To mark the 70th birthday of the magnificent pianist-composer-conceptualist-educator Kenny Barron, who made it to the big leagues of jazz at 18, not long after he moved to New York, and has remained there ever since, I’m posting a pair of interviews we did on WKCR — a Musician’s Show in 1991 and an appearance promoting a week in a club in 2004. I’m also putting up the first of two interviews I conducted with the maestro for a DownBeat profile—which leads this entry—that I pitched and was given the opportunity to write in 2005.
Kenny Barron Downbeat Article:
The wall of windows behind the bandstand of Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Room revealed a twilit tableau of Central Park treetops and the Fifth Avenue skyline as pianist Kenny Barron, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Mino Cinelu prepared to begin set one of the Kenny Barron Festival last April. Barron put down his glass of red wine, cocked his head slightly to the left, and began to play “Prelude To A Kiss.” He spun out flowing rubato variations on the melody, imparting to his lines the joyous ache of romance, then brightened the tempo and stated a kinetic Caribbean beat as he painstakingly built the arc to ecstatic resolution.
As the sky turned indigo, and the lights of Fifth Avenue twinkled in the distance, Barron sustained the Spanish tinge with discursive three-way dialogues on “All Blues,” a tune he played frequently during a lengthy ‘70s stint with Ron Carter, and “Calypso,” a lively original that he first recorded on a 1981 solo album for Xanadu. Then he parsed the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Shuffle Boil,” and embarked on a solo tour de force, conjuring luscious voicings atop a rock solid stride to complement the long, fluid, melodic lines he carved out with his right hand, deviating slightly in tempo and inflection from a version that appears on The Perfect Set, a new release on Sunnyside that documents an April 1996 engagement at Bradley’s, the saloon that was then New York’s sine qua non for piano jazz.
Thus inspired, Barron concluded the set with “Madman,” built on a fourth interval theme constructed around a bass line he heard in his teens from Hassan Ibn Ali, a famously eccentric Philadelphia pianist who regularly came to Barron’s house to practice with his older brother, Bill Barron, a tenor saxophonist with a taste for navigating the outer partials. He channeled the into-the-wild-blue-yonder side of Bud Powell, engaging in intense rhythmic dialogue with Cinelu; at the end, he announced that this was his first public performance of the tune, which he recorded in duo with Roy Haynes on Wanton Spirit [Verve] in 1995; he deviated from the record by adding a free, rubato coda.
The festival lasted three weeks, and Barron framed himself each week within a different sonic environment. He shared the stage with Cinelu for the remainder of week one, joined by bassist George Mraz and kora player Abou M’Boop on nights three and four, and Mraz and guitarist Romero Lubambo on the final two evenings. During week two, Barron addressed hardcore, straight-ahead modern jazz, assembling a crackling sextet, fueled by drummer Victor Lewis, to interpret his fire-to-romance compositions. For the final week, Barron recruited Drummond and drummer Grady Tate to form a Bradley’s style “classic” trio.
Throughout the engagement, Barron followed the imperatives of the moment, resolving audacious ideas with the panache, in the words of Victor Lewis, of “a cat who always lands on his feet.”
“The rhythms were all over the place,” Barron said of week one. “I don’t think we played anything straight-ahead, which forced me to play other things. We started with no preconceived ideas or notions, and the tunes went whichever way they went.”
“What always surprises me about Kenny is his apparent nonchalance and very casual approach, and yet the tiger within,” said Cinelu. In 1996 he and Barron collaborated on Swamp Sally [Verve], a free-form electro-acoustic project on which Barron referenced an exhaustively global lexicon of strategies and attacks.
Swamp Sally is one of a string of Barron recordings since 1992 on which French producer Jean-Philippe Allard encouraged Barron—now a serial poll-winner and Grammy-nomintee, but then typecast as a bop-oriented sideman supreme—to allow his imagination to roam, and paved the way for him to assume his present stature as a distinguished jazz elder. These albums include a kaleidoscopic duo with violinist Regina Carter; two recitals of Barron’s Brazil-inflected compositions, including Canta Brasil, a 2002 encounter with Trio de Paz; and several venturesome quintets and sextets comprising diverse personnels and instrumental configurations, most recently Images, with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, flutist Anne Drummond, and drummer Kim Thompson, all young stars on the rise.
Barron infuses each of these recordings with a spirit of spontaneity, human warmth and dance-like grace that often eludes musicians who possess his surfeit of technique.
“Kenny knows how to play inside the drums, and make the drummer sound good,” says Danilo Perez, a keen student of Barron’s music. “He knows how to syncopate—how to jab behind the beat for a swing feel, and jab on top, pushing it just like a Latino. With the Brazilians, he plays the subdivisions pretty much in their style. He’s a master of knowing what to do at the right time, whomever he’s playing with.”
“I like music, and I like all of it,” Barron stated. “I don’t want to be put in any kind of pigeonhole, even though I’m sure I am. Ideally, in one set I can go through everything. One song might come out as straight bebop, the next may go outside or be Brazilian. You don’t know what it sounds like until it reveals itself, so to speak. I like not-knowing. That’s the fun. Let’s see where it goes. I don ‘t think I need to go to school and study Brazilian music for three or four years. I just need to LISTEN to it, and respond whatever way I can.
“As you get older, you start to give yourself permission to make a mistake. There’s another chorus coming! You can try it again. Whether you make it or not, you’ve got to reach. Very interesting things can develop through that process.”
* * * * * *
Barron bedrocks his predisposition for risk on a strong foundation in the jazz tradition, which he absorbed first hand as a Philadelphia teenager. “Bud Powell is at the core of what I do,” he said, citing Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and McCoy Tyner as other strong formative influences. At the top of Barron’s list, however, is Tommy Flanagan. The infatuation began in ninth grade, when a friend brought the 1956 Miles Davis-Sonny Rollins recording of “In Your Own Sweet Way,” on which Flanagan sidemanned, for their art class to paint to.
“I stopped painting,” Barron recalls. “It was so crystal clear, and the touch was so light, so delicate. I fell in love with Tommy’s playing right then and there. Nothing tugs on my heartstrings the way Tommy could.”
Within several years, on Bill Barron’s say-so, Philly’s finest were calling the youngster for cabaret gigs at Elks Clubs and Masonic Lodges, as well as some less savory venues. “I remember an after-hours place called the Northwest Club where I played with Jimmy Heath, Mickey Roker and (bassist) Arthur Harper,” says Barron, who recalls playing until 3, taking the last bus home, and waking up for 8 a.m. classes. “The rhythm section had to play a show, and there wasn’t always rehearsal. I played for singers, comedians, shake dancers and tap dancers—a lot of standards, songs based on ‘I Got Rhythm’ and rhythm-and-blues. It taught me how to listen and helped me with musical language. It prepared me for New York, where I still had to do those kind of gigs. I didn’t start working at Birdland right away.”
In point of fact, Birdland was the site of Barron’s first New York gig—a Monday night in 1961 with his brother and Ted Curson. Not long after, he hit the majors on jobs with Roy Haynes, Lou Donaldson, and James Moody, In 1962, he married, moved to Brooklyn, and, on Moody’s recommendation, joined Dizzy Gillespie. His four-year stint with Gillespie kicked off a three-decade string of high-profile sideman jobs with Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, Ron Carter, and Stan Getz, all admirers of his consistent creativity and lyric gifts, and with Sphere, the Monk-inspired collective quartet he co-founded in 1982 with Riley, Charlie Rouse and Buster Williams. At Lateef’s urging, he earned a college degree, and took a position at Rutgers in 1973, where for the next thirty years he mentored young talent like David Sanchez and Terence Blanchard, repeating his high school ritual of making early morning classes after finishing the third set at Bradley’s a few hours before. He moonlighted extensively, working with top-shelfers like Moody, Bobby Hutcherson, Benny Carter and Frank Wess and playing duo in various New York piano rooms. He documented his point of view on an impressive series of albums for such independents as Muse, Xanadu, Enja, Reservoir, Candid, and Criss Cross between 1975 and 1991.
“Each bandleader I worked with had a different style,” Barron says. “For example, Dizzy’s band was very tight and precise. I learned to keep stuff in reserve, not play everything you know all the time. Yusef was looser, the music was freer; you could play out, as far as you wanted to go. Ron likes hills and valleys; I learned to use dynamics. Stan and I shared a love for lyricism. We fed each other. He was one person who could play a ballad and really make you cry.”
As documented on Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Sessions [Verve], a 1989 quartet session that was not released until 2003, Getz played Barron’s tunes—these included such present-day standards as “Sunflower,” “Voyage,” “Phantoms” and “What If?”—and related to him as a de facto co-leader. Still, Barron was not able to generate consequential interest in his own projects—around 1985 he Barron formed an incendiary quintet with Eddie Henderson, John Stubblefield, David Williams and Victor Lewis to play his compositions—until Getz died in 1991.
“For some reason, the industry was late getting to Kenny,” states Lewis, whom Getz employed throughout the ‘80s. “It was frustrating, because we were all active members of the jazz community, we felt the group and Kenny’s writing were special, and we couldn’t understand why we never worked much. We did a tour of the West Coast, and Kenny took out a loan to pay the airfare, to try to promote us.”
Perhaps one reason for Barron’s tortoise-like breakthrough lies in his genial, understated personality, devoid of visible idiosyncracy. During his sextet week at Dizzy’s Room, for example, Barron functioned as the band pianist as much as a leader, comping enthusiastically for his youngish front line—youngbloods Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone next to veteran Vincent Herring—and soloing when they were through. “I have to give cues,” he chuckled. “So it’s easier that I take the last solo. I like to think of myself as a team player, so I’m less interested in myself sounding good as much as the group I’m with, whether as a leader or a sideperson.”
“Kenny has incredible ability, and yet he is never flashy about it,” says Cinelu. “Which I guess frustrates everybody but him. He has a special touch. It’s easier to get the message when you see a musician who has a lot of obvious charisma and an obvious routine—who is very visual, let’s say. Kenny is not that. Yet, his message passes. He’s one of the great jazz pianists.”
It’s interesting to compare the gradual arc of Barron’s career to the rapid ascent of such generational contemporaries as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, all Miles Davis alumni who broke ground as young men and then, inspired by Miles, established themselves as leaders by differentiating themselves from the jazz tradition. In contrast, after apprenticing with Gillespie, Barron—who enthusiastically abstracted form during tenures with Hubbard and Lateef—was never willing to shed mainstream values.
“Things evolve the way they should,” Barron says. “I don’t know what other choice I could have made. I was influenced by Herbie with Miles and on Blue Note, like Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage, not so much the electronic stuff. By Chick’s writing more than his playing; to me, Chick in the ‘60s was still sounding a lot like McCoy. But I didn’t know quite what to make out of Herbie. His stylistic influences were harder to pin down, other than some he shared with Bill Evans, like French Impressionism.”
“Kenny has a unique approach, a kind of blending of styles,” says Mulgrew Miller, Barron’s partner on a dozen or so duo concerts in recent years, following an initial mid-‘90s encounter at Bradley’s. “He’s rooted in the bop language but takes risks you don’t necessarily hear from people we call bop players. He wasn’t breaking down barriers like McCoy or Herbie, but he’s always trying to reach past his limitations, and he shares with those guys a command of the language of whatever area he’s dealing with.”
In a manner almost unique in 21st century jazz, Barron’s tonal personality encompasses the entire jazz timeline organically and unaffectedly. In the course of a set, he’ll stride with a percussive force and joie de vivre that would not sound out of place at a Harlem Renaissance rent party or a Roaring Twenties Park Avenue soiree. He channels the hard-boiled, warp speed attitude that marked the bustling 52nd Street bars and soulful uptown lounges where bebop flourished after World War Two, and the nuance and polish of the trios that entertained the bibulous mix of gray-flannel suits and tourists who patronized midtown’s upscale grills in the ‘50s. He’s au courant with the craftsmanship and sophistication of the American Songbook, and interprets it without irony, on its own terms. The airy melodies and surging rhythms of Brazil and the Caribbean dapple his compositional palette, and he has an intimate relationship with the tropes of the Saturday night blues function and Sunday church ceremonial.
