For the 82nd birthday of the great pianist-teacher Barry Harris, I’m posting a feature article that DownBeat gave me the opportunity to write in 2000. I’m appending an early draft — the print copy is a thousand words shorter, much of them from long quotes. Going for info here over style.
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The pianist Barry Harris will be 71 this year, and when he talks, musicians listen. “You know what happens with me?” he asks rhetorically. “I can tell you, ‘Oh, if you’re doing that, you should do this, too; if you don’t do that, you ought to do this.’ I’ve been doing that for years. I’m not the catalyst. People are the catalyst, and I’m the agent. I can come up with things that we need to learn. Don’t ask me where it comes from. It comes through me, whatever it is.”
Harris developed his sagacious, homegrown philosophy and spot-on hip persona in the take-care-of-business atmosphere of post-Depression Detroit, where his peer group included hothouse flowers who developed into some of the most notable improvisers of the ’50s and ’60s — pianists Tommy Flanagan, Terry Pollard and Roland Hanna; trumpeters Thad Jones and Donald Byrd; saxophonists Billy Mitchell, Frank Foster, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Red and Pepper Adams; the guitarist Kenny Burrell; the harpist Dorothy Ashby; bassists Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers; and drummers Elvin Jones and Frank Gant.
“Most of us grew up playing in church, where my mother started me,” Harris reminisces. “I studied classical with a preacher named Neptune Holloway, who quite a few of us took lessons from, and also Mrs. Lipscomb, which was in a private home. Tommy Flanagan and I took lessons from Gladys Dillard; we were on a recital together one time. My mother was a very gentle and beautiful person, and one day she asked me whether I wanted to play church music or jazz. I said, ‘I’ll play jazz,’ and she was cool with that.
“We didn’t have any schools to go to like people do now. We started out taking things off records, and there were people around us who could play. Recently I’ve become reacquainted with Berry Gordy; at Northeastern High School, the two boogie-woogie piano players were Berry Gordy and Barry Harris. We might have got messed up when Theodore Shieldy [Sheeley] came to town from Georgia and went to the school; he not only played better boogie-woogie, but he could improvise. So could a cat named Will Davis. Now, I could chord when I was a teenager, maybe 13-14-15, but I didn’t solo too well. I lived on the East Side of Detroit, and I started going over to the West Side where the cats maybe couldn’t chord as well as me, but they could solo. When I was 17 a blind girl named Bess Bonnier who’s a very good piano player loaned me a record player that had a device that allowed you to play the record in any key you wanted all the way through. The first thing I learned how to play was ‘Webb City’ with Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt!”
Struck by the bebop bug, Harris and his cohorts absorbed and painstakingly examined records by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker as they came out. “We were beboppers,” he declares. “That’s all. Bebop was a real revelation for us, a musical revelation. It was like a renaissance. I was born in 1929, and I became a teenager in the ’40s. So while someone like Jaki Byard, who became a teenager in the ’30s, learned more about the Stride, Art Tatum and Earl Hines, we heard Al Haig, Bud Powell and George Shearing, who were different than the stride piano players. So we aren’t the best of stride piano players; there’s no kind of way!”
According to Flanagan, “Barry always had a nice dynamic attack and approach to the piano. He was quick to get hip to Bud Powell, devoted more time to that style than anyone else on the scene then. He took it another step. 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.”
“I sat in with Bird at least three or four times,” Harris reveals. “His band was late one time for a dance one time at the Graystone Ballroom, so we played just one song with him during the first set — a blues in C. He was beautiful to us. The best experience that I always tell people is a time he was playing a dance with strings at a roller rink called the Forest Club. We stood in front, and the strings started, and when he started playing chills started at your toes, and went on through your body — orgasms, everything imaginable. It’s really a spoiler. I don’t like to go listen to people because I’m expecting somebody to make me feel like that. Bud Powell is important to me; I’m more a Charlie Parker disciple, even more so now.” (Later, Harris performed with a virtual Bird on “April in Paris” and “Laura” in the Clint Eastwood film, “Bird.”)
