for somebody to come off the road if I felt that was the right person for whatever it was I was doing. But the point I was trying to make was that he didn’t need my help, whereas I felt both Jaki and Barry did need my help, and if I didn’t do what I did, who knows how their lives would have evolved.
TP: I’d like you to talk about conceiving some of the trio projects you did with him, particularly for Xanadu, and also the MPS date that’s never been issued here.
SCHLITTEN: Well, Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron is probably the most popular Barry Harris record in Japan, and has been from its inception. Now, here’s a perfect example, why the Japanese jazz people hook up onto something and never let go… It’s another story; just another one of those magical things. But they hooked up onto this record, and it’s just been released again on CD in Japan with a new licensee that we have, and this is about the fourth or fifth time. Every time they do it, they get the seal of approval and etcetera, etc.
Now, as far as my personal tastes are concerned, I would say that’s one of my favorites. I do, however, like Live in Tokyo, very-very much. A lot of that has to do with the interplay with the bass player and the drummer. Now, the drummer is always Leroy, because Leroy is absolutely perfect. So the bass player is the moving force really. So depending on the bass player, that will, in its own way, turn Barry around, in, out or whatever, and also in terms of notes and also in terms of the sound of the recording. So if you like a light bass, then you probably would like Gene Taylor more than you would George Duvivier. So all those things are just parts of the puzzle, and they work differently. A lot of it depends on your personal taste.
TP: But each of those records has a certain type of narrative going on. With Tadd Dameron it’s a rumination on a certain compositional and sound aesthetic, when he’s doing his own compositions there’s a more exploratory aesthetic going on, and Live In Tokyo is more of a jam session.
SCHLITTEN: Well, I don’t know about that. In Tokyo, he’s really playing Bud Powell. So if you want to call it a recital, that’s okay, but I always think of it as Barry’s Bud Powell album. So when you think of the albums we made, it’s Tadd, Bud, and Barry. Or that’s how I did think of them then.
TP: Did you think of Barry when you first heard him as a personal, idiomatic stylist unto himself, or as someone who was very indebted to other stylists, particularly Bud Powell?
SCHLITTEN: I don’t really think he was. That’s why I think his Riverside records are great if you love the music and you love him, but they’re not really special — because I don’t think he had found himself yet. And I don’t think he found himself until he had dug deeper into the history of the repertoire or whatever it is, and I think that’s what was taking place in the second half of the ’60s, when we were working together. I don’t think that was the case early on. I remember seeing him with Yusef Lateef way back when, and I remember he recorded with Yusef Lateef in the early ’60s or late ’50s, I don’t remember, and his touch wasn’t as heavy. He has very tiny hands. He needed to develop a little heavier touch, and he also needed to get recorded properly. And some of those people at Riverside and at Blue Note, especially Rudy Van Gelder, they recorded everybody the same, and every piano player has a different touch, and therefore every piano player needs to be recorded a little differently — which is why I left Rudy Van Gelder. It wasn’t until we started working with other engineers that I felt his touch started to get better, and I think by hearing himself and hearing that, he started to get better. Because what happens is, you turn yourself on! When you’re playing the tune, you go listen to the take, you listen to yourself, and sometimes you inspire yourself. Sometimes you can depress yourself, too! But all of that adds up. It’s life. Those are the experiences of life. We’re focusing down now on a piano player, but it’s really life. It’s the different experiences — the sounds, the people, the time, how you feel. If your foot hurts you’re not going to play as well as if your foot doesn’t hurt. So all that comes into play.
* * *
Charles McPherson on Barry Harris:
TP: When do you first remember encountering Barry Harris? Was it those days as a teenager going by the Bluebird?
McPHERSON: Yes, it was. I lived right around the corner from Barry, and I met Barry when I was about maybe 15. I had already been introduced to jazz, and I knew that this club called the Bluebird was down the street and featured jazz music. This was during the time when I was going down there, standing out, looking inside, looking in the window and listening outside the door. That’s when I met Barry, because he was the house piano player who was working at the Bluebird. I met him that way, and then I knew he lived around the corner. One day I was walking down the street, me and another musician, and I saw where his house was, and then I spoke to him. He told us, “Well, you guys need to learn your scale” — because he had heard us play. We had already sat in at the club. Because the owner let us sit in if we’d bring our parents over. This was during the time that Miles Davis was living in Detroit for a couple of years, and Miles was actually working at the Bluebird.
TP: Do you remember that time? Was it late ’53-early ’54?