“I like Kenny’s touch,” adds Billy Taylor, a friend since Barron’s Gillespie days. “Whether he’s playing a bossa nova or wailing on something with guys playing Art Blakey kind of things behind him, he has the thing for that. To be able to change your touch that way is remarkable. He’s curious, so he’ll take a gig playing ballads. That gives him a chance to play beautiful songs that not everybody plays. Then he works with a group that’s straight-ahead with a soul thing happening, and he’ll go back to church with you. I used to hear him with groups that, quite honestly, were not up to what he was capable of doing at the time. He always found something in that group to take with him. That’s the mark of a first-rate artist.”
It’s also the mark of a pragmatist, a man with responsibilities. Barron intends to work as much as possible as he moves through his seventh decade. Although his stated intention after retiring from Rutgers in 2003 was to eschew teaching for practice and musical exploration, he soon received offers he could not refuse from the jazz departments of Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, where he taught a total of 10 piano students privately during the 2004-05 school year.
“My daughter’s getting married, and I’ve got a wedding to pay for,” he says. What wouldn’t he do? “I’d probably hate playing Hawaiian music,” he responds, perhaps with tongue in cheek.
Has he always been a practical person?
“Practical? Do you think I’m practical?”
Well, yes. Married for 42 years, Barron is a musician who sustained creative edge while paying the bills and found a way, like Tommy Flanagan, to maximize his value as a performer in the world in which he functioned.
“I would be inclined to say it’s there,” he says. “Not that other people haven’t helped me. Yes, I’ve been able to function and be consistent. Work. Be married. Try to be in creative situations as much as possible. Whatever the word for that is, yeah, I am.”
* * * *
Kenny Barron (March 21, 2005):
TP: First, the editor wants me to write about the different groups. When we spoke on the radio, you said that playing in different situations all the time, which is what you do on your records, keeps you fresh, keeps you thinking differently…
KENNY: Oh, it does.
TP: Have you ever done a three-week event like this, where you showcased a different sound over the course of an engagement.
KENNY: Actually, I have. I did at the Vanguard twice. It was the same rhythm section every week, myself and Ben Riley and Buster Williams, and each week we used a different horn player. One week we used Vincent Herring, another week David Sanchez, I think Jesse Davis… It was fun.
TP: But that’s a different proposition. These are three different…
KENNY: Three totally different environments. True.
TP: The first week with Mino Cinelu… You called the record Swamp Thing. This is a pan-Latin, pan-Brazilian…
KENNY: Yeah, it’s a little bit of everything! Every two nights it’s going to change. The first two nights it’s myself, Mino Cinelu and John Patitucci. The next two nights John was unavailable, so George Mraz is going to play bass, myself Mino and Abdou M’Boop, the percussionist, who will also play kora. The last two nights will be George Mraz, Mino, myself and Romero Lubambo. That will have more of a Brazilian cast.
TP: Have you played with Abdou M’Boop before?
KENNY: No, I haven’t.
TP: But you’ve played with Mino and Romero.
KENNY: True. But I haven’t played M’Boop. He came by here and brought his kora, and it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be in terms of how it’s approached, so I have to rethink how it’s going to be used. But he also plays talking drums, so he’ll be playing percussion as well. Kora is an interesting instrument, because once it’s tuned it has to stay in a particular key. It’s not a chromatic instrument, it’s diatonic, so you tune it to a particular scale and it stays there. If you tune it to B-flat, you can’t play in A-flat. He can retune it, but it’s a very time-consuming thing. He can’t do it between songs.
TP: So you have to do the whole set in a particular key.
KENNY: Well, the pieces that I’m going to use will all be in the same tonality. If it’s B-flat, it can also be G-minor, which is the relative minor of a B-flat. So it can be major and minor, but the notes will always be the same.
TP: Keeping that interesting will be a challenge.
KENNY: Very much so. There’s a way to do it. We ran over some stuff here.
TP: That will be the one premiere of this week. Let’s discuss each of the people. Mino Cinelu is one of the great pan-diaspora percussionists. He seems to have everything…
KENNY: He can do almost anything. Well, he does. He does everything. He has some very interesting equipment. He has a wave drum, which produces all kinds of interesting sound effects and colors, and I’m sure he’ll use some of that. On the recording, we also did some all-acoustic stuff duo. We did a couple of concerts in Europe.
TP: So you have a repertoire.
KENNY: Yes, we have a repertoire. I don’t know that we’ll necessarily be doing… Since we have bass player, we’ll try to expand it. Because there was no bass player on the recording we did.
TP: With Romero Lubambo, you had a project that had legs with Trio de Paz. But in this case, it’s George Mraz and Mino.
KENNY: I’m sure we will do some Brazilian stuff, but we’ll do some other stuff as well.
TP: You and Mino are the ones who are going to shift what you do to suit each environment. This is an old question. But I’d assume that your involvement with pan-African rhythms goes back to playing with Dizzy.
KENNY: To a certain extent, yes.
TP: Did it precede it when you were in Philly?
KENNY: Yes. Especially Latin music. More Latin music. This was before bossa-nova and Brazilian music. But Latin music was always popular in Philly when I was coming up.
TP: Did you play Latin gigs?
KENNY: I didn’t play that many, no. But I’d hear the records by people like Joe Loco and Machito, Perez Prado. I listened to that music a lot.
TP: Was your peer group interested in it?
KENNY: Not so much. It was something I liked to listen to.
TP: How did it come to you?
KENNY: I heard it on the radio, and said, “Wow, listen to that.” There weren’t stations so much that played it. But there was a jazz station that played it… I don’t know if you know Joe Loco. He was Cuban, and he had a lot of hits on standards, but always with an acoustic kind of group, trio or whatever. As I got older, when I moved to New York, I started listening to Symphony Sid, who played a lot of Latin music. That’s when I really…
TP: Did you go to the Palladium at all?
KENNY: No, I never went to the Palladium. Again, just listening to the radio.
TP: When you came to New York, it was an efflorescent period for Latin music.
KENNY: Yes. I came in ‘61.
TP: Did it give you the same feeling as jazz? Did it add something to your palette?
KENNY: I think it added something. I always found Latin music to be very joyful. There’s always dance… It sounds kind of corny, but it was happy, happy kind of stuff. It was fun.
TP: That’s interesting, because it isn’t a quality that all your contemporaries embodied in their playing. Certainly, modern jazz of the early ‘60s in New York wasn’t so much about keeping a groove going.
KENNY: No, certainly not. During that period, music started to really become concert music. It got to be THAT kind of thing. I was into that myself. I wanted to be SERIOUS. But that’s one of the elements that I think Monk had, was humor, a sense of fun, playfulness in the music. I think that’s often missing. We’re all so busy being serious, or trying to show that we’re not really enjoying it. That’s what I loved about Billy Higgins. Billy was always smiling. He loved what he did! And that joyfulness, it showed.
TP: It came out in his sound, too.
KENNY: Yeah, it came out in the music, and it kind of infected everybody in the bandstand and the audience.
TP: Did you and Mino first play together on that 1995 project?
KENNY: No, that was really the first time. I first heard Mino in Nice with Miles. We had a mutual friend who kind of thought it might be interesting for us to play together. I started going over to his house, and just talk about music… We became really good friends, which we still are. His wife would fix these great meals, and we’d sit and talk about music, and he has all this great equipment. Consequently, a lot of the stuff on the recording we did in his music room. We also did stuff in the studio, where I overdubbed this or that.
TP: You’ve been very bold in your aesthetic choices. You won’t ever let anyone put you in a bag. One recording you’ll do ballads with Charlie Haden. Another one is wild duos with Mino. Then you’re doing a new quintet with young players, with a flute up front, you’re doing your take on post-bop with the sextet, a duo with Regina… What you’re doing over three weeks characterizes the way you’ve presented yourself over the past 15 years, when you began to do records with serious production values.
KENNY: I don’t want to do just one thing. The thing is, I really like all kinds of music. I’d like to expand it even further, do some other things. Another project coming up, and I don’t know if it will come to New York, is I want to do some stuff with the Turtle Island String Quartet. We’ll do something in November, but right now I don’t think there are any concerts slated for New York. So that will be a challenge for me, to play in that kind of environment. I don‘t want to only do one thing. There’s too much to learn.
TP: Certain people, when they go into Brazilian music or Latin things, deeply study the idiomatic nuances of each idiom. That’s not your approach.
KENNY: No. I just listen to it, and I respond in whatever way I can, so it’s organic. I’m not Brazilian, so I can’t be Brazilian. But I love the music. So whatever I do, it’s going to be my personal take on it, so to speak.
TP: But with a lot of people, there might be a quality of superficiality in addressing something without… It’s like someone playing bebop without knowing the changes. Your personality comes through. You always sound completely at home.
KENNY: Yeah. I don’t know why. It just is. I think it’s because I love the music. I don ‘t think it’s necessary for me to go to school on it. I don’t think I need to go to school and study it for three or four years. I just need to LISTEN to it. That’s all that’s necessary, is to listen to it.
TP: Was very Dizzy very much about breaking the stuff down for you in the early ‘60s
KENNY: He didn’t do it for me. He was very helpful in terms of showing me voicings, harmony. But I saw him do some stuff with Rudy Collins, where he wanted a particular rhythm. So he told Rudy, “Do this with your right foot, do this with your left foot; play this with your right hand, that with your left hand; hit the cymbal here.”
TP: Do you do that when you play with younger musicians?
KENNY: I don’t like to do that. If I hire somebody, it’s for what they can bring. My idea about leading a band is to let people do what they do. That’s why you hired them.
TP: With Romero, you told me that Trio de Paz played for a long time at the Coffee Shop on 16th & Union Square East. I don’t know if you made it a destination, or if it was by accident…
KENNY: Well, the first time was totally by accident. My wife and I were there shopping at the green market, and we said, “Let’s go get something to eat.” We went in there, and there they were along with Duduka’s wife, Maucia(?), who was singing. Then it became a destination. So every Saturday we were in town, we went there to hear some music. Then we met them and became good friends, and eventually it turned into, “Boy, I’d sure like to play; let’s play something.” Then it turned into, “Let’s do a record.” It evolved that way. We did some tours and concerts. I’d like to do some other things with them, because I enjoy playing with them a lot.
TP: It sounds like all these projects evolve organically out of your life as a musician…or your life in general.
KENNY: I think so. A lot of things just happen. If I hadn’t gone to the Coffee Shop, the whole thing would never have happened.
TP: You would have heard about them eventually. But maybe not.
KENNY: Yeah, or maybe not. You never know. But I would have missed a lot.
TP: Have you played much with John Patitucci?
KENNY: Only once, actually. But I love his playing. I have one of his records that I really love. It’s called Communion. The first time we played was actually on a recording with a singer, Cheryl Bentyne. I’ve always loved his playing. So I’m really looking forward to this.
TP: You and George have played together, but not that much.
KENNY: When I first started working with Stan, we played together. A couple of times, I’ve subbed for Hank Jones, and worked with George and Dennis Mackrell. But I haven’t played with George in a long time. Actually, on one of the very first gigs with the Ron Carter Quartet, Buster Williams wasn’t available, he was in California, so George made that. That was in the early ‘70s.
TP: After Dizzy, you played a lot with Freddie Hubbard. Was that a fairly steady-working band?
KENNY: It was a working band. We didn’t work as much as I’m sure Freddie would have liked, but yeah, it was okay. We didn’t do long tours. It was mostly around New York, working at Slug’s, and a place called La Boheme, which was at 61st and Broadway, and the Coronet in Brooklyn.
TP: What else were you doing in New York after you left Dizzy?
KENNY: One thing I did right after I left Dizzy was work with Stanley Turrentine at Minton’s for five or six weeks. The rhythm section was Herbie Lewis and Joe Dukes. That was great, working uptown in that kind of environment. Six weeks back-to-back.
TP: Dizzy’s time at Minton’s was long gone.
KENNY: He’d gone past that. Financially, he was past that. But when I left Dizzy, I more or less freelanced for a while, working with as many people as I could.