Before attaining his majority, Harris worked high school dances and various other functions at Detroit’s numerous dance halls — the Graystone, the Mirror, the Grand. “We played for our contemporaries. We played for shake dancers, we played shuffle rhythm, we played rhythm-and-blues. All of it was part of the deal. I would go to the dance, stand in back of the piano player and steal a couple of chords, then go home and learn how to play them. 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.’ Well, separating the music from dancing might have been the biggest drag that ever happened to us. We knew how to dance.”
Harris worked various venues around the Motor City, including a 1953-54 run as house pianist at a corner bar adjoining an auto repair shop and a supermarket with a good soul food kitchen and a major-league music policy in the heart of Detroit’s West Side called the Bluebird Lounge. Flanagan—who vacated the post when he entered the Army—recalls the scene: “There were a lot of musicians on the West Side, and even the laymen were very hip; when the Bluebird started having music it attracted a lot of the people who wanted to be on the scene. People like the pianist Philip Hill, Thad Jones, Billy Mitchell, and Frank Foster had bands in there, and they started bringing in guest saxophonists like Wardell Gray or Sonny Stitt. Fine musicians always worked in the club, including the best Detroit musicians, and people like Joe Gordon, Clifford Brown, and Miles Davis.”
Among the highlights of Harris’ Bluebird tenure were a brief 1953 stint with Davis, who was living in Detroit (“I might have been the first to play ‘Solar’,” he notes offhandedly), and an extended engagement with Yusef Lateef and Elvin Jones. “The Bluebird was a very special place, man,” he stresses. “You know how Marvin Gaye sang ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’? I think there was truth to it. The Bluebird closed as 2 o’clock. At 1:30 Sarah Vaughan or Bird would come in, and do you know what? You didn’t see people running to the phones, but within ten minutes that joint would be packed with people. There were a couple of bars like that. I played in another called the Bowlodrome, which was a bowling alley that had a bar, with Frank Rosolino — that might have been one of the first steady gigs I had.”
With the exception of a few months on the road with Max Roach after Clifford Brown died in 1956 (sideman recordings that year with Thad Jones on Blue Note and Hank Mobley on Prestige), Harris spent the remainder of the 1950s in Detroit, working week-long gigs at area showcases like the River Lounge and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge with solo acts like Lester Young, Flip Phillips and Nancy Wilson, and building an almost mythical reputation as a piano guru that spread outside home turf.
“I might have known a little bit more than the rest,” he remarks. “I don’t know if I was more schooled. As far as playing Classical, I think Tommy Flanagan was more schooled than me; he and Kenny Burrell were the hippest bebop players around. I was very quiet and kind of the shy cat. Wasn’t no sports. I was a piano player! ‘Down Beat’ in 1958 had a yearbook with a picture of Paul Chambers on half a page; they’re talking about the Midwest, and they say, ‘Mostly all the musicians who come from Detroit come from Barry Harris.’ My mother had a flat where she let us play all day, and my house was like a mecca. When piano players came to town, they’d look for me because they’d heard about me. 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.”
Frequenting the Harris salon were young, information-hungry musicians like Joe Henderson, Louis Hayes, Roy Brooks, Paul Chambers, Lonnie Hillyer and Charles McPherson. “I lived right around the corner from Barry, and I met him when I was about 15.” McPherson recollects, “Barry had heard me sitting in at the Bluebird, where the owner would let us sit in if we brought our parents over, and he told me, ‘You need to learn your scales.’ I started coming over to his house after school. Barry’s house was a hub of activity. He practiced and played music all day long, when anybody might come by, then at night he’d go to work. Traveling musicians always knew to go to Barry’s house. One time Coltrane came over when he was in town with Miles and Cannonball.