McPHERSON: Oh, sure. This is when Miles stayed in Detroit a couple of years, right then. So we sat in, and Barry said, “Well, you guys don’t really know about theory and harmony and all that; you need to know about these things.” So we started coming over to his house, and that’s how it started.
TP: This was after you’d heard Charlie Parker and were serious about it.
TP: What’s his teaching like? Why is he so good as a teacher?
McPHERSON: Well, I think he likes what he’s doing, and then he’s knowledgeable, and he has conceived of a certain methodology of giving the information. It’s hard to do it without using technical terms. But I can say that he just had a certain method in showing certain things about chord changes and how to look at them and how to think about them, and then how to use them. It was kind of his way of… Because of how he had thought about it, and he came up with this method of teaching, pretty much like the Suzuki method, when little kids learn how to play. It’s just a methodology of teaching, knowledge that’s being taught by other means, other ways. But he has his little way of thinking about certain things, and he thought it facilitated the person to play better, faster.
TP: Was it oriented towards Bebop playing?
McPHERSON: Oh, no. It was just music. Dealing with improvisation. So really, it’s about chord changes — dominant 7ths, that kind of thing.
TP: So he had a theory of improvising that he was able to impart to young musicians.
McPHERSON: Yes. Or this would lead to improvising. It’s just a way of looking at things.
TP: What sort of manner did he have with you?
McPHERSON: Well, he was kind of fatherly. When I look back on it, it’s ridiculous; he was 25 years old! But I guess maybe like a big brother or something. What happened was that Barry’s house was kind of a hub of activity with the musicians. A lot of musicians would come over and play. Because he worked at night at this club, and in the daytime he was free, and he just practiced and played music all day long, then at night he’d go to work. So in the daytime anybody might come by there. I was over there every other day or every day, and then people would come in town… One time Coltrane came in town with Miles. Now, this is after Miles had left and got really kind of strong out there, and then he had the band with Trane and Cannonball and all that — and one time Trane was over there. Because traveling musicians would know to go over to Barry’s house. There was always something happening there.
TP: So it was like an ongoing workshop and blowing and…
McPHERSON: Yeah. Guys would come over and play.
TP: Talk about some of your contemporaries, too, who were going there at that point. Trace your development in terms of being at his house.
McPHERSON: Well, Lonnie Hillyer, a trumpet player who eventually played with Mingus. Paul Chambers. Roy Brooks, the drummer who worked with Horace for a while.
TP: And Lou Hayes was the same age about.
McPHERSON: A few years older but essentially the same age. It was almost everybody, almost all of the Detroit younger people that age.
TP: So basically, that quality of his where he’s always established followings and groups of people around him begins then, basically — and even before.
McPHERSON: Yeah, that’s true.
TP: Do you think he’s a natural teacher?
McPHERSON: Yeah, I think so. And he’s a real good piano player. You know, most piano players are very knowledgeable, and he certainly is. I don’t know, he was always a guy who seemed to like to experiment or theorize about things, especially about harmony and so on. And Paul Chambers, Doug Watkins, those guys… It was just a scene over to his house. Sometimes it was just talking or just hanging, but most of the time some kind of music was going on.
TP: It seems like the Detroit guys came out professional. If there’s one common thing, you absorbed the language and came out professional. No nonsense.
McPHERSON: Yeah, no-nonsense and intelligent. [LAUGHS] In other words, for sure there is a certain logic in their playing for the most part. The improvisation is very logical, how they connect things together. The connections.
TP: Talk about how the relationship continued once you were both in New York. You recorded together quite a bit from ’64 to ’76.
McPHERSON: Well, I did start working with Mingus in 1960, and Barry was doing whatever he was doing, working with other people, so Barry and I didn’t really… Well, we saw each other and all that, but there wasn’t much going on between us. Then maybe in the middle ’60s or late ’60s is when we started working together again. We were in a group with George Coleman, Lonnie, myself, and different drummers coming in and out of there, and Peck Morrison on bass.
TP: You did Live At the Five Spot in ’64, then there’s McPherson’s Mood from ’68 or so. Those document ongoing playing, but it wasn’t necessarily a steady working group. It was more about being kind of in parallel on the New York scene.
McPHERSON: Well, we did work. We didn’t work as steadily as we would want, but we did work. We worked at Minton’s a lot in the late ’60s, before it closed. We worked at Boomer’s on Bleecker and Christopher. In Brooklyn we worked at the Blue Coronet. So we worked around New York. We did road gigs. We did gigs in Baltimore for the Jazz Society up there…
TP: Talk about improvising with Barry comping.