TP: The thing with Ron Carter began in the early ‘70s? The mid ‘70s?
KENNY: Probably the mid ‘70s. Before that was Yusef Lateef. We toured quite a bit, especially during the summer. Yusef was teaching at the time at Manhattan Community College. He actually got everybody in the band to start going to college. He encouraged everyone, “You should go back to school.” So I did. It was a two-year school, and I got an Associate’s Degree, and after that I went on to get a Bachelor’s Degree from Empire State College, which is part of the SUNY. When I was going to Manhattan Community College, and we were going on the road, I would always tell my teachers, “I’m going on the road for three weeks; what material will you cover in that three weeks?” They were always pretty cool about telling me. I’d bring math. We had math, and I had never had this kind of math before in my life. When I came back, I was ahead of the class.
TP: You didn’t allow yourself to be distracted.
KENNY: No, I did the work. But I attribute that a great deal to Yusef’s personality, because that’s the way he was. He was very centered and very into doing what you have to do to make things work.
TP: I’m sure the relationships between music and mathematics make the logic systems clearer.
KENNY: You’d think so. But that didn’t necessarily happen.
TP: Your involvement with Ron Carter was long-standing.
KENNY: Yes. How that gig started, I was working at the Keystone Korner with Yusef, and Ron was in town and came by. That’s how that happened. It’s a question of being in the right place at the right time.
TP: When did you first start to lead two- and three-horn ensembles? Your first record is ‘71, I think, forMuse.
KENNY: There were no horns on that. It was basically trio. Sunset To Dawn. On one tune, by Freddie Waits, Warren Smith said, “Why don’t I play vibes on this.” So it’s a really fast Freddie Waits tune, “Alkefa.” “I’ll play vibes on this.” he was incredible. But there were no horns.
TP: When did you start?
KENNY: One of the first times was at a place in the Bronx, the Blue Morocco, where I used Bennie Maupin and Bill Hardman. It was the same rhythm section, with Freddie Waits and Herbie Lewis.
TP: Was that because of the gig, or was something in you wanting to…
KENNY: No, that was just a gig. But in terms of starting to write music and say, “Okay, I hear this for quintet,” probably happened first when I had the quintet with John Stubblefield. The ‘80s. Wallace Roney did the first record, What If.
TP: Was that just percolating? A lot of pianists showcase their instrumentalism and wind up playing trio. But you’ve built up a large body of work for various ensembles.
KENNY: I like being part of a team. One of the things I like is that I can write for it. I find it difficult to write things for trio. People do it all the time, but it’s more difficult for me. I have no idea why. But it’s easier for me to write things for horns. You can showcase harmony and movement and stuff like that. In that particular group, it started as part of a grant. I had applied for a grant to write some original music, so that was the band I chose. I’d been knowing John for a long time, and Victor Lewis and Cecil McBee. I got the grant, and did a concert at what was then Carnegie Recital Hall, and they made a tape. It sounded so good I thought I’d like to record it, and I talked to Enja Records. That was the beginning.
TP: Does a song like “What If” come out of your trio experience?
KENNY: No, for the quintet. I really heard it for those particular people, for that group. When we first started playing as a group, the music at the time—live anyway—was going to the left. It was starting to go out. Which I loved!
TP: That would be John’s propensity.
KENNY: Yes. But again, it was organic. Nobody said, “Well, let’s play out.” But it just started to move that way. One of our first gigs was a place called Joanna’s [18th Street]. We did a set, and played two tunes in an hour or something. But it never got boring, because the music went in so many different places. We had such a great time. When we did the record, there are considerations of time and length, so it didn’t…
TP: But subsequently on your ensemble records, you added different flavors. Some had more of a pan-Caribbean-South American feel, some were more hardboppish…
KENNY: Right. I didn’t set out and say, “Okay, this record is going to be bebop and this one…” It just happened.
TP: I suppose it speaks to the fact, again, that you’ve assimilated so many musical languages. Is there ever an element where they’re competing for space within you? A bebop side competing with the lyric Brazilian side competing with the classic piano side… This is probably an absurd question. But I find the tonal personality you express so personal but also encompassing so many flavors. I’m sure it seems totally organic to you because you’re living it, but I want to see if we can pinpoint where it comes from.
KENNY: I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t feel competition in terms of different styles or different idioms. Ideally for me, in one set of music, I can go through everything. What it is, I think each tune kind of carries itself. Each song is a development in itself. One song, if you play it, it may actually be straight bebop. That’s how it might come out. The next song may go out. Or the next song may be Brazilian. All in one set.
TP: Do you know beforehand?
KENNY: No, I don’t. It just happens. We may play a blues, especially with the group I have now with Anne and Kim Thompson, and it may go out! I kind of like that. I like not-knowing. That’s the fun for me. Let’s see where it goes.
TP: Do you think of the different styles as different styles?
KENNY: Probably not. There’s 12 notes. There are only 12 notes. It’s just music.
TP: What differentiates them?
KENNY: It’s rhythm primarily that will make a difference. The way you approach the rhythm, and phrasing. If you’re playing bebop, for instance, there’s a certain kind of phrasing that works best. The attack. If you’re playing R&B, or if you’re playing some funk, there are certain kinds of voicings that won’t work so well. If the voicings are too sophisticated, they won’t work.
TP: The sextet you’re bringing in the second week has a new tenor player, Dayna Stephens.
KENNY: I met Dayna in California at a clinic I did for a week at the Monk Institute at the University of Southern California. He’s one of the people who was there, and he really impressed me. When I was looking for a tenor player, I thought about him, but I didn’t know how to get in touch with him. Then somebody told me he had just moved to the New York area. I think everybody will be very surprised. He’s a very good player.
TP: Everyone else you’ve played with…
KENNY: Oh, yeah, for a long time. In different situations. Actually, I haven’t worked with Victor in quite a while.
TP: New repertoire?
KENNY: Some new stuff, and then some stuff that will be recalibrated or whatever.
TP: Do you always recalibrate?
KENNY: Not always. But sometimes just having a new player will make that happen.
TP: Benny Golson discusses the art dearth writing, trying to make three horns sound as big as possible. Is that a concern… Let’s put it this way. What are you trying to put forth on this sextet than the quintet?
KENNY: In terms of instrumentation, the sound is heavier because it’s three horns. And harmonically, with three horns you can do more rhythmically and in the way you can use them. The different colors also that you can have from three horns. Dayna plays tenor and soprano…
TP: Like most young guys.
KENNY: Yes, like most young guys. Those are different colors that you can utilize. So for me, it’s about the harmonic movement that three horns allows you. Eddie is only doing two days, and Jeremy Pelt is doing the remainder.
The third week is the trio, what they call the Classic Trio. Ben wasn’t available, because he’s going to be in Europe with his Monk Legacy. Well, he does get back in the middle of the week. But I wanted someone close to Ben in style and age, and I called Grady Tate. Grady does this tour I do every other year in Japan called 100 Gold Fingers, and I’ve always enjoyed playing with him. He’s a very tasty, very sensitive drummer.
TP: What does the term “classic trio” mean to you?
KENNY: I have no idea.
TP: But does it mean something to you? Jazz? Classic?
KENNY: It’s a trio.
TP: Well, is it a trio that you play a certain type of repertoire and not another type of repertoire?
KENNY: Well, that could be true. With a trio, I tend to play more standards and… Yes, that’s basically it.
TP: Well, you probably have 800 tunes that you can draw from.
KENNY: Yes. I remember we did this at Bradley’s one week with Ray and Ben, no repeats. [18 sets] I have to think about whether to do that again! But it might be fun. Not repeat any songs. That means there won’t be any “arrangements.” You’re saying, “Oh, let’s do this song.” But at the same time, I don’t want it to be a jam session.
TP: So in a certain sense, the classic trio is closer than the other formats to being what that idealized notion of what jazz is supposed to be. It’s this older material, but you’re approaching it in a totally spontaneous way.
KENNY: Yes, a spontaneous way. So you won’t know what a song is going to sound like until it starts to reveal itself, so to speak. Again, that can be a lot of fun. Again, I don’t know if that’s what we’re going to do, but it’s a thought.
TP: So you’re telling me that you don’t go into any performing situation with the whole arc of a performance planned out. There’s always room for openness.
KENNY: Oh, yes.
TP: There are general outlines or motifs, and every night you’re approaching it in a different manner.
KENNY: Hopefully, I’d like that to happen. Almost nothing is planned, other than, “We’ll do this song.” But how the song evolves is up for grabs.
TP: That doesn’t happen as often as the commonplaces about jazz would have you think it does, to actually approach a set with that attitude. It’s kind of risky in some ways, because you have to get the stuff out there, and a lot of people aren’t so interested in leaving themselves open that way.
KENNY: I like that. When you reach for something, you have to say it’s okay if you don’t make it. But you’ve got to reach. We all have bad days. But sometimes you have to reach for it and say, “Well, I didn’t make it.”
TP: Is that innate? Or did you learn to do it?
KENNY: I think as you get older, you start to give yourself permission to make a mistake. Because there’s another chorus coming! So you can try it again. That’s one of the things that makes music interesting for listeners sometimes, is to hear someone reach for something, and maybe not making it, but trying it again. Sometimes very interesting things develop in that process.
TP: One reason why you don’t hear much chance-taking is that young musicians go to school and study everything so thoroughly. That can be at odds with what we’re speaking about. Now, you’ve been an educator for thirty years. How do you address your students on this issue?
KENNY: I put a lot of stress on being as creative and lyrical as you possibly can. I’m not big on transcribing solos. I never have been big on that.
TP: Not even Bud Powell and Ahmad Jamal back in the day?
KENNY: I said transcribing. I learned solos, but I learned them by rote. By hearing them and then playing them. A lot of people are into transcribing, but I find that when you transcribe solos, you only get involved with the notes. There’s a lot of other aspects to a person’s playing. So if I’m listening to Red Garland with Miles… When that record Round About Midnight came out, I knew all those Red Garland solos. I never wrote them down. But one the things that happens when you write them down is you only deal with the notes. If you learn it by rote, then okay, you get this person’s touch. It’s easier to emulate this person’s touch, phrasing, all of that.
TP: So Red Garland was one of the guys you got into your body.
TP: Who were some of the other people?
KENNY: I used to listen to Horace Silver a lot. I’m talking about junior high school and high school. Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, Hank Jones. They were all different. Wynton had this feeling, and a harmonic concept that was unique. Red had this touch. Everybody had something different to offer.
TP: You’ve paid some explicit homages to Bud Powell, with that piece “Bud-Like,” and “Madman” has certain qualities to it… It’s an area that you seem to have a fondness for.
KENNY: Oh, I do. Probably that particular style is at my core. I think Bud is really at the core of what I do.
TP: Did you ever meet him in Philly?
KENNY: No. I got to meet him once, when he was not doing well.
TP: Did you ever meet Monk?
KENNY: No. I saw him, but he was always such an awe-inspiring person that I would never go up and say anything.
TP: Do you mean intimidating?
KENNY: Yes. He was intimidating, actually. He was very big and… I had just come to New York, and… So I never went up to say anything…
TP: [Ben Riley’s story] You’ve been in New York since 1961. Initially in the East Village.
KENNY: I stayed next door to my brother, 314 E. 6th Street, where all the Indian restaurants are. It was a great block. A lot of musicians lived there. I stayed at Vishnu Wood’s place. The rent was something like $60 a month, and it was hard to make that. But it was just one room. Across the street was Lee Morgan, Tootie Heath and Spanky DeBrest, all Philadelphia people who had an apartment. Upstairs from where I lived, Pepper Adams and Elvin shared an apartment. Reggie Workman lived with Lee and Spanky, too. Ted Curson lived a couple of doors up from them.
TP: A real Philly enclave on East 6th Street.
KENNY: That’s right. I could walk to the Five Spot and the Jazz Gallery, which were owned by the same people. Coffee shops, like the Fat Black Pussycat, Café Wha, Café Bizarre, all in the West Village. There was so much music. I met Sonny Clark at the Five Spot. I heard Cecil play duo with Clifford Jarvis at the Café Wha?