“I owe so much to him for helping me establish a firm musical foundation, and technically in terms of harmony and theory and chord changes and scales. But also, he instilled in me a certain kind of musical intelligence in terms of taste and musical discretion — to try always to be musically honest, to use the emotions along with analysis, that technique is wonderful but it’s just a means to facilitate your musical conception, and not the end-all and be-all. One day he saw my report card, and noticed that it was quite average. He said, ‘All your heroes, like Charlie Parker, are everything but average. Charlie Parker might be kind of a bad boy in society, he’s doing a lot of things that’s not cool, but on the intellectual level the guy is brilliant. All those cats are brilliant, man. You can’t be an average or stupid guy playing this kind of music.’ I had never thought of it like that. From that point on, I actually turned my life around school-wise. I became like an honors student overnight. I started reading books. So Barry really instilled in me the notion of intellectual curiosity, that the hipper your intellectual thing is, the more there is to play — because you’re playing your life, your experiences.”
Harris left Detroit in 1960 to join Cannonball Adderley, who recruited him for Riverside records and brought him to New York — where, as he puts it, “a lot of cats knew about me before I knew about them” — for good. He settled in an unheated cold-water loft on Broad Street in the Financial District, and after a shaky sort — a bout with pneumonia — hit the ground running, finding places to practice, working occasional gigs with people like Yusef Lateef, Lee Morgan, later with Wes Montgomery and Charles McPherson at the Five Spot, Minton’s and Boomer’s. He found various duo sinecures at joints like Junior’s Bar on 52nd Street, down the block from Birdland, where big band and studio musicians would hang out to drink.
During the ’60s Harris, mentor to so many, found two of his own, forming friendships with Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins, to whom he remained close until the end of their lives. Curiously, Harris reveals, “I didn’t pay that much attention to Monk when I was getting started; Monk might have sounded very hard. But you heard the most beautiful melodies; his songs you wanted to know, like the first recording of ‘Round Midnight’ when Bud was with Cootie Williams. Monk showed me ‘Round Midnight’ one time, which is why I get mad when people play it — they play the changes so wrong. Cats try to take it all out and everything, but he did it real simple — three notes sometimes. You gradually grew into Monk if you dealt with Bud Powell; you could tell Monk had influenced him, and you would be influenced by Monk. Monk was odder than all the rest. He did unorthodox things, not the regular, run-of-the-mill stuff.”
The Baroness Pannonica de Konigswater, who Harris met soon after arriving in New York, was a long-standing friend to Monk and Hawkins, and helped facilitate his relationships with the avatars. “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,” Harris says. “That might have been when I first met him. Later I’d go with the Baroness by his house, and we’d pick him up and all three go someplace. Monk was an odd fellow. He didn’t waste any conversation. Monk never wasted words — or notes. That was like his music. And that’s really true, too. 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. Monk danced a lot. He would sit behind the piano, and suddenly throw his hand out way at the top of the piano to hit a note. That note was hit. The way he would play a whole tone scale coming down, I don’t know if anybody ever played like that before!
“Monk was hipper than most of the jazz musicians today. Monk didn’t practice practicing. Monk practiced playing — sitting at the piano, play in tempo one tune by himself for 90 minutes. I lived with Monk for ten years, and one day he said, ‘Come on, let’s play the piano.’ Monk started playing ‘My Ideal.’ 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. He was a very special kind of cat.”
Monk probably learned “My Ideal” during his mid-’40s tenure with Coleman Hawkins on 52nd Street; Harris played with Hawkins extensively from 1965 until Hawkins died in 1969. “I put him in the hospital when he died,” Harris recalls. “He didn’t want to go, but I had to put him in. I had gone to live with him on 97th Street, and he had gotten too heavy for me to move him around. He was a recoverer. He might overdo things a bit, and then he’d cool out and he’d recover and he’d be all right. It just happened this time he didn’t recover.
“I can remember the first time I sat in with Coleman Hawkins; he was playing at the Five Spot. He called some tune that I knew the melody to, and I figured I could figure out the chords. So we played it, and all he said was, ‘Doggone it, another goddamn Detroit piano player!’ [LAUGHS] I felt lucky to have worked with him, because he gave me a different outlook on things. One time he called out ‘All The Things You Are,’ and after he played I just said, ‘Oh my goodness.’ He would play a phrase, 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! 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. We 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.
