Born on December 15, 1929, in Detroit, MI. Education: Studied with Neptune Holloway, Gladys Wade Dillard, and Sophia Rosoff. Addresses: Record company--Fantasy Jazz, Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710, Phone: (510) 549-2500 Fax: (510) 486-2015.
Barry Harris is one of the world's greatest living jazz pianists. With a sound often compared to Bud Powell and an ability to interpret the compositions of Thelonius Monk, Harris, who developed his own unique bebop style as well, played an important role in Detroit's jazz scene in the 1950s. His hometown peers--who, along with Harris, all flourished during the era--included pianists Tommy Flanagan, Terry Pollard, and Roland Hanna; trumpeters Thad Jones and Donald Byrd; saxophonists Billy Mitchell, Frank Foster, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Red, and Pepper Adams; trombonist Frank Rosolino; guitarist Kenny Burrell; harpist Dorothy Ashby; bassists Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers; and drummers Elvin Jones and Frank Gant. Aside from leading his own groups and composing music, Harris has recorded with the likes of Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Yusef Lateef, Hank Mobley, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Stitt, and Lee Morgan.
One of Harris' greatest pleasures, though, remains his work as an educator. Teaching and holding workshops in cities all over the United States at inexpensive rates, he enjoys sharing his knowledge and passion for the jazz idiom with young and old, amateurs as well as seasoned professionals. "Barry's the whole reason why I really started playing," said one of Harris's prize pupils, saxophonist Charles McPherson, as quoted by Dirk Sutro for the Los Angeles Times. "Barry was my mentor, I started studying with him when I was about 15. At that time, I knew some scales, but I had no idea of harmony or theory, some of the technical things involved with music. He's the guy who showed me how to think about improvising."
Despite his expertise, Harris, too, continues to take lessons, including studying with classical pianist Sophia Rosoff in New York. "I don't think there's one musician who has worked enough to know what he can do, his real abilities," noted Harris. "I've got tapes of Monk practicing. He didn't just practice, he played. He played one piece for 90 minutes by himself. The whole thing is we really don't play enough." Besides keeping in practice, Harris also feels that jazz musicians must look within themselves, rather than concentrating solely on technique, for inspiration. "Most people, when they approach the piano, their fingers are the first to react. I believe more in the body playing the piano than the fingers," he explained to Sutro. "This method puts you into your body, right below your navel, where you really play and feel everything."
Harris was born on December 15, 1929, in Detroit, Michigan, and began playing the piano in church under the guidance of his mother. Later, he studied the classics with Neptune Holloway, a preacher, as well as Gladys Wade Dillard. As a teen, Harris arrived at a crossroads when his mother asked him whether he wanted to stick with church music or switch to jazz. Harris opted for the latter, a decision that his mother fully supported. "At Northeastern High School," he recalled in an interview with Down Beat's Ted Panken, "the two boogie-woogie piano players were Berry Gordy (of Motown fame) and Barry Harris. We might have got messed up when Theodore Shieldy came to town from Georgia and went to the school; he not only played better boogie-woogie, but he could improvise. So could a cat named Will Davis."
"Now, I could chord when I was a teenager, maybe 13-14-15, but I didn't solo too well," he continued. "I lived on the east side of Detroit, and I started going over to the west side where the cats maybe couldn't chord as well as me, but they could solo. When I was 17, a girl named Bess Bonnier loaned me a record player that had a device that allowed you to play the record in any key you wanted all the way through. The first thing I learned to play was 'Webb City' with Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt!"
Bitten by the bebop bug, Harris' next step involved absorbing and analyzing records by Powell, as well as the music of Charlie Parker. "We were beboppers," Harris recalled. "Bebop was a real musical revelation for us--like a renaissance. I was born in 1929, and I became a teenager in the '40s. So while someone like Jaki Byard, who was a teenager in the '30s, learned more about the stride, Art Tatum and Earl Hines, we heard Al Haig, Bud Powell and George Shearing."
Already displaying a dynamic playing technique and a confidence about his abilities, Harris would wait for Charlie Parker to come to town and sit in with the legendary saxophonist. "I sat in with Bird at least three or four time," Harris told Panken. "His band was late once for a dance at the Graystone Ballroom, so we played just one song with him during the first set--a blues in C. He was beautiful to us. The best experience that I always tell people is a time when he was playing a dance with strings at a roller rink called the Forrest Ballroom. We stood in front, and the strings started, and when he started playing chills started at your toes, and went on through your body.... It's really a spoiler. I don't like to go listen to people because I'm expecting somebody to make me feel like that. Bud Powell is important to me; I'm more a Charlie Parker disciple, even more so now."
Initiating his own career, Harris started out playing high school dances and various other functions around Detroit. And during parts of 1953 and 1954, he worked as the house pianist at the Bluebird Lounge in the heart of the city's west side. While here, he enjoyed a brief stint in 1953 with Miles Davis, at the time a Detroit resident, as well as an extended engagement with Yusef Lateef and Elvin Jones. Subsequently, he toured with Max Roach for a few months after Clifford Brown and Richie Powell died in 1956. Also that year, Harris landed gigs on recordings by Thad Jones and Hank Mobley. Previously, in 1950, he recorded his first album as a sideman with Detroit tenor saxophonist Wild Bill Moore.