TP: What does living in New York have to do with your embrace of so many vehicles of self expression?
KENNY: Well, I think because it’s all here. Music from everywhere is here in New York, and you can hear it all. Just life in New York in general, especially during that time for me. I was young, and it was exciting, and all the people whose records I would buy, I could go hear them, I could talk to them, I could see them. Then other things as well. I really got into Latin music then, mostly due to radio. But I really got into it then. Everything is right here in New York. Just the vibrancy of the city. It’s such a great city.
TP: You’ve been in Brooklyn for how long?
KENNY: Actually, I was in Manhattan only one year. I got married in ‘62, and I’ve been in Brooklyn ever since. The first place I lived was on St. Marks and Franklin, and then I moved to Prospect Place and Nostrand.
TP: There was a fairly consequential scene going on in Brooklyn then.
KENNY: Oh, there was a lot of music in Brooklyn. There was the Coronet, the Continental, and quite a few other places. There were also a lot of musicians. When I moved to Prospect Place, I discovered that Cedar Walton lived around the corner on Sterling Place. Freddie Hubbard and Louis Hayes lived around the corner in the same building on Park Place. Wynton Kelly lived around there on Lincoln Place. Cecil Payne lived nearby. There were a lot of musicians.
TP: Were the Brooklyn audiences different at all than the Harlem audiences?
KENNY: I don’t think so. One of the things that was happening during that time is that the audiences for the music… If you went to the Coronet to hear music or to play, you would see the same people all the time. Neighborhood people came out to hear the music. That kind of stopped in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.
TP: Did that impart a different flavor to the way you played?
KENNY: I don’t know if it added a different flavor. But it was definitely inspirational.
TP: For people in New York at the moment you arrived, you could hear the whole history of the music, people who effect the outer partials of what’s happening now, like Cecil or Ornette (whom you’ve played with), or you could hear Willie The Lion or Ellington or Coleman Hawkins. And you told me that you did.
KENNY: Yes, I did. I remember working at the Vanguard playing with Freddie Hubbard, and we played opposite Coleman Hawkins for two weeks. Barry Harris was playing piano with him. I don’t remember who else was in the band, but I know Barry was there. That was amazing.
TP: A lot of younger musicians in the ‘60s were perhaps not so embracing of the older forms, but it seems that even that is part of… On the Live At Bradley’s record you played Blue Skies and Sweet Lorraine, and a lot of tunes you’ll play with the trio are from that era.
KENNY: Well, apart from bebop, I grew up listening to… Well, the first person I heard do Sweet Lorraine was Nat King Cole. And I loved it from that point. But it was a long time before I started actually playing it. But you have memories of these things, and you say, “Oh, I remember that song; let me start playing that.”
TP: But someone born after your generation probably wouldn’t have heard Sweet Lorraine on a jukebox.
KENNY: No, they wouldn’t have. Or Canadian Sunset. I remember hearing that on a jukebox. Eddie Heywood. And Jug also recorded it.
TP: Someone like me heard it because I went out looking for it. But it wouldn’t have been an organic part of my upbringing unless I was in an extremely specific house or environment.
KENNY: Right, it was all around. You’d go into a luncheonette, and on the jukebox there you’d see John Coltrane, Blue Train or Moment’s Notice, or Ahmad Jamal, Poinciana. Any jukebox. In a luncheonette, a restaurant.
TP: So those things come out in your sound.
KENNY: Yes. That stuff was all around. You’re exposed to it. People who are younger have to search for the music. You have to look for it on the radio. You certainly don’t hear it on television…. Well, you didn’t hear it on television then either. But you have to look for it now.
Plus there were certain experiences, playing situations we were able to get as young players that aren’t available. They weren’t necessarily “jazz” gigs. I used to play dances a lot. We called them cabarets. You had to play standards. You had to play rhythm and blues. That’s what that really meant: I Got Rhythm and Blues. A lot of songs based on that. You had to play for singers. You’d have to play a show. A singer would come up. “What key are you doing this in?” “I don’t know.” There wasn’t always a rehearsal. If you played, you’d also have to play for a comedian, tap dancers, stuff like this. You’d get to play all this…
TP: You’d play a whole show. What was the club in Philly…
KENNY: Oh, there were many clubs. Many. Sometimes they weren’t necessarily clubs…
TP: The Masonic Lodge, the Elks…
KENNY: Exactly. That kind of stuff. But I remember there was one club in particular in Philly that was called the Northwest Club. They had a lot of after-hours clubs. I remember working there one time with Jimmy Heath, Mickey Roker, and Arthur Harper was the bass player. But as part of the rhythm section, you had to also do this other stuff. You had to play with the singer and the comedian. That was just something you did.
TP: That had to have been ‘59 or ‘60, if you did it with Jimmy. So you were 16 or 17.
TP: That prepared you for New York.
KENNY: Yes. There are certain kinds of experiences you had. You knew how to play for a show. You knew what to do, how to end songs and things like that.
TP: It’s a very rare musician under 45 who’s had had that experience. Although there are a few.
KENNY: There are some. But it’s rare.
TP: What did that do exactly?
KENNY: Well, one thing, it taught you how to listen. It taught you how to listen, and then it helped you with the language. Musical language. It wasn’t enough just to know… Well, one thing is that you have to learn songs. We used to play for what was called shake dancers, kind of tame strip-teasers. They would dance to Duke Ellington, Caravan… Exotic dancers. Jimmy Forrest, Night Train, a bump thing. Those are the kind of things you learn. It really prepared you to come to New York. Because it didn’t change that much once you got here. You still had to do those kind of gigs. You didn’t come here and start working at Birdland right away.
TP: But you came here and soon started working with Dizzy.
KENNY: Well, I came here in 1961 and started working with him in November 1962. I graduated high school in ‘60, then I kind of laid around Philly, and came to New York in the Fall of ‘61. Then I got married in ‘62.
TP: You grew up very young, didn’t you.
KENNY: Well, I got married very young.
TP: It wasn’t like a whole lot of time to “find yourself.” But maybe you did that later.
KENNY: Well, still.
TP: But a lot of people in that situation would take jazz as a job. You’re always very open-ended within the function stuff you do. You were a professional from 16-17-18. Music was a job, a livelihood from that age, and there are a lot of functions you have to play. Some things must have felt rote to you. Some people would allow their imagination to be stifled in those situations, and many people have allowed their imaginations to be stifled. Others settle on one kind of sound and stayed with it—and evolved it, which is great. You’re not that way.
KENNY: I think one of the things that helped was having an older brother who played, having friends… There was a drummer, for instance, named Jerry. I used to go over to his house. He always had the latest records. He built his own stereo system. We would sit there and listen to the latest records. That’s the first time I heard Ornette, was over at his house. “Wow, what is that?!” So I’ve always been into listening and trying to hear new stuff. Trying to do it, too. That’s part of growing. I didn’t want to become stuck. I never did. I don’t know if you believe in astrology, but that’s part of being a Gemini. “Oh, let’s try this.” I think that’s part of it. Just being exposed to other things is is important. When I came to New York, my brother Bill had been working with Cecil Taylor. He was really into avant-garde. That was his thing. He loved that. He listened to Stockhausen and showed me 12-tone row music and stuff like that. It made me listen, too.
TP: You did a tune, didn’t you, called Row House?
KENNY: Yes, I did, which is a 12-tone row. So again, there’s always something to learn, something to try.
TP: What was it like playing with Ornette?
KENNY: It was different.
TP: Has there ever been a situation that didn’t quite work?
KENNY: I wouldn’t say that situation didn’t work. But there’s always hindsight. I wished I could have done this, wish I could have… But it came out okay. I was surprised that he called me. Because I think the whole idea was to recreate the group he had with Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden, who were both there, and Wallace Roney to take the place of Don Cherry. But one of his first groups had piano.
TP: What I recall about the concert is that he took out his trumpet and played a chorus, and summed everything up in that chorus.
KENNY: I enjoyed it. Probably even more memorable than the gig were the rehearsals, as he tried to explain his harmolodic concept. Which I never really got. So I just played.
TP: Lee Konitz told me that Charlie Haden told him, “We really play changes.”
KENNY: On some of the earlier things, the stuff is so melodic, it really sounds like they’re playing changes, or playing around changes. There’s some stuff there you can hear on The Shape Of Jazz To Come. That’s one of my favorites. Lonely Woman. You can hear harmonic structure in all of his pieces. It’s not just willy-nilly. They’re playing some stuff.
* * *
Kenny Barron (WKCR, September 2, 2004):
TP: Sitting across from me, looking extremely cool and relaxed on this beautiful day, after a subway ride, is Kenny Barron. Next week, he enters the Village Vanguard with a sextet comprising Terrell Stafford, David Sanchez, Vincent Herring, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, and Ben Riley. On Wednesday, he starts his semester at Juilliard. On Thursday, he starts his semester at the Manhattan School of Music. So it will be like old times for Kenny Barron, who during the Bradley’s days, would leave at 3 in the morning, and go out to Rutgers the next day at 8 or so. You’ve been doing this for a long time.
KENNY: Yes, I have. And as you get older, you get tired faster!
TP: Well, there are no 3 in the morning sets any more.
KENNY: Not any more. Although I kind of miss it.
TP: That’s the thing. You want to hang out late, but then in the morning you feel sort of happy that you didn’t do it. But several years ago, when you retired from Rutgers, I recall you saying, well, you wouldn’t be teaching any more. You were going to devote your time exclusively to music, and practice…
KENNY: I did say that, didn’t I.
TP: What happened?
KENNY: Well, I got a call from Justin DiCioccio at Manhattan School of Music, saying, “We would like you to come and teach?” and I said, “I want this amount of money,” and he said, “okay.” And I only wanted a certain number of students…
TP: And he said okay.
KENNY: Yeah. So it’s been working out actually.
TP: And at Juilliard as well.
KENNY: At Juilliard as well. Well, I guess from the beginning, I’ve only had two piano students there. So this semester, starting this week, I’ll have four.
TP: This show is not about education. But what sort of students do you have? You’re not teaching them the basics.
KENNY: Oh, no. They could almost teach me. I mean, some of them are so incredible, especially in terms of technique, and they really understand the language very well. Actually, it’s fun to teach them. Because they really challenge me. They’re great students. A couple of them have won some competitions.
TP: It’s a truism by now that, given advances in jazz pedagogy and education, that the technical level and proficiency of young musicians today…they start younger and younger, and they can do more and more. What things don’t they have? What do they need to get?
KENNY: I guess the things they need to get, they’ll only get by living. Experience. Experience and paying dues; as Ben Riley likes to say, “having their hearts broken.” So they’ll have some stories to tell. When you’re young and everything is fine, you don’t REALLY have any stories to tell.
TP: You yourself were 18 when you moved to New York.
KENNY: Right. In 1961.
TP: You moved to the East Village, I think.
TP: Everyone was living on East 5th Street and 6th Street.
KENNY: East 6th Street I lived on.
TP: You were working, and then joined up with Dizzy Gillespie and got your first college education on the road with Dizzy Gillespie. Subsequently, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you went back to school and got a degree…
KENNY: I did. I went to Manhattan Community College, and got an Associate’s Degree from there. They had a program, part of the State University of New York, called Empire State College, and I got my B.A. from there.
TP: I don’t want to put you in the position of looking back to the good old days. But just step back to those days a bit and discuss the climate then, and the attitudes of the musicians you were running with when you came here from Philly. What was percolating? What was in the air.
KENNY: Well, there was a lot. The block I lived on was the block where there are now a lot of Indian restaurants—Curry Row, they call it. Sixth Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. I lived at 314. I was staying with my brother for a while, and then I moved next door with a bass player named Vishnu Wood. Upstairs, for instance, lived Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams. They shared an apartment together. Across the street lived Lee Morgan and Tootie Heath, and a bass player from Philly who’s passed away named Spanky DeBrest, and Reggie Workman also, and two doors up from that lived Ted Curson. It was a great neighborhood. I could walk to the original Five Spot, which was on the Bowery, and the same guys, the Termini Brothers, also owned the Jazz Gallery on St. Marks. So I could walk to all those places. All the coffee shops. I first heard Cecil Taylor, for instance, at Café Wha in the Village.
