By Michele Drayton
Barry Harris was taken aback when he found out he was one of three jazz pianists up for the GRAMMY organization’s President’s Merit Award.
“What is it? I don’t know what it is,” Harris recalled during an interview on Florida’s WMNF-FM radio in 2005. “But when I found out (the other winners were) Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson, I said, ‘Oh, yeah… well, me too! ‘”
It was Harris, who could be unassuming at fault when it came to his own accolades. The pianist, who lived in Weehawken, died aged 91 in December. His legacy includes musicians and students he taught, and fans who expanded their appreciation of music even though they couldn’t tell the difference between a B-flat tonic and middle C. He was an influencer before social media made it a gig.
Harris grew up in Detroit and lived in the house with her first teacher, her mother, Bessie, a church musician. He chose jazz with his support.
The solo on the first record he slowed down to study was Bud Powell’s “I Got Lucky That Way,” he told the Jersey Journal in 1989.
His childhood friends, like him, became future stars: Donald Byrd, Tommy Flanagan, Sonny Red, Paul Chambers, Terry Pollard.
“We had a lot of great musicians, very talented cats,” Harris said. “They were at my house most of the time because they knew I would be home training.”
Harris went from dancing teens to backing guest musicians at the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit. His reputation propels him to New York. In the 1960s, Harris recorded for the Riverside and Prestige labels, notably as a trio (Chasin’ the Bird) and as a sextet (Luminescence!) and (Bull’s Eye!).
He helped launch the Jazz Cultural Theater, an alcohol-free, kid-friendly venue, and taught students in workshops at New York universities. A typical workshop scene featured groups of students, many with tape recorders, hovering above the piano as Harris played. They discovered diminished chords – and the visionaries of the jazz canon: Powell, Charles Christopher Parker Jr., Thelonious Monk, John Birks Gillespie.
In the late 1990s, Harris’ New York students and those from Italy, Israel, Denmark, and Germany, among other countries, gathered for his workshop at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., a paparazzi of instrumentalists and singers followed the trim little man wearing a standard blazer, rubber-soled shoes, poofs of white hair and a gap-toothed smile.
Harris’ fingers were long and graceful. He slid them over the keys like he was skating, expert. The appearance of ease hid the underlying science. A listener heard beauty in his song “Nascimento”, named after a mallet player. Harris heard something else: “Don’t ask me how it came to me,” Harris told WMNF-FM with a laugh, “because it starts in B major and it’s kind of weird right there.”
At the workshop in The Hague, retired engineer Carel Nieuwenhuis said Harris’ teaching style was natural — and mathematical.
“It’s a combination of being an artist, having a lot of emotions, and having a really good brain,” he told a writer for American Visions magazine in 1999.
The National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master was still pushing students in 2015 to practice to learn to improvise, saying there was still so much to learn.
“You have to get people to practice. You gotta get people practicing the beat,” Harris told WMNF-FM in Tampa, Florida. “You should always practice playing because you have to be rhythmic. Most people these days are not too rhythmic,” he said of young people learning music.
The unpretentious gentleman has become demanding and philosophical.
“They don’t use triplets. They don’t know anything about 16 note triplets and they barely know eighth note triplets. And that’s a big mistake,” Harris said.
“The triplets rule the world, a triplet is three, and three is the Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” he said during the radio interview.
Harris drew parallels between improvising and speaking.
“These young people do not know silence. You see, they think silence is silence. Silence is not silence,” Harris said. “When they are silent, they think nothing is happening. But in this period of calm, that’s when the thoughts go through the head and the brain. That’s why we need those breaks in music.
The interview took place two days after her 76-hour birthday party, an event that drew more than 100 guests. When asked what he would change in his life, Harris replied:
“If I had realized that I was going to become so important, I would have been more sincere in what I was doing. I would have given even more. I would have tried even harder. That’s all.”
Michele Drayton, a former Jersey Journal reporter, teaches chemistry and biomedical innovation at a public high school in Chicago. A former jazz DJ at WMNF-FM in Tampa, Florida, she now plays jazz for WHPK-FM, the University of Chicago radio station.