Harris spent the remainder of the 1950s in Detroit, working as the house pianist for established clubs like the Rouge Lounge and Baker's Keyboard Lounge. Some of the solo acts he played with included Lester Young, Flip Phillips, and Nancy Wilson. By now, Harris was known as a sort of piano guru in his hometown, and younger players such as Joe Henderson, Louis Hayes, Roy Brooks, Paul Chambers, Lonnie Hillyer, and Charles McPherson began to seek him out for information. His mother's flat, where she allowed Harris and others to practice all day, became a music mecca. Likewise, when traveling players came through Detroit, they always knew to go to Harris' house. On one occasion, John Coltrane stopped by when he was in town with Davis and Cannonball Adderley.
After recording his first album as a leader in 1958, Harris left Detroit in 1960 to join Adderley's quintet in New York City. After a brief period his the group, Harris landed performing and recording stints with musicians like Yusef Lateef and Lee Morgan, followed by work with Wes Montgomery and McPherson. During the 1960s, Harris also discovered mentors of his own in Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins. "A lot of people assume that Monk didn't have technique," said Harris to Panken. "I can tell them that they're lying on that issue, because he really did. I saw him play a run, and I tried to play it and I couldn't. Monk danced a lot. He would sit behind the piano, and suddenly throw his hand out of the way at the top of the piano to hit a note. The way he would play a whole tone scale coming down. I don't know if anybody ever played like that before!"
Hawkins, with whom Harris played extensively from 1962 until the saxophone legend's death in 1969, also greatly inspired Harris. "He would play a phrase, laugh his butt off because he knew I was trying to get the phrase," said Harris. "I wasn't chording. I was trying to steal his phrases! It let me know that there's a lot more to be played than what we've heard. We were the bebop boys. That was out music. But playing with Coleman Hawkins sort of showed one that there was a lot more to play than bebop, than what Bird and them played. So one had to work at trying to reach this other level."
During the early- to mid-1960s, Harris also recorded four strong sessions for the Riverside label, including his personal favorite, 1960s Live At the Jazz Workshop. When the label folded in 1964, he continued to record with A&R man Don Schlitten on various labels throughout the remainder of his career. He also worked as a sideman with numerous others, and in the 1970s appeared on two of Sonny Stitt's finest recordings: Tune Up and Constellation.
In the mid 1970s, Harris began teaching in a formal setting with Jazz Interactions, a non-profit organization run by Joe and Rigmore Newman. After a while, his classes became so popular that he founded his own school called the Jazz Cultural Theater, which he used between 1982 and 1988 as a New York platform for creating and articulating his unorthodox teaching methodology. Harris continued to instruct others in the 1990s and into the next century. In addition to teaching at Manhattan's Lincoln community center, he spends around 15 weeks out of the year as an artist-in-residence at various academic institutions. He teaches others not only how to play music, but also how to experience it. "Jazz is about feeling," says Harris, as quoted by Los Angeles Times writer Don Heckman. "It's about beauty. It's about expression. Jazz is a beautiful way of expressing yourself."
by Laura Hightower
Barry Harris's Career
Began playing piano in church before switching to jazz; moved to New York, where he played with Thelonius Monk, Coleman Hawkins, and others; recorded with Sonny Stitt and others, 1970s; began teaching formally, mid 1970s; has recorded over 65 albums with others and as a leader.
Barry Harris's Awards
Award for the Preservation and Proliferation of the Jazz Heritage, Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey,1982; Award for Excellence In the Arts, Manhattan Borough, NY, 1989; American Jazz Masters Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1989; North Sea "Bird" Award Jazz Musician of the Year, Jazz Festival Congress Centre, The Hague, Holland, 1991; Jazz Camp--Jazz Master Award, City Stages, Birmingham Festival, 1993; New York University SCE Jazz Fellow Award, New York University, 1994; Certificate of Appreciation for Outstanding Service to Jazz Education, International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE), Tokyo, Japan, 1995; Honorary Jazz Award, House of Representatives, 1995; Special Presidential Award: Recognition of Dedication and Commitment to the Pursuance of Artistic Excellence in Jazz Performance and Education, International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE), 1995; Living Legacy Jazz Award, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, 1996; Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributions to the Music World from the National Association of Negro Musicians, High Cs of Westchester, Inc., Branch, Tarrytown, NY, 1998; inducted into American Jazz Hall of Fame, New Jersey Jazz Society Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, 2000.
- Selected discography
- Breakin' It Up , Argo, 1958.
- Barry Harris At the Jazz Workshop (recorded live in San Francisco), Riverside, 1960.
- Preminado , Riverside, 1960.
- Listen to Barry Harris , Riverside, 1961.
- Newer Than New , Riverside, 1961.
- Chasin' the Bird , Original Jazz, 1962.
- Luminescence , Prestige, 1967.
- Bull's Eye , Prestige, 1968.
- Magnificent , Prestige, 1969.
- Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron , Xanadu, 1975.
- Barry Harris/Tokyo:1976 , Xanadu, 1976.
- Barry Harris Plays Barry Harris , Xanadu, 1978.
- Stay Right With It , Milestone, 1978.
- Beautiful Africa , Soul Note, 1979.
- For the Moment (recorded live at the Jazz Cultural Theatre), Uptown, 1985.
- The Bird of Red and Gold , Xanadu, 1989.
- Live At Maybeck Recital Hall--Volume Twelve , Concord Jazz, 1991.
- Barry Harris In Spain , Nuba, 1992.
- Live At Dug , Enja, 1996.
- First Time Ever , Alfa Music, 1997.
- American Visions, February/March 1999.
- Down Beat, October 2000.
- Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1991; July 8, 1997.
- All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 2, 2001).
- Barry Harris Official Website for Education and Information, http://www.barryharris.com (February 2, 2001).