TP: On McDougal Street.
KENNY: Yes. I heard him in that year, ‘61. I met Sonny Clark at the Five Spot. I first heard Kenny Dorham.
TP: Was there a lot of collegiality? Were people supportive of each other? Was there a sort of give-and-take?
KENNY: Oh, I think there was. I would have to say yes. Especially among the musicians from Philadelphia. There was always a kind of brotherhood, so to speak, among the musicians from Philly.
TP: So even if someone was from Germantown and someone was from South Philly, once they get out of Philadelphia…
KENNY: Oh, yeah. Well, even in Philly there wasn’t any kind of neighborhood rivalry. You were a musician. You were one of the cats.
TP: Prior to that, had you been working a fair amount on the Philly scene?
KENNY: Some. I was doing a lot of local stuff, and occasionally I would get to work in… When I was there, Philly had two major jazz clubs, the Showboat and Pep’s. At some point I got to work there. One of the highlights, I was still in high school, and I got to work there with Jimmy Heath and Lee Morgan and Tootie and Spanky DeBrest. I was thrilled to death.
TP: This would have been shortly before you came to New York?
KENNY: Yes, shortly before.
TP: I seem to recall you mentioning to me that while you were in high school, you’d play jam sessions, and catch the last bus home, and get home at 4 or 5 in the morning, and then go to school. I may be overstating the story…
KENNY: Well, not a jam session… But that is true. I would be out a little late, and my mother would be very upset!
TP: I’m sure there are exceptions, but young musicians don’t have these kinds of experiences these days. Again, not to get you embroiled into an “our generation had these things,” but do you see it as a different quality by which the information is processed when it’s processed in such a functional situation?
KENNY: I don’t know. I guess there’s something to be said for both. There’s something to be said for going through academia, and there’s something to be said for just learning it organically, through the streets. However you learn it, it’s great. But I guess one of the things when you learn it on the street, so to speak… For me, I think it really stays with you. You get more… This is hard to explain. There’s more spirit involved. In school, sometimes you can over-intellectualize everything, and everything becomes about scales… It becomes too intellectual.
TP: Philadelphia may be known as the City of Brotherly Love, but I gather that doesn’t necessarily apply to the attitude of audiences when you’re not doing things as you’re supposed to.
KENNY: Oh, no. They’d let you know. You get embarrassed a few times, and you’ll work on your stuff.
TP: What dicta did the older musicians tell you? Would people be quick to correct you on the spot?
KENNY: Well, yes, they would. If I was interfering with what everybody else was doing, yes, they would definitely be quick to point it out to me. But if it wasn’t too bad, they would wait til after the song was over or after the set was over, and pull me aside. But generally speaking, they were very willing to share information and to let me know: “Voice this chord this way” or “These are the right changes here.”
TP: So when you got to New York at 18, it was that, but on an everyday basis.
KENNY: On an everyday basis. And you might say at a higher level, too, in terms of the musicians who were here in New York. But it was more of the same, yes.
TP: I apologize for bringing you back 43 years on the third question. So let’s step up to the present. Kenny Barron is performing at the Village Vanguard next week with his sextet. You’re one of many musicians of different generations who express themselves through different configurations. I think you have two-three forms of sextet; there’s one that’s sort of straight-ahead hardbop, another uses strings and flutes, a Brazilian-tinged group, there’s trios, duos, the quintet that you’re working with flute and vibes… Did this also happen organically? How did it come about that you use so many modes of expression?
KENNY: I like different things. That’s basically it. With the Brazilian project, for instance, I used to go to this place called the Coffee Shop. [Union Square & 16th]. That’s where I first met Duduka DaFonseca, Nilson Matta and Romero Lubambo. I just happened to be passing by, heard the music, went in, introduced myself, and we talked. Then I wound up going there every Saturday just to listen to them. Eventually, I said, “Wow, I sure would like to play with these guys,” and we figured out a way to make that happen. They were there for 12 years.
TP: Were they doing a brunch gig?
KENNY: Yes, every Saturday afternoon.
TP: But your exposure to Bossa Nova goes back to the American involvement in the idiom with Dizzy, who picked up on it fairly quickly.
KENNY: That’s true. Actually, the group that started me really listening to Brazilian music was Sergio Mendez, Brazil ‘65. I still have that vinyl record that I bought in 1965.
TP: I’ll assume the group this week, to use the term in a totally generic way, a more straightahead, hardbop oriented thing.
KENNY: Yes, it is more straight-ahead.
TP: The three horns…if you were around in 1990, you’d call them young lions, but now all are established tonal personalities on their instruments. David Sanchez has been on a few of your records.
KENNY: Yes. David actually was a student of mine at Rutgers. That’s when we met. I was there when he auditioned, and I remember how nervous he was. I don’t think he graduated. He left because he actually started working. I ran into him a couple of years later at the Village Gate. They used to do Monday nights where they’d invite a jazz artist with a Latin band, and I was playing with Eddie Palmieri, and happened to turn around, and David Sanchez was playing on the band.
Although he wasn’t my student, Terrell was a student at Rutgers University. Vincent I met a long time ago, and always loved his playing.
TP: Kiyoshi Kitagawa has frequently played bass on your gigs.
KENNY: Yes, frequently. That started at times when Ray Drummond wasn’t available, and then Ben Riley actually told me about Kiyoshi. I love the way he plays.
TP: You and Ben Riley go back a couple of minutes, too.
[MUSIC: “Um Beiju”; “Things Unseen”]
TP: This was Kenny’s core quintet for about a decade. Eddie Henderson and John Stubblefield, KB, Ray Drummond, Victor Lewis, and Minu Cinelu… Perusing the recordings here, you’re the composer of all but two tunes on Spirit Song – 8 or 10. You’re the composer of all the tunes on Things Unseen from ‘95. On Images, the latest release, you composed 6 of the tunes. And your compositions comprise the preponderance of the material on many of your records. You’ve been composing for a long time, and some of your songs and little melodic hooks are part of the vocabulary now. You hear musicians quoting “What If,” for example. However—and I could be wrong about this—people don’t necessarily think of you first and foremost as a composer of the scope and breadth that you demonstrably are.
KENNY: Well, it’s funny, because I don’t think of myself as a composer. I write tunes. It’s a work in progress. I’m still working on trying to find things to write. I’d like to try to write something for a larger group.
TP: Aren’t you being unnecesarily modest here? Do you mean that you don’t through-write? What to you is the difference between a tunesmith and a composer?
KENNY: Maybe what I mean is, the stuff I write isn’t terribly complicated. For a lot of people, it’s not a composition unless it’s difficult. The stuff I write is really very simple. And sometimes that’s a good thing.
TP: Do you write for personnel?
KENNY: Generally, if I’m writing for a particular project, then I’m writing for the people in the band who I’m going to be playing with. Not necessarily for the instrumentation, but for those particular people. I kind of know what they sound like, and I think I know what they’re capable of.
TP: Since the ‘70s, when you first recorded for Muse, your tunes incorporate a lot of exotic scales, a lot of world rhythms—Brazilian, Latin and African rhythms. You have a rather broad template, which you’ve used for at least thirty years, and perhaps even going back to your days with Dizzy.
KENNY: I enjoy listening to all kinds of music. I enjoy trying to incorporate various aspects of different cultures into the music, as much as I’m able to.
TP: Are you trying to find new material to improvise on? Is the goal always to find something to take off from?
KENNY: As a jazz artist, I think ultimately it’s about improvising and having a vehicle for that. But at the same time, I would also like to get more involved in through-composing, really writing a piece all the way through. I think it would be interesting to do.
TP: Who are your models as a composer? Among your contemporaries are some of the major people, and you worked with Dizzy Gillespie who codified bebop composition.
KENNY: Among my contemporaries, I love Wayne Shorter’s writing. Of course, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. That goes without saying. Some of those pieces they wrote, like Blood Count, Lush Life, they’re really incredible. Bud Powell, things like Glass Enclosure and Tempus Fugit.
TP: For example, this week with the sextet… You occasionally recycle or reconfigure compositions, but not too often. Usually a Kenny Barron record presents a bunch of new pieces. Are there new things in the book for the sextet next week?
KENNY: Most of the things we’ve done before. I think we’re going to try two or three new things next week?
TP: Are you a deadline-oriented composer, or is it a matter of when the spirit moves you?
KENNY: If you give me too much time, I won’t do it! If I have three months to write something, I’ll wait until the day before…or a week before. It’s really just a question of developing a certain kind of discipline, which I have yet to do; to just sit down and… I remember sitting down with the pianist Hassan in Philadelphia, who I’d known since I was a little kid, and he told me that he wrote a tune a day. That’s 365 songs.
TP: You must have at least 100 copyrighted.
KENNY: Maybe a few more than that.
TP: You haven’t exactly been a slouch… Having spoken of composition, we’ll hear some blowing by Kenny on the piano, of which there are ample recorded documents. This trio worked frequently at the time; you could hear them every 3 or 4 months at Bradley’s. Am I exaggerating?
KENNY: No, you’re not. We were there a lot.
TP: It’s a one-hour recital of ten tunes, and it reflects the flavor of what your sets would be like. There are tuneful originals with nice rhythmic feels, there’s a couple of Monk, a couple of great standard songbook things, some soul tunes…
[MUSIC: Sweet Lorraine, Alter Ego]
TP: Lemuria would have done when the trio did a no-repeat week; a week at Bradley’s without playing the same tune twice. That would be 18 sets. I think it happened around ‘91… Playing this music from Bradley’s: You worked there a lot with this trio. It was a real locus for New York’s piano community for about twenty years.
KENNY: I think the first time I worked there, they had a spinet piano. The first time I went there, I heard Bobby Timmons, who was there quite frequently, and eventually I started working there. But I loved working there. The ambiance, and like you said, it was a really great hang. The last set sometimes would be full of musicians coming by from their gigs. I remember one really memorable night. I think Tommy was working there, and Carmen McRae was working at the Blue Note, and she came by after her set, and I think she played almost the whole last set at Bradley’s. She sat at the piano and sang and played. Only at Bradley’s could you catch something like that.
TP: What does it do to a musical community to have a gathering place like that? There hasn’t been anything quite like Bradley’s since 1996.
KENNY: For me, I felt very much at home there. I think most of the musicians did. It was like home. You’d go in there, you knew everybody… I never had to order a drink! Because the bartender knew what I drank. He just put it right in front of me.
TP: So even if you wanted to change for that night, you still had to drink it.
KENNY: Yeah! [LAUGHS] I miss it. I really do miss it.
TP: A more general question. Is there a New York piano school? Obviously, we’re not talking about people born in New York, because the majority of musicians who make their living here come here from someplace else. But that being said, it seems that the overall sound you’d hear at Bradley’s from one week to the next and from year to year kind of crystallizes a New York approach to piano. But it’s unclear in my mind specifically what that approach might be. So do you think of it that way, or is that a bit too general?
KENNY: It’s a little hard for me to think of a New York school of piano playing. As you mentioned, everybody comes here from somewhere else, and all those forces come into play. You’ve got people who come from Detroit, like Tommy and Hank and Barry Harris and Kirk Lightsey. But oddly enough, there is a Detroit sound. Especially with Tommy and Hank and Barry and Roland Hanna, those guys had a particular sound. I think whatever happens is just an amalgamation of everything that’s happening around the country. Because everything comes here; everybody comes here.
TP: The last time you can really talk about an indigenous New York sound might be the ‘50s, when you have people directly coming out of the stride pianists, and Bud Powell and Walter Davis and Walter Bishop. When you got here in the early ‘60s, what were most of the piano players listening to? At the time, you got here is the same time Herbie Hancock got here, it’s the same time Chick Corea got here… I mean, roughly.
KENNY: Yes, it was around the same time.
TP: Keith Jarrett got here then. You all arrive in New York with diverse influences, but coming out of the same things that were in the air.
