May 24, 2024

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Interview with Barry Harris: We’d perform for our contemporaries: Video

Jazz interview with jazz pianist, educator, composer Barry Barris. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – Just for starters, what are a few of your favorite recordings of all time?

Barry Harris: – I like listening mostly to Bird, Bud, and Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk. Any of their albums. I also dig Donald Byrd and Phil Woods. I especially love their band from 1954-1958, the one with Bud Powell, Phil Woods, and Donald Byrd, with Arthur Taylor on drums and Paul Chambers on bass. Bud Powell: Live at Birdland 1957, East Wind Import, 2013.

JBN.S: – OK, how about if we go back to that time period, when you were coming up in Detroit, where there was so much going on musically in the 1940s -50s. What was that experience like for you?

BH: – I sure had a lot of good musicians to learn from. We practiced a lot and we jammed a lot; we’d go to different clubs and jam sessions. We used to go to the house of a saxophonist named Joe Brazil, who eventually moved to Seattle. I heard a rumor that they recently found recordings of jam sessions we had at his house between around 1949 and 1952. I hope that they are released, so I can listen to it and hear if we really played that good. I heard some stuff from 1952 with Walter Davis Jr., that sounded a lot like we played in Detroit. It was the same thing that we were doing.

JBN.S: – You have vividly described the moment that you first heard Charlie Parker in person. I think you said it was at a roller skating rink.

BH: – It was a dance hall. You know, at that time musicians played a lot at dance halls. But in this case, the dance hall was at a roller rink. I think I was in high school then, some time in the early 1940s, when I first went to hear him.

JBN.S: – Did you have any contact with the Jones brothers, Elvin, Hank, or Thad?

BH: – That was later. Elvin and I had a trio together after he came out of the Army. At the same time, we had Sheila Jordan, Jimmy Dawson, Benny Carter. Sheila was in a vocal trio called “Skeeter, Mitch and Jean” who could scat and do everything. Bird used to invite them to sing with his band. There was so much going on in Detroit then. And about twenty of us went to New York all around the same time!

JBN.S: – Did you have a job lined up in the Big Apple. Did you hoping for work?

BH: – Max Roach hired me to work with his group that included Sonny Rollins, Donald Byrd, and the bassist George Morrow. Then I came back to Detroit and hooked up with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. That was when Yuseff Lateef, Paul Chambers, and a lot of other great musicians left Detroit to make it elsewhere. It really was a very special time.

JBN.S: – I recently listened to your album Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron and was very impressed by your interpretations of Dameron’s music, which seem to capture his essence. Did you know him personally?

BH: – No, I never really knew Tadd Dameron. I never came into contact with him. But he was from Cleveland, Ohio, and I knew a cat named Willie Smith, not the pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, but another guy who wrote tunes just like Tadd Dameron [Willie “Face” Smith, who worked with Dameron in his early days. They were part of a group of composers/arrangers in Cleveland at the time. -Eds.] They had a special way with their arrangements. I went to Cleveland to record some things for Willie Smith: songs from “Flower Drum Song,” which was a musical on Broadway at the time. The recording was never released. It’s a lost album.

JBN.S: – Do you have a sense of how your own playing has changed over the years?

BH: – I’ve added some things here and there based on my various experiences. I worked with Coleman Hawkins, and that added a lot to my playing. I’ve played with many of the greatest musicians and always tried to pick up ideas from them.

JBN.S: – You’re considered one of the best interpreters of Thelonious Monk’s music, and I wonder if you ever met him.

BH: – Oh yes, I lived with Monk for ten years! We lived at Baroness Nica von Koenigswarter’s home in Weehawken, NJ. Once, we were at the piano together, and we played “My Ideal” over and over again, maybe 25 times. I’d play one chorus, and he’d play one, and on and on! I wish it were recorded, because it would be really interesting to hear. To me, he was one of our greatest and most prolific composers. All those beautiful ballads: “Pannonica,” “Reflections,” “Ask Me Now,” “Monk’s Mood,” they’re all very special. And “52nd Street Theme,” Rhythm-a-ning,” “Bolivar Blues,” “Straight No Chaser,” all those things. When he died, I played Monk’s music all night long. That’s incredible, that you could play one person’s music all night.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are from half-a-century ago?

BH: – If the young people had their own instruments, they could make up their own stuff. But most of the kids don’t play at all. And we’re losing our audiences. It’s really disturbing that jazz clubs are closing all over the world.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

BH: – The balance between intellect and soul or intuition is something that cannot be explained in words — it is a feeling — soul is of the spirit- it can not be broken down into discursive language — intellect is in some ways acquired – soul or spirit is your original being-or pure being so its passive not active — you do not acquire it-you can not study your way into it.

JBN.S: – What are you doing these days? Do you have a group that you work with?

BH: – I travel. I teach. I have students in Israel, Russia, the Netherlands, Germany. They flock from everywhere to work with me. I teach in order to keep jazz alive.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

BH: – I believe there is a Creator who is hard to describe. There is a musical Creator, a musical God. The musical God is Perfection. As humans, all we can do is strive for perfection. As musicians, we try to get as close as possible to His Perfection.

JBN.S: – What would you like to convey to young musicians who are just starting their careers?

BH: – They should realize they’ve been taken by the devil. When I came up, we’d perform for our contemporaries. We played at dances where all the young people came. I feel sorry for the young musicians today because they don’t bring their contemporaries with them. I think maybe they should try to perform on television, because that attracts large audiences, and there hasn’t been much jazz on TV for many years. Something needs to be done to bring jazz back on a larger scale with new audiences.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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