McPHERSON: Again, there’s a certain kind of musical intelligence that a lot of Detroit piano players have, with Hank Jones and Tommy and that kind of thing. Barry is one of those guys. His comp is very rhythmic. I know he tries for the symbiosis. It’s very symbiotic with the horn players. He’s listening. I would say that the comp is pretty much like a drummer’s snare drum comp. He’s very good at that actually. There’s different ways to do it. Some people aren’t as sympathetic or as complementary. But he does… At least with the way that I phrase, I guess, so it works for us.
TP: It sounds to me like his solos come organically out of what the previous soloist is doing. He’s very ensemble oriented.
McPHERSON: Yes, at least the first couple of bars, which is a good musical thing to do — to allude to the last soloist.
TP: So there’s continuity.
McPHERSON: Right. And from there, you kind of… That’s a nice thing to do. It’s a very good musical thing to do.
TP: Can you say a few sentences about what he has meant to you, and his impact, and his position in the musical community?
McPHERSON: Sure. Well, I owe so much to him in terms of just helping me establish a real firm foundation just on a musical level, and also technically in terms of harmony and theory and chord changes and scales and that kind of thing. But also, he instituted a certain kind of musical intelligence for me in terms of taste and musicality. I was shown also, beside all these technical things, that certain things were not to be indulged in in terms of, like, corny phrases. You always try to be musically honest. Don’t use technique just for the sake of using technique, but try to use the emotionality along with analysis. Technique is just a means to an end, not the end. All these things that are important. Some people never learn it, don’t really know, have no concept at all. But things like that. Like, technique is wonderful, but it’s just a means to an end — it’s not the end. Technique is just to facilitate your total musical thing, but it’s not like you indulge in pyrotechnics just to impress. So the elements of good taste and musical discretion…even though subjective in some sort of way from his musical point of view, but everything is that, I guess.
Those kind of things were taught to me and I learned that, too, as well as what a C-minor-7th is. And also he did something which has nothing to do with music, but then it does have something to do with music. He took an interest in my schoolwork. I would come to his home after school, and one day he saw my report card, and he saw that my card was quite average. There was nothing spectacular about; it wasn’t bad, but kind of average. He looked at it and he said, “Let me see your report card. You got your card today. Let me see what kind of marks you got.” Then he said, “Well, that’s okay, man, but that’s some real average stuff. You know, all your heroes, like Charlie Parker, those guys were everything but average.” And the minute he said that, it was like…
TP: He knew how to push your button.
McPHERSON: Yeah, he really got… I’d never thought of that, and I never cared about really trying hard. My whole thing at that point was just do enough to get through and, you know… But when he said that… He said, “Charlie Parker might be kind of a bad boy in society, he’s doing a lot of things that’s not cool, but I’m gonna tell you, on the intellectual level the guy is brilliant.” Charlie Parker could sit down and talk to people about absolutely anything. I didn’t know that. I just knew a little bit about his music. I didn’t know about Bird’s persona. And that indeed was true. Bird was a guy who could sit down and talk to people about science or anything. He was a real self-taught, book-reader type guy. He knew everything about modern art. He could look at paintings and tell who painted it and all that stuff. He was way ahead of a lot of musicians when it came to things other than music, because he was a guy that sort of read a lot. And I didn’t know that.
So Barry really instilled in me to try… In other words, the hipper your intellectual thing is, the more you know, then the more you have to play about, the more there is to play, because you’re playing your life, your experiences. Well, I had never thought of it like that. Well, that changed my whole concept of school. He said, “All those cats are brilliant, man. You can’t be an average guy or a stupid guy playing this kind of music — not this kind of music. There’s too much shit going on.” You have to really become agile to play to this level. For that level of playing music, there’s some stuff required. You’d better tighten up your stuff.
TP: How long has it been since you played with him?
McPHERSON: Oh, I played a gig with him maybe a year ago. I don’t play with him steadily, of course, but there’s always occasions.
Anyway, from that point on, I actually turned my life around school-wise. I became like an honors student overnight. The teachers could not believe that! They were used to seeing me just being a certain way. I was in my home room class, and the teacher looked at the card, and she said, “Is this your card?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “You got…” I actually got all A’s. It was easy. From that point on, I learned how to do that without being all day doing homework, I could rip it off — it just changed my whole life. From that point on I started reading books. I had never read a book all the way through, but shoot, by the time I was 18 or 19 I had read all of Henry Miller’s books, I had read The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich…
So Barry did more than just music for me. He opened a whole intellectual curiosity that changed me also. So he’s a very interesting character.