“He had a special philosophy. For one thing he would always say he never played chords; he played movements. I’m a firm believer that the key thing is how you go from one place to another. One should know how to go to the relative minor, how to come back from the IV to the I, all these different little things that young cats don’t really know nowadays. A lot of horn players, unfortunately, sit at the piano, hit one chord and then another, think it’s hip, and decide to write a melody on it. They’re missing the boat, because what they’ve done is learn to melodize harmonies as opposed to harmonize melodies, and most people don’t remember a thing you played. Music is more than that. Music is movement. You have to play a chord that moves. Once you know more about movement, then you can venture away from it.”
Harris still lives in De Konigswater’s home, facing the west bank of the Hudson River with a spectacular Manhattan skyline view, and he speaks of her with reverent reticence. “She was beautiful towards musicians,” he says. “All the musicians knew it, too. She probably helped us all in some kind of way. One of the greatest ways she helped us, I think, people would walk by a jazz club and see her Bentley or Rolls-Royce parked out in front, and they’d come into the club to see who was in there with this Rolls-Royce or Bentley. Up in Harlem, they protected that car. She could park any place up there, in front of Wells, in front of Smalls Paradise, in front of Minton’s. She never locked the trunk or the glove compartment, and nobody ever touched it. She was a jazz lover. That’s no stuff. She was one of our assets.”
Harris recorded four strong sessions for Riverside, including “Live At the Jazz Workshop,” which is a bible of trio playing for a number of younger pianists. When the label folded in 1964, Harris began to do business on a handshake basis with A&R man Don Schlitten, for whom he recorded steadily, both as leader of a series of increasingly personal, poetic recitals and as the penultimate sideman, prodding the likes of Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Heath, Sonny Stitt, Al Cohn, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Criss, Red Rodney and McPherson to superb performances on dates for Prestige, MPS, Muse and Xanadu until the early ’80s.
“He knew all the tunes,” Schlitten comments. “Everybody knows all the changes, but he also knew the melodies. 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. 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. It seemed to work all the way down the line.”
Harris began teaching formally during the mid-’70s with Jazz Interactions, an non-profit organization run by the trumpeter Joe Newman and his wife Rigmor; his classes became so popular that Harris eventually started his own school, the Jazz Cultural Theater, on 28th Street and 8th Avenue. Picking up where he’d left off on his Detroit home sessions, JCT became Harris’ New York platform for articulating his palpably unorthodox theories. “I believe in scales,” he says. “I don’t mean a whole lot of scales, like most people. I wanted to pay attention to the pentatonic scales and so forth, but my thoughts have changed since I started. I believe in the dominant 7th scale. The question becomes to figure out how to apply it to everything that one runs into — and one can. I am more of the opinion now that if you give students a little basic harmony, to go from one place to the other, and then combine that basic harmony with the scales, one will be on the right track to teach.
“I don’t know if there are too many teachers on the right track. They have our young now learning these funny songs that don’t have movement, so young people all over the world aren’t even getting a chance to learn to play. 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. But because people are playing their original music, we can’t have the jam session thing too much. I could go up and play when Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins were playing, because they’re going to play something I know. There’s a bunch of standards that everybody in the world should know, like ‘How High The Moon’ or ‘Just You, Just Me.’ Young people nowadays don’t even have a chance to go to a jam session. That’s why when I had my place, I tried to keep a jam session going every Wednesday night, even though it never was anything.
“With a lot of the young people, 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 like they play. 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. The pianists can’t play two-handed chords; they think that the right hand is just for single notes — and that’s bull. Whoever taught them that and whoever came up with it is full of stuff. This music is two-handed music. 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.”
Harris’ pessimistic prognostications belie his actions, which are those of a profoundly optimistic man. “I’m older now, and I don’t know how much longer I have,” he says. “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. Hopefully, some of it will win out in the end. See, I know some of the stuff I pass on is right. 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. 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. They tell us about augmented ninths, but they don’t know that augmented ninths comes from a scale. 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.
“The more you find out about music, the more you believe in God, too. This isn’t haphazardly put together. This stuff is exact. It’s a science, 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. 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.
“You learn from teaching. I have my students trying to catch up to me, and I insist that they don’t. It really keeps me on my toes, because I ain’t gonna let ‘em catch up to me.”