KENNY: I’m trying to think of what I was listening to when I came to New York, the people I would seek out to listen to. For me, it was Tommy and Hank, even though they were rarely in New York during that time. I think they were always busy working, so I never got a chance to hear them live that much then. People like Sonny Clark. I used to listen to Erroll Garner. I never really got a chance to hear Bud, unfortunately. I heard him one time, and he was really not himself. So it was kind of sad for me to see. And Monk; I got to hear Monk.
TP: As one of the founding members of Sphere, you played Monk’s music extensively in the ‘80s, after he died. Did you get to know Monk?
KENNY: No, I didn’t really get to know him. When I saw him a few times earlier on, I was very young, and I was so much in awe, I would not have approached him at all. Plus, he was a very awe-inspiring looking figure. He was a very big man. I’m a kid. I said, “Wow.”
TP: You didn’t know what he might say to you.
KENNY: Right. But I certainly did listen to him.
TP: And being with Dizzy Gillespie, I suppose that would be a first-hand channel into the attitudes and tales of the music of the generation before you.
KENNY: Oh, sure.
TP: Is that something you were very curious about at the time? I’m asking in this context. For a lot of younger musicians who didn’t have a chance to experience those lifeblood artists first-hand, didn’t get to see Monk, didn’t get to see Bud Powell, maybe didn’t get to Dizzy—didn’t even get to play in those bands, a lot of them. So for them, the notion of being around New York in 1961, you’d think of it as a kind of golden age. Here’s Coleman Hawkins. Here’s Monk. You can hear almost the whole history of jazz on any given night in New York in 1961 or 1962 or 1963.
KENNY: That’s true.
TP: Was it that way to you at that time?
KENNY: Yes, it was. It was that way to me at that time. I got to hear, thankfully, a lot of people. I got to hear Willie The Lion Smith. I got to work opposite… I was working with Freddie Hubbard at the Vanguard, and we worked opposite Coleman Hawkins for a week. We played opposite Cecil Taylor for a week. I heard some incredible music. And I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people.
TP: Have you always had a very open attitude to music? Looking at your discography in recent years, on the Bradley’s record you play “Everybody Loves My Baby But My Baby Don’t Love Nobody But Me,” a ‘20s Tin Pan Alley thing, which you play in the stride manner but in your own style. Then with Minu Cinelu on the track we’re about to hear, you’re prerecording fragments of material, recording electric keyboard bass, using the latest technology. On another track, you explore intervals that you might associate with Cecil Taylor or Hassan. There’ s a lovely arrangement of Bud Powell’s “Hallucinations.” Really, your music and musical persona seems to encompass very comfortably the whole timeline of the music in a rather organic way.
KENNY: I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and I love and appreciate a lot of different kinds of music. In terms of being open, I think I’ve always been that way. I’ve always listened to all kinds of stuff. I’ve always wanted to play as much as I could, all different kinds of music.
TP: We have a set of duos by Kenny Barron with different people. First is “Mystere” with Mino Cinelu. A few words on how this recording was set up.
KENNY: We did a lot of stuff that you’d call preproduction, setting up certain things—in his living room actually. He’s a whiz at the computer, so he’d add different things with the computer. I know nothing about that stuff, other than how to get my email. He did all of that. Then in the studio, I opened up the acoustic piano on most of it. On my solos, he added other things electronically and altered the sound on certain things with the computer. So when I heard it back, it was totally different. On quite a few tracks he altered the sound or added things to it. But on the track you’re about to play, we did some of the stuff in his living room, we came in and I overdubbed the piano solo, and I also played keyboard bass.
[KB-Cinelu, “Mystere”; KB-Regina Carter, Fragile; KB-Roy Haynes, “Madman”]
TP: A set of duos concluded with a few signifying drumstrokes by Roy Haynes, concluding a piece called Madman, from Wanton Spirit. Was that your tune?
KENNY: It is a tune, actually. I’ve never done it live and never recorded it since then. But I think I will start doing it.
TP: You played Sting’s “Fragile” in duo with Regina Carter.
KENNY: My wife was working at the time, and I went to pick her up, but she wasn’t quite ready, so I went to a bar next door in Soho. I was having a drink, and they were playing Sting singing this particular song. I thought it was so beautiful! So I asked the bartender who it was. I had no idea who Sting was. So I went out and bought the record, and to my surprise, I liked the entire record, but that particular piece, I really fell in love with.
TP: In 1996, not too many people were working with computers to create the sounds you got on Swamp Sally. And we’ve heard a very diverse selection of music, many colors and scales and cultural reference. But almost all have been done for the same label and the same two producers—earlier for Jean-Philippe Allard, and more recently Daniel Richard, who produces you for French Universal, no longer issued in the States by Verve, but currently by Sunnyside. It seems to me that there might be some connection between having a steady, familiar relationship with a receptive producer and the venturesomeness of your output.
KENNY: Fortunately, they are two producers who I really appreciate. They’ve allowed me the maximum amount of freedom in terms of what I wanted to do. “Go ahead!” Interestingly enough, the CD with Roy Haynes and Charlie Haden, Wanton Spirit, was actually a suggestion of Jean-Philipppe Allard. Because I never would have thought of it. He said, “What do you think about recording with Charlie Haden and Roy Haynes?” I said, “Wow, that could be… Yeah.” So that’s how that one came about.
TP: Charlie Haden has a similar relationship with him, as does Randy Weston and Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones and others. The ‘90s was a prolific, fertile for all of them in terms of albums. But a lot of musicians in your position, after more than forty years in the music business, an established bandleader for at least thirty of those years, and with a pedigree that includes Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Carter, Stan Getz during the ‘80s… For all of that, you seem very willing to make music with almost anything good that comes your way. It’s a very egoless type of… Of course, you have your ego. And I don’t want to throw around paeans to you here. But there’s a sort of openness to new experience that seems to inform what you do.
KENNY: Oh, I do like to try new things, yes. They may not be NEW new, but they’ll be new for me. So in that sense there’s certainly a sense of adventure about it for me.
TP: What underlies that? Is it as simple as just trying to keep yourself fresh so as not to repeat?
KENNY: No, I think it really is curiosity. I’m not really concerned about becoming stale or anything like that. Now, I should be! But it’s really curiosity. I get inspired by a lot of different things. I’ll go out and hear one of the cats or one of the young women playing today, and I’ll get inspired. I’ll say, ”Wow, that was incredible.” So inspiration comes from a lot of different places, and it inspires you to try a lot of different things on your own.
TP: Having seen you on nights-off or after a set going out to hear people, I know for a fact that you do check out a lot of music. In your quintet, everyone is under 35, and most of them are under 30.
KENNY: The two young ladies, Kim and Anne, are 23. Stefon Harris is just 30. Kiyoshi is older than you’d think. I was surprised when I found out how old he was. But still, he’s younger than me.
TP: What is the benefit to playing with so many people? Because your sound is very identifiable always within whatever context you’re in. I’m not really going to give you to someone on a Blindfold Test, let’s say.
KENNY: Well, what I get playing with all these different people is that they make me play differently. Playing with some straight-ahead, which I love to do, that makes me play one way. Playing with a good singer makes you play another way. Playing with young people who are really energetic, that energizes me. Playing with someone whose music is a little more esoteric puts me in another thing. I like to think of myself as a team player, so I’m less interested in myself sounding good as much as the group I’m with, whether it be as a leader or as a sideperson. Sounding good is more of my concern.
TP: So if the group sounds good, you’re sounding good.
KENNY: Essentially, yes. That’s very true.
TP: Is that innate? Did you learn it from someone? A little bit of both?
KENNY: Maybe a little bit of both. It’s a team effort.
TP: Stepping back forty years ago, you were part of Dizzy Gillespie’s group, from 18 to 22. What’s the most important lesson you learned from that, apart from learning all those great tunes from the inside-out and hearing him every night, and the stage presentation and so on.
KENNY: Well, those are among the things. I can’t say there’s any one thing that was more important than any other. But it’s how to save yourself, by which I mean that you don’t give up everything all at once every night. You save some stuff. Keep some stuff in reserve. One of the things I learned is not to play everything you know. That’s it. You don’t play everything you know all the time.
TP: Why not?
KENNY: What for?
TP: You played a lot with Ron Carter in the ‘70s. The group was popular, lots of recordings and bookings.
KENNY: That was a really great band, with two bass players; Ron played piccolo bass and Buster Williams the full-sized bass. Ben Riley was on drums. Ron is a really good bandleader, because he knows what he wants, and he knows how to TELL you what he wants and how to get it. One thing I learned from playing with Ron is dynamics, how to use dynamics. He’s very used to not playing at one level all the time—hills and valleys in music.
TP: How about Stan Getz? Since he passed, some amazing recordings have come out of your collaboration.
KENNY: I guess the thing Stan and I had in common was a love for lyricism. I think we fed each other in that way. I certainly learned a lot from hearing him. He was one person who could play a ballad and really make you cry.
TP: Is there anyone during the time we could call your apprenticeship, which was a long one… You played steadily as a sideman for thirty years, though for a chunk of that time you were a leader. Is there anyone you wish you could have played with that you didn’t get to?
KENNY: Yes, a few people. Pre electronic days, I always wanted to play with Miles. And Sonny Rollins is someone I always wanted to play with.
TP: With Sonny, that could still happen.
KENNY: One never knows!
TP: After you leave here, you have a rehearsal for next week. So will this be the first rehearsal for this band for this program?
KENNY: Yes. And unfortunately, I don’t think everybody is going to be there. People are still out of town. So we’ll muddle through.
TP: You mentioned that you have three new pieces. Are you a stickler for rehearsal? Your bands always have a sound of elegance and casualness that makes me think that you might be working them really hard.
KENNY: No. I rehearse because it’s necessary. But I don’t LIKE to rehearse.
TP: The trios with Ben Riley and Ray Drummond, I’ll bet you didn’t rehearse.
KENNY: Oh, no, we rarely rehearsed. And many of the arrangements are really just head arrangements. They evolved over the course of playing them over a period of time.
TP: You said that your music is very simple, but it’s very distinct. What do you think is the hardest aspect of playing your compositions correctly? Is it the phrasing? Is there a certain attitude?
KENNY: I don’t know. Again, I don’t think it’s difficult, but if there’s anything, it’s playing with the right attitude. I certainly don’t think the music is terribly difficult. If it’s anything, I think it’s playing with the right attitude and the right feeling.
TP: Another one of your tunes that’s gotten some broader play is New York Attitude. So maybe it’s the New York attitude. Not everyone has it.
KENNY: Could be.
* * *
Kenny Barron Musician Show (WKCR, 2-13-91);
[MUSIC: K. Barron, “New York Attitude”]
Q: [ETC.] Kenny is from Philadelphia. I think that’s probably the first thing anybody should know.
KB: Right. From North Philadelphia.
Q: Neighborhoods are pretty important in Philly.
KB: Yeah. Well, there’s North Philly, South Philly, West Philly. They’re all different, too.
Q: You’re from quite a musical family as well.
KB: Yeah. Well, Bill was the oldest. There were five of us altogether. Bill and myself are the only ones who became professional musicians, but everyone else played the piano, two sisters and another brother. They all played the piano.
Q: There was one in the house?
KB: Yes. There was always a piano there. My mother played also, so she was kind of the one who inspired everybody to do that.
Q: What kind of music was played in the house?
KB: It was usually Jazz, Rhythm-and-Blues — primarily. And Gospel Music on Sunday.
Q: What were your folks into? The big bands?
KB: It was strange, because my folks…my parents didn’t really listen to the radio, or they didn’t seem to listen to music that often, other than my mother, who as I said, listened to Gospel Music on Sunday. But my brothers and sisters listened to lots of different kinds of music. At the time, they had some really great radio shows, Jazz radio shows in Philly. As I got a little older, by junior high school I was also listening to, like, Doo-Wop groups and things like that. So I listened to all kinds of music.
Q: You were also studying European Classical Music.
KB: Yes, I was studying Classical piano. I did that from the age of 6 until I was 16.
Q: Now, what was your first exposure to the world of Jazz in Philadelphia? Did you sneak out when you were younger and go hear groups in the neighborhood, or was it through your brother?
