Barry Harris, pianist and Bebop specialist, dies at 91

Barry Harris, a pianist and educator who was the bebop movement’s resident researcher – and ultimately, one of its last original ambassa...


Barry Harris, a pianist and educator who was the bebop movement’s resident researcher – and ultimately, one of its last original ambassadors – died Wednesday in North Bergen, NJ. He was 91 years old.

His death, in a hospital, was caused by complications from the coronavirus, which exacerbated a number of underlying health issues, said Howard Rees, his longtime business partner and collaborator.

[Those We’ve Lost: Read about other people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic here.]

From his teens and beyond his nineties, Mr. Harris performed, taught and toured with unwavering devotion, evangelizing for bebop’s stature as a form of high American modernism and helping to cast the basics of generalization academic study of jazz. Yet throughout his career he remained an independent educator: he never joined the faculty of a large institution, choosing instead to integrate into New York’s music community, reaching students from all over. ages.

For nearly half a century, Mr. Harris ran a weekly series of low cost classes in the city, while playing at top clubs in the city and leaving to perform and teach abroad. . He was known for his acerbic language and his demanding character, proof of his passion for teaching.

Writing in 1986, New York Times critic Robert Palmer described Mr. Harris as a “One jazz academy”.

He arrived in the late 1940s and 1950s in Detroit, where a thriving scene hosted some of jazz’s greatest improvisers. Many musicians from his hometown that he grew up around – vibraphonist Milt Jackson; guitarist Kenny Burrell; the Jones brothers (drummer Elvin, pianist Hank and trumpeter Thad); saxophonist Yusef Lateef; pianist Tommy Flanagan – would soon become figureheads, and their contributions would help define the sound of hardbop: a sizzling, bluesy-soaked style that summed up some of the scattered intensity of bebop.

But Mr. Harris never shied away from the bebop’s high temperatures, snap beats and dashing melodies. He remained an evangelist for what he considered to be the pinnacle of American musical creation.

“We believe in Bird, Diz, Bud. We believe in Tatum Art. We believe in Cole Hawkins, ”said Mr. Harris Recount his students later in life checking the names of bebop’s founding fathers. “These are the people we believe in. Nothing has influenced us.”

Mr. Harris was named National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1989. He received several honorary doctorates and was often referred to by his friends and students as “doctor”.

He has recorded more than two dozen albums, including a series of famous releases in the 1960s for the Prestige and Riverside labels. All of these LPs featured him either in small ensembles or alone on the piano, demonstrating his cunning and wandering harmonic sense and his unwavering sense for bebop rhythm.

A stroke in 1993 limited his keyboard mobility slightly, but it slowed him down a bit. As he grew older, he developed a hunched posture, but when he sat down at the piano, lovingly leaning over the keys with a loving study gaze, his intuition became impossible to notice.

He is survived by a daughter, Carol Geyer.

Barry Doyle Harris was born December 15, 1929 in Detroit, the fourth of five children to Melvin and Bessie Harris. His mother was a pianist in their Baptist church, and when he was 4 she started teaching him to play.

As a teenager, he settled down alongside the most experienced pianists in the city. Almost immediately after learning the basics of bebop, he became something of a young scholar of the movement, building a pedagogy around the music that Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and their comrades had invented together in Harlem a few years ago. only. earlier.

He began to conduct informal classes at his mother’s house, and musicians with much more experience often sought out his improvised symposia, in the hopes of soaking up what he called his “rules”: exercises. and frameworks that might help them decompress the complex – but often unwritten – structures of bebop.

“Trane took all my period,” he said Daily news of New York in 2012, in reference to John Coltrane. “I made up rules for cats to train.”

His process as an instructor was just as improvised as his performances. “To watch it in action is to witness oral tradition at its deepest,” wrote critic Mark Stryker of Mr. Harris in his book “Jazz From Detroit.”

In high demand as a conductor and backing musician throughout the 1950s, Mr. Harris supported some of the greatest musicians of the era when they performed in Detroit, including Miles Davis. He sometimes sat with Parker, the bebop leader, when he was in town.

Mr. Harris toured with pioneering drummer Max Roach in 1956 and began traveling to New York frequently to record with Thad Jones, saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Art Farmer. But he had started a family in Detroit and was happily installed as a mainstay there.

In 1960, at the age of 30, he was finally persuaded by saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to join the tide of musicians from Detroit who had settled in New York. He continued to live in the metro area for the rest of his life, teaching and playing almost nonstop and appearing on albums like trumpeter Lee Morgan’s 1964 hit “The Sidewinder”.

Soon after arriving, he befriended Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the musicians’ heiress and lawyer known as the Baroness of Jazz, and she invited him to move into her sprawling home in Weehawken, NJ, overlooking Manhattan and teeming with dozens of cats. . (Ms. de Koenigswarter arranged for Mr. Harris to stay in the house after his death; he continued to live there for the rest of his life.)

In 1972 Thelonious Monk moved in and he stayed until his death 10 years later. So Mr. Harris continued alongside another master, exchanging information and soaking up more of his language. The Monk songbook has remained a mainstay of Mr. Harris’ repertoire throughout his life; perhaps in part due to the time he spent living with Monk, his playing became both more lyrical and more rhythmic as he got older.

Beginning in 1974, Mr. Harris ran intensive weekly workshops in New York City, open to mature students of all ages for a relatively low price. Students could purchase evening passes or pay for an entire year. He never stopped teaching the classes, continuing until the pandemic brought it to an end in March 2020, and then leading them through Zoom this year.

In 1982, Mr. Harris opened the Jazz Cultural Theater, a multi-purpose space in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, where he taught seven days a week and put on evening shows. In some of these performances, he presented a choir made up of neighborhood children.

Ms de Koenigswarter helped fund the facility, but Mr Harris refused to sell alcohol, favoring a community orientation that would allow children to be there at all times. As a result, he did not make a steady profit.

The theater closed after five years when the rent went up, but Mr. Harris simply moved his operation elsewhere and continued to teach: in public schools, community centers and abroad.

He never really stopped performing either, performing regularly in New York City theaters until his 90s, including an annual run more or less at the Village Vanguard.

Her last performance was in November, at a concert featuring the recipients of the Jazz Masters Award. He didn’t play the piano, but he sang an interpretation of his own ballad, “The red and gold bird” a story of inspiration and triumph that he first recorded, in a rare vocal performance, in 1979.

Over time, Mr. Harris’ students have spread across the globe and are committed to continuing his work. With his blessing, a former student created a place in Spain called the Bilbao Jazz Cultural Theater.

Interviewed by The Times shortly before the pandemic, Mr. Harris had lost none of his passion for teaching. As he contemplated the experience of hearing a student improve, he said, “This is the most beautiful thing you want to hear in your life. “

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Newsrust - US Top News: Barry Harris, pianist and Bebop specialist, dies at 91
Barry Harris, pianist and Bebop specialist, dies at 91
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