Dr. Barry Harris

Dr. Barry Harris

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Dr. barry harris

NEA Jazz Master, pianist Dr. Barry Harris is unquestionably the highest authority on bebop today. Dubbed by Downbeat Magazine as the “Keeper of the Bebop flame”, Dr. Harris is both one of the best performers and the most knowledgeable teachers of the music.

Born in Detroit in 1929, Barry Harris arrived just in time to experience bebop from the source—saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. “I sat in with Bird at least three or four times,” Dr. Harris remembers. “The chills engulfed you. It spoils you. When you do something like that, you end up looking for the same thing to happen with somebody else”. He later performed with a virtual Bird on “April in Paris” and “Laura” in the Clint Eastwood film, “Bird.” Growing up in Detroit and receiving classical training, he joined the ranks of the pianists of the so-called Detroit school of jazz piano, a style that combined the dexterity and harmonic sophistication of bebop with understated elegance and bell tone touch—Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Hugh Lawson, and Sir Roland Hanna. Young Barry Harris worked around the different clubs at the Motor City playing with his friends and contemporaries like Thad Jones, Donald Byrd, Frank Foster, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Red, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, Elvin Jones, and also with the visiting musicians like Lester Young, Flip Phillips, Nancy Wilson, and Miles Davis.

Barry Harris moved to New York in 1956 to play with Sonny Rollins and Donald Byrd in the band assembled by Max Roach after the car crash that killed Clifford Brown and Richie Powell. In 1960 he joined Cannonball Adderly’s band. In New York he quickly struck up a close friendship with Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins, to whom he remained close until the end of their lives. From the mid-1970s until Monk’s death in 1982, both pianists lived in the Weehawken, N.J., house owned by the “Jazz Baroness,” Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Harris still lives in De Konigswater’s home, facing the west bank of the Hudson River with a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline.

Dr. Harris also attracted a national following as one of the most gifted and passionate teachers of bebop. “A lot of piano players, like Sonny Clark, came to Detroit looking for me,” Harris says. “Most of the Detroiters came through my house. Roland Hanna and Sonny Red would climb those stairs to learn those chords. Joe Henderson came for lessons. John Coltrane came to my house and wanted to know what I was teaching.” His protégé saxophonist Charles McPhearson remembers, “I saw everybody there: Sonny Rollins, Cannonball [Adderley]. Trane came when I was there, saying, ‘OK, Barry, what are you working on?’ He’s a master pianist, but it’s more than knowledge that you can get from someone like Barry. You also get an element of musicality.”

As a bandleader Barry Harris recorded 19 albums, including solo recitals (his contribution to Concord’s Maybeck series is one of the best). He is also a distinguished sideman, having recorded with such masters of the music like Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, Cannonball Adderley, Harold Land, Thad Jones, Kenny Dorham, Yusef Lateef, Lee Morgan, Charles McPherson, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Criss, Al Cohn and Sonny Stitt. His playing can be heard on many canonical records, among them Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and Lateef’s “Eastern Sounds.”


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