KB: Actually it was through my brother. He had a fantastic collection of old 78’s, Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro, Dizzy, people like that. So I used to hear those things all the time. I can remember being very affected by one tune in particular; I’m talking about when I was maybe ten years old. That was a piece called “Sippin’ At Bells.” I always tried to find that piece and that record, and I couldn’t remember the record label. Somehow or other, it really got to me.
Q: Bud Powell was on that, yes?
KB: I believe so.
Q: Of course, I’m sure your brother must have been practicing around the house.
KB: Oh yeah.
Q: It must have always been there.
KB: Yes, there was always music. His friends would come by. I’m sure you’ve heard of the pianist Hassan from Philly. Well, he and Bill were very close, so he used to come by the house quite often, and they would spend hours playing and just talking together about music. So I would be there listening and checking them out.
Q: Do you have any particular reminiscences about Hassan? He didn’t have a lot of visibility outside of Philadelphia, and recorded only once, albeit with Max Roach.
KB: One record, right. That’s right. He was unique as a pianist. Eccentric. He just had a very unique style. Kind of Monkish. Of course, at that time, when I was 9 or 10 years old, I knew nothing about Monk. But he had, like I said, a very unique style. Later on, I found out that one of his biggest influences was Elmo Hope, and not Thelonious Monk.
Q: One of the compositions on that record, actually is dedicated to Elmo Hope, too.
KB: That’s right. Actually, I plagiarized a bass line from one of his compositions from The Incredible Hassan on one of my records. I see you’re taken aback! It’s funny, because only a few people knew it, and they were all people from Philadelphia!
Q: I’ll bet. Who were some of the other people on the Philadelphia scene who were important in the 1950’s, and particularly when you were beginning to emerge and find your way?
KB: Well, there were people… There was a saxophonist, for instance, named Jimmy Oliver, who was very influential on the Philadelphia scene at the time. Jimmy Heath. I had a chance to work with Jimmy while I was still in high school. Oh, and just the guys that I came up with; there are people who probably aren’t that well known outside of Philadelphia. A bass player named Arthur Harper…
Q: He played with J.J. Johnson…
Q: I think he’s playing with Shirley Scott now.
KB: Yeah, exactly. He is playing in Philadelphia. He moved back to Philadelphia, and he’s working there. But he was one of the guys that I came up with who had a very big influence on me. He was a fantastic bassist. We used to play together a lot, and talk about music.
Sonny Fortune, we came up together. So a lot of people were around during that time.
Q: I guess you were a little young to remember Jimmy Heath’s big band…
KB: Yes, that was a little before my time. But I often heard of it, because Bill played in that big band, and I often heard him talk about it. And there were some great people in it. I think John Coltrane…
Q: And Benny Golson…
KB: Benny Golson, right.
Q: [ETC.] Now, you’re on record as saying that the first record that really grabbed you was a Miles Davis session from 1956 with Sonny Rollins and Tommy Flanagan and…
KB: Yeah. Max. [sic: Art Taylor]
Q: …you were really into Miles Davis at that time. So we have a set of Miles from that period lined up for you…
Q: …by the miracle of radio. Was this one of your brother’s records, or did you hear it on the radio?
KB: No, actually what happened, I was in junior high school, and we had an art class, and the teacher used to encourage the students to bring in music to paint by, so to speak. So a friend of mine, a drummer, who is now an English teacher actually, he brought in this record, Collectors Items. The tune that they were playing that got me was ” In Your Own Sweet Way.” I stopped painting, I was listening, and I was “Who is this? Who is that?” Because it was just so clear, so crystal clear, and the touch was so light, delicate. And I just fell in love with Tommy’s playing right then and there.
Q: Well, we’re going to hear that in this set. But we’re going to start with “All Of You” performed by the Miles Davis Quintet, with two other Philly legends, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones, on the famous recording, Round About Midnight.
[MUSIC: Miles, “All of You,” “In Your Own Sweet Way.”]
KB: When that record came out, it had such an impact on the Jazz scene that I was coming up with… One of the things that we could do, for instance… I mean, I knew everybody’s solo on every tune.
Q: From the Round About Midnight record.
KB: Yes, from that record. I mean, I could do that as you were playing it then! I mean, that didn’t make me unique, because everybody did that then. I mean, that was one of the ways in which you learned about improvising, was just through trying to imitate and learn solos, and find out how they did it, what they did. It was a great… It’s still a great learning tool, just to listen.
Q: At about the age of 14 and 15, who were the people you were following? Obviously Red Garland.
KB: Yeah, Red Garland. I also was listening to Horace Silver. I think I may have been a little younger than that when he came out with Six Pieces of Silver. For some reason, I remember at that particular time we didn’t have a record player in the house. There was a luncheonette about five or six blocks from the house, and they had on their jukebox “Señor Blues” and “Enchantment.” And I went up to this luncheonette every day to play that, play those two songs. Then when I found out that the drummer, Louis Hayes, was 18, I mean, that really gave me a lot of inspiration.
Q: There’s hope for me yet.
KB: Yes. [LAUGHS]
Q: You were also listening to Ahmad Jamal at this time.
KB: Right. The Live At the Pershing album came out at this time. Well, maybe a little bit later. But that was also very influential. I remember I was laying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep, and I had the Jazz station on, and the tune they were playing was “Music, Music, Music.” And again, it was “Who is that?” It was just so hip.
Q: Just encapsulate your impressions of Ahmad Jamal and Horace Silver, their contributions in retrospect, now that you can look back at it. They’re still doing it, actually.
KB: Well, that’s right. Still! I heard Ahmad a couple of summers ago, and he’s still unbelievable. Actually, I appreciate him even more now, now that I really know what he’s doing; not really know, but now that I kind of understand what he’s doing.
I think Ahmad is like the consummate trio player. There’s just so much space and so many ideas and he’s so creative in a trio setting. And his technique is…I mean, it’s unbelievable technique. His touch… So he has it all happening for him.
Horace was also a very big influence on my playing. He’s completely different from Ahmad. Horace is a much more percussive player, and you know, a little more out of the Bebop thing, but a great pianist and an unbelievable composer. So just about every Horace Silver record that came out, I would go and buy it, or find somebody who had it so I could listen to it. Because I was as fascinated by his compositions as I was by his playing.
Q: As are many musicians still.
Q: I think he’s one of the most popular fake-book…
KB: Yeah, that’s true.
Q: Were you engaged in teenage combos at this time? Were you working at all?
KB: Not working as such. But yeah, I did. I had a little trio. We used to perform in school functions and things like that. It was fun, and it was, again, a great learning device. While I was in high school I met Arthur Harper. We happened to be… I was studying bass at the time, and we happened to be studying with the same teacher.
Q: Who was?
KB: I don’t even remember his name. He was a Classical teacher. Mr. Eaney(?). That was his name. Wow. He played with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And I had my lesson at 10 o’clock, and Harper had his lesson at 11, so I would see him, you know, when… I never knew how good a bass player he was, and I guess he never knew that I played piano. Until one day I happened to go to a jam session in West Philly. I was playing bass, you know. So one of the guys, we later became great friends (his name was Jimmy Vass, an alto player) but I had just met him this particular day. He called “Cherokee.” And obviously, I couldn’t make it! [LAUGHS]
Q: It wouldn’t seem obvious to us now.
KB: I’m talking about on the bass, now. I was playing bass. Then I spotted Arthur Harper! And I had a pleading look in my eyes. He came up and rescued me, and I sat down and listened to him, and all I could say was “Wow!” I mean, he was such a good bass player. His time… He was incredible.
[MUSIC: A. Jamal, “Music, Music, Music,” “No Greater Love,” H. Silver, “Señor Blues”]
Q: Did you discover Bud Powell around the time you first heard Ahmad Jamal and Horace Silver?
KB: Actually I discovered Bud later.
Q: Monk, too.
KB: Monk, too — later. I guess I was so taken with Ahmad and also with Tommy Flanagan that I kind of neglected to go to the source, so to speak, which was Bud Powell. It’s hard not to come through him for almost any pianist. It’s very difficult for any pianist who is playing today not to have come through him, to have been influenced by him, either directly or indirectly, one way or another.
[MUSIC: Bud Powell, “Glass Enclosure (1953),” “Hallucinations” (1950]
Q: We’ll move now to music emanating from Philadelphia in the late 1950’s that Kenny was involved with in one way or another as a young musician.
KB: Well, I met Jimmy Heath: I was still in high school when I met him. He had done this first album for Riverside [The Thumper and Really Big], for kind of a small big band, and he organized a group in Philadelphia, kind of scaled it down. So I had a chance to play with him, and play a lot of the music from that album — and it was really a lot of fun. A couple of times he even used the big band.
Q: I take it he heard about you through your brother.
KB: Through Bill, right. And also through another saxophonist in town by the name of Sam Reed, who I think had mentioned me to Jimmy. He was very helpful, in terms of my career, even though he may not know it. I remember one time Yusef Lateef came to Philly, had a matinee at the Showboat, Monday, 4 o’clock, and his pianist missed the flight. So Jimmy gave him my number, and he called me, and I went and played the matinee — and that was it. He paid me. Then about three months later, just after I graduated from high school, I got a call from him to come to Detroit and work ten days in a place in Detroit called the Minor Key. It was a great experience. First time on an airplane, first time on the road. It was a great experience.
Q: And Detroit was quite a scene at that time.
KB: Yes, it was. Yes, it was.
Q: Did you meet most of the people then residing in Detroit?
KB: I met some, yeah. I met some people. The drummer was from Philadelphia, though: his name was Ronald Tucker. The bassist was from Detroit, I think he lives here now, or he may be back in Detroit now: he was Ray McKinney, who comes from a very musical family. That was a great ten days. And the music that Yusef was doing at the time was really unusual. So it was my first time experiencing that.
Q: Of course he later became a big part of your career, some fifteen years later, which we’ll be hearing later on in the course of the Musicians Show. The other material we’ll hear on this set is a Philly Joe Jones date from 1960 called Philly Joe’s Beat, which is your brother’s debut on record, more or less, a wonderful recording.
KB: Yeah, it is. It is.
Q: It features a lot of the Miles Davis arrangements, and other things, done Philly Joe style. Now, did you know Philly Joe Jones at this time, or was he too much out of town…?
KB: Well, he wasn’t in Philadelphia that often except to work. But again, I got a chance to work with him when he came through Philadelphia. It was the same sort of situation. He came through Philadelphia, and his pianist wasn’t able to make it. So I got a chance to do I think four nights with him, along with Arthur Harper, my brother Bill was there, and trumpet player Michael Downs. We did four nights at the Showboat in Philly. Again, it was pretty much the same music that’s on this album, Philly Joe’s Beat.
[MUSIC: Jimmy Heath 10, “Big P” (1960); Philly Joe, “Salt Peanuts” (1960); J. Heath 10, “Nails” (1960)]
Q: Kenny participated in all of this music in one way or another around the time that the material was recorded.
KB: That’s true. That’s very true. I had a chance, again, to work with Philly Joe, where we played pretty much the same music, and I had a chance to work with Jimmy Heath during that time, and played a lot of the music that was on that Really Big album.
Q: I’d say we’ve thoroughly covered the Philadelphia period. Now we’re in 1962, and you’ve been to Detroit with Yusef Lateef for ten days, and done some other things. But now you join Dizzy Gillespie, and that lasts four years and really brings your name out into the wider world of Jazz.
Q: How did Dizzy find out about you?
KB: Again through a recommendation. When I first moved to New York, I…
Q: When was that? When did you make the move?
KB: I moved to New York in 1961.
Q: Right out of high school?
KB: Well, I graduated in ’60. So I spent about a year around Philadelphia, and then I moved over here.
Q: What induced you to come up?
KB: Well, just the same thing that induces everybody. Just to be around all these musicians and to be around all this music — and to learn, you know.
But anyway, when I first moved here, I moved next door to my brother on East Sixth Street, so I used to walk to the Five Spot a lot. James Moody happened to be working there, and I sat in — and he hired me! We did some gigs in Brooklyn, at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn, and again at the Five Spot.
Anyway, about a year later, I ran into Moody on Broadway. Moody had gone with Dizzy, and I ran into him on Broadway. He said they were appearing at Birdland, and he said, “You know, Lalo Schifrin is leaving Dizzy; would you be interested?” And I had just gotten married, and I needed a gig! [LAUGHS] You know? Plus, I mean, that’s such an honor. So I said of course I’d be interested. So he said, “Well, come by Birdland.” And I went by Birdland, and just talked to Dizzy. You know, Dizzy had never heard me play, and he hired me.
Q: Without hearing you play.
KB: Without hearing me play. Just on Moody’s recommendation.
Q: Well, they have some history together.
KB: Yes, they do! [LAUGHS]
Q: Did you just go in cold? You must have had a rehearsal or two.
KB: No, actually we didn’t. Right after Birdland, the first gig was in Cincinnati — and there was no time for rehearsal. So I remember after checking into the hotel and going to the gig in a cab, Dizzy was running down these things to me, talking certain tunes down. Then Chris White, who was the bassist at the time, and Rudy Collins, the drummer, they were also very helpful in pulling my coat to what was happening with each tune and… The gig wasn’t a whole week, I don’t think, maybe just a few days. So we managed to get through it. And by that time I felt a lot more comfortable, after playing it a few times. So it worked out. [LAUGHS]
Q: Apparently it did, because you did four years with Dizzy Gillespie.
Q: A few words about Dizzy, and evaluating the experience.
KB: Well, I mean, what can you say? I think Dizzy’s a national treasure. I mean, as a musician, as a human being, and his sense of humor — I mean, that’s real; that’s not just on stage. I mean, that’s real. He’s just a great human being, a great musician. And I learned a lot musically, just being around him, how to save yourself… You know, one thing you do when you’re young is, you play everything; you try to play everything you know. But that’s one of the things, listening to Dizzy, that you learn; you don’t have to do that all the time. Save yourself for those difficult moments when you really have to do that. And you don’t have to play everything you know at every moment.
KB: Exactly. I think that’s one of the biggest things I learned from him.
Q: You made several records with Dizzy, but we’re going to go back to a recording by the great big band of the 1940’s, and listen to a version of “Manteca”.
KB: Well, this is actually one of the first things I heard. I can remember hearing this on the radio, this big-band version of “Manteca.” And again, I was…whoo, I loved it. And I’ve never really liked big bands that much, but there were a couple of things that really got me, and this was one of them.
[MUSIC: Dizzy Big Band “Manteca” (1948); Monk (solo) “Blue Monk,” “Ruby My Dear” (1971); Dizzy Big Band, “Round About Midnight” (1948)]
Q: Dizzy Gillespie and Monk are two musicians Kenny has been associated with, although in very different ways. The public associates you very much with Monk, I imagine, through your work with Sphere, and also from recording a lot of Monk’s tunes on your albums. But you didn’t really get into Monk, you said, until rather late.
KB: Yes, not until much later. Towards the end of high school I really started listening a lot to Monk, and really began to appreciate his writing and his playing. They are almost inseparable; they are so similar. I mean, it’s very hard to imitate him, he’s such a strong stylist and so unique.
Q: So what do you do?
KB: Well, you play yourself playing Monk. That’s the best you can do. I mean, you can do it tongue-in-cheek…
Q: I never got that impression from you, though, that you were ever doing Monk tongue-in-cheek.
KB: Well, there are certain things you can allude to, you know, about his playing. The humor in his playing, the use of dissonance, his touch, the percussive touch that he had. So you can allude to those things just for flavor, but I don’t think that it would make sense to really imitate Monk.
Q: Well, he really developed his own fingerings and his own personal language.
KB: Yes, as you say, his technique was very personal. I got to see him live only a few times, and just to watch him would amaze me, looking at his fingering, how he would execute. I mean, I’d think, “Is he actually going to pull this off?” Of course, he always would.
Q: Walking the tightrope.
KB: Yeah, exactly. It was just so unorthodox. But I think his approach and the way he did things is part of the uniqueness of his music, what makes it all sound so special.
Q: I guess “Round Midnight” was in Dizzy’s book when you were performing with him, because I know you recorded that with him on one of the Mercury albums.
KB: Yes, it was.
Q: [ETC.] Now we’ll take an interlude, and listen to some musical offerings by our host this evening, Kenny Barron, in quintet and trio format… [ETC.] I wonder if you’d elaborate on your speculative title “What If?.”
KB: Well, it’s like always looking ahead and trying to find problems, when there aren’t any. “What if this happens, and what if that happens?” rather than just go with what is happening.
[MUSIC: KB Quintet, “What If?”, KB Trio, “The Courtship”]
Q: Now we’ll get back to influences, and we’ll hear something by McCoy Tyner, who had a major impact on you.
KB: Yes, he has. Well, on almost all players younger than him. I met McCoy when he was still living in Philly, and his playing was quite different then. After he joined Trane, it just really changed, and just grew and grew and grew, so that he became a major influence himself. But his playing when he was still in Philly was a little more beboppish, a little more bebop influenced.
Q: He’s not really that much older than you. There’s about a five years difference.
KB: Yeah, something like that, five or six years.
Q: Which means a lot then, but…
KB: Well, at that time, at that time, at that stage, yeah, it can mean a lot.
Q: Who was he working with in Philly?
KB: Well, he used to work with people like Odean Pope, and also he used to work with, like, Lee Morgan and people like that. Whenever someone would come in from New York… I remember one time Kenny Dorham came in, Kenny Dorham and Jimmy Heath, and the rhythm section was McCoy and Lex Humphries, and I can’t remember who the bassist was…it might have been Jimmy Garrison, I’m not sure. This was at a little small club that didn’t last too long in Philadelphia, so whenever someone came through Philly, McCoy would always be the pianist.
Q: Those are some high standards on the Philadelphia scene that you had to come up under.
KB: Oh, yes. That’s right.
Q: You couldn’t be messing around in Philadelphia.
KB: No. And there were some other good pianists there that no one ever heard of, who still live there.
Q: Well, now they’ll hear of them.
KB: There was a guy there named John Ellis, another pianist named Omar Duncan. Hen Gates, who some musicians may know, is from Philadelphia. Some others…the names escape me right now. But there are a lot of good musicians.
[MUSIC: McCoy, “Inception” (1962)-DEFECTIVE]
Q: Coming up will be music by Freddie Hubbard and Yusef Lateef, and in each instance we’ll hear one of Kenny Barron’s compositions. You joined Freddie Hubbard immediately after leaving Diz, or…?
KB: No, it wasn’t immediately after, but maybe a year after I left Dizzy. Freddie lived in the same neighborhood… Actually, at the time he lived around the corner from me in Brooklyn, and I started working with him. It was a great experience, because it was totally different from working with Dizzy. Things were very, very structured with Dizzy, but with Freddie it was a lot looser, and I was able to take a lot more chances, to be a little more adventurous. It’s all part of the growing experience.
Q: Which was very much in keeping with the times as well.
KB: Exactly. Exactly, because it was during the Sixties. I went through several different bands with Freddie. One was a sextet, with James Spaulding and Bennie Maupin, the late Frederick Waits, and a bassist who is now back in California, Herbie Lewis. That was a really good band. It was the kind of band that could shift gears. It could play inside, outside. Then we had another band called The Jazz Communicators, which never recorded, which was with Joe Henderson, Freddie, Louis Hayes, Herbie Lewis and myself.
Q: Never recorded.
KB: Never recorded. So I’ve been through several different situations working with Freddie, and they were all great.
Q: I can’t recollect whether you’re playing electric piano or piano on the track, but you did quite a bit of work on the electric piano over about a 10 or 12 year period.
KB: Yeah, during that time I did quite a bit on the electric piano.
Q: Why were people concentrating so much on the electric piano then? Was it because clubs didn’t have pianos? For experimentation?
KB: No, that was primarily for recording. I think what you have there was the very, very beginning of the fusion thing. So a lot of record companies, when you recorded, wanted you to use electric piano to add other colors. Because the fusion thing could go in several different directions. It could be used kind of for more avant-garde kind of music…
Q: Color, texture…
KB: Yeah, texture and things like that.
Q: Freeing things up.
KB: Yeah. And also it could be used percussively for more R&B kinds of things. So a lot of companies wanted the pianists to use the electric pianos during that time. I think one year I won a New Star Award or something from Downbeat, and I never had an electric piano. I won the award on the electric piano, I mean; and I never owned one. But I was using it a lot on recordings. Not at my request, but the company’s request.
[MUSIC: Freddie, “The Black Angel” (1968); Yusef, “A Flower” (1976?)]
Q: Now, Yusef Lateef was the first musician with whom you went out on the road, in 1960 or so, and you did five years with Yusef in the 1970’s. How much was the group working then?
KB: He was teaching himself at the time. So we worked primarily during the summer. We would either go to Europe or out West, a California tour, work our way out to California and back. So for about four or five years that’s all we did. And again, it was mostly during the summer, because he was teaching. And during that time, everyone in the band also decided to go back to school, so everyone else was in school as well, studying.
Q: That whole experience was very positive.
KB: Yeah, he had a very positive influence. Like I said, he influenced everyone to go back to school. Well, he’s an amazing person. He just has a very positive effect. I was in one of his classes, actually, a harmony class. I remember one of the projects, everyone had to write a large piece of music, so I wrote a string quartet. He said, “Well, it’s nice that you wrote all this music. How can we get to hear it?” So everyone in the class put money together, and we hired musicians, and actually gave a concert to perform these pieces of music that we had written for our term projects. And it really came out great. But that’s the kind of person he was, who inspired you to do things like that.
Q: Coming up we’ll hear the last issued record by Kenny Barron’s late brother, Bill Barron. There’s one that’s ready for issue in the near future. Your brother was the head of the Jazz Department at Wesleyan University at that time.
Q: You recorded with him on just about every record under his leadership, I think.
KB: I believe so. Just about every one.
Q: You’ve mentioned, of course, your brother’s influence. Just a few words about your older brother, Bill Barron.
KB: Well, he was an incredible musician. I don’t want to use the word “underrated,” but there it is, you know. In terms of the public, I think he was. I think musicians knew and respected his work, you know, as often I’ve heard… Especially people that he came up with. People like Jimmy always spoke very well of Bill. And he was a really good person, and very dedicated. He was very dedicated to music. I think he spent most of his waking hours involved with music one way or another, writing music, talking about music. He was also a very good composer. He had some unique ideas about composition, very different ideas, and it came through when he wrote. He was just a great player and a great person.
[MUSIC: B. Barron, “This One’s For Monk” (1990)]
Q: A few words about the quintet working at the Village Vanguard this week.
KB: Well, I could speak volumes about them.
Q; Then we’ll do short stories.
KB: On trumpet is Eddie Henderson, who I think is one of the finest trumpet players around today. He’s obviously a very intelligent person; he’s a doctor…and a funny guy, too!
I guess what I love about everyone in the band is that when it’s time to work, they really hit very hard.
John Stubblefield is, you know, from Arkansas, so he’s got a certain kind of grittiness in his sound. At the same time, he has that certain other kind of thing that maybe Wayne Shorter…
Q; From that AACM background, there’s another…
KB: Yeah, exactly. And David’s background is West Indian, but he’s been here for a very long time, and he’s worked with almost everybody. He’s a current mainstay with Cedar Walton’s European trio, the trio that he takes to Europe quite often, sometimes with the Timeless All-Stars. He works a lot. He’s dependable… I’m talking about in terms of music. I can count on him to be there, and to be imaginative, good sound, good intonation, good time.
Now, I don’t know exactly what I can say about Victor Lewis. I mean, Victor can function in practically in any kind of circumstance. Whatever kind of music you want to play, he can do it for you, and do it well — and enjoy doing it.
Q: And different every time.
KB: Yeah, different every time. One of the things about having this band, I don’t tell them what to play; I just let them bring whatever they have, their own thing to it, and it works out better that way for me.
Q: [ETC., THEN MUSIC]
[MUSIC: Moody/KB, “Anthropology” (1972); KB Trio, “The Only One” (1990)]