The Musical Mission of Barry Harris

Covid claimed the jazz legend Barry Harris last week. The pianist died in a hospital across the Hudson River from Manhattan in North Bergen, New Jersey on December 8th, a week before his ninety-second birthday.

Born six weeks after the stock market crash of 1929, Harris was a child of the Depression and  of the Church. His mother Bessie was pianist for the family’s Baptist congregation in Detroit and gave him his first lessons at four years old.  Throughout his life Harris preached the gospel of jazz. For decades his pulpit was the Jazz Cultural Theater he founded in Manhattan in the early 1980s. There he held classes every day of the week open to all for a few dollars a head: not just students who played the piano but any instrument, as well as those who brought only their fascination for his teachings and the music he nourished.

Rightly counted among the Founding Fathers of bebop, Harris played as young man with Charlie Parker whenever he came through Detroit. Harris began touring with another founder, the drummer Max Roach in 1956, the year after Parker’s death. The pianist moved to New York in 1960.

Holder of four honorary doctorates, Dr. Harris evangelized not just at his Jazz Cultural Theater, but also at universities and conservatories across North America and Europe.

I encountered him once in person, at Harvard in 1987 when he came to speak to a jazz history course my roommate was taking and that I audited when a famed musician would come in.

Harris was then a small wiry man with slender graceful hands and graying hair.  In his insistently instructive tenor voice, he began by telling us of himself—of his mother and the music she played in church and at home and of the moral lessons that formed him.

He acknowledged that not all corruptions of the world could be resisted even by a man of Christian character. His weakness was playing the ponies, but he made it clear that his mother’s music and message remained in him.  He sat down at the nearby Steinway grand and with those long, accurate fingers drew from the piano glowing harmonies connected by sage melodic asides and searching arpeggios.

He opened his mouth and began to sing about a Bird of Red and Gold—not the alto saxophone playing genius Bird Harris venerated, but the winged soul.

He sang with intimacy and devotion, yet without excess emotion. His ardor was real but decorous. In his song’s sweeping intervals he resisted the temptations of sentimentality even when reaching up into a fragile falsetto. Every word was clear and meaningful, the melody artfully articulated in varied rhetorical phrases. The small classroom became his parlor and chapel. What he sang was an allegorical hymn to the Prince of Peace that united jazz and church. Time stopped for two minutes.

 

There was silence then the clock started again with the class’s applause that Harris waved off, though not with false modesty.

Keen to make the point that his upbringing and tastes (at least some of them) were catholic, he remained at the piano and started into Chopin’s Etude in C Major, Op. 10, no. 1.  I had learned the piece a few years before, striving unsuccessfully after the astounding speed, accuracy, and steely grandeur attained by the unerring Italian virtuoso, Maurizio Pollini.

Harris attempted no such striving.  He slowed the piece way down, presenting it more like J. S. Bach’s famous Prelude in C Major spread out across the many octaves of the modern piano—the sonorities enjoyed and appreciated rather than hurdled over and hurtling by.  There was a message in that unhurried approach: technical skill can be used towards different ends than overwhelming your listeners and yourself.

Harris’s fingers were fleet, though not as a fast and powerful as Pollini’s. Few are. Harris deployed his dexterity to express the improviser’s imagination in his solo readings for us of several bebop tunes. He began this section of his talk with the unforgettable sentence: “Monk slept in my bed for ten years.”  That bed was in the Weehawken, New Jersey at the home of the important jazz patron Pannonica de Koenigswarter, whom Thelonius portayed in a tune bearing her name. After rising each day, Harris and the reclusive Monk would embark together on their musical calisthenics, each taking fifty choruses of the blues. After Monk’s death in 1982 and Koenigswarter’s in 1988, Harris lived in the house until his last trip to the hospital.

During that Harvard afternoon, Harris not only retailed stories from his past—the jazz past—, but also devoted many of his remarks to his carefully worked-out harmonic and melodic theories of jazz. These were laid out this week with a glittering clarity worthy of a Harris solo by pianist and writer Ethan Iverson; this tribute is one of the most artful, informative and beautiful essays on jazz I’ve ever read.  (While I’m here, let me also praise Iverson’s moving obituaryof the contentious critic Stanley Crouch, another victim—if perhaps indirectly—of Covid.)

Standing in front of a classroom, Harris was perhaps not the clearest explicator of his theoretical system and its rich practical applications.  So after he concluded his lecture he invited those interested to come up to the piano and play some chords and he would describe them in his analytical terms.  Several approached the bench and, one after the other, grabbed bunches of notes, Harris reeling off his analysis and demonstrating at the keyboard what these sonorities might do, where they might go.

He turned to me and said, “Play something.” As I took my hands out of my pockets I prepared them for some unlikely arrangement of pitches, but as they approached the ivories I noticed that there was ink all over my fingers.  A pen had exploded in my pocket.  I tried to say something to Harris, as he looked up at me impatiently.  Tongue-tied, I turned over my hands and he saw the wet black smudges .  “Oh, man?” he groaned, and dismissed me with a wave.

The incident doesn’t quite rank up there in the annals of jazz with Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at the young Charlie Parker, and I am long since over the embarrassment of the moment. I now cherish that encounter—or better, non-encounter—and the memory of the chord-never-played for the great man.

I’d admired Harris on recording before that afternoon, especially for his collaborations with Dexter Gordon.  The track I’ve listened to most, and that I still play regularly on the LP I bought a few years before Harris came to Harvard, is “Apple Jump” from Dexter Gordon’s Biting the Apple (1976).  The disc’s opener, the tune is built on the foundational chord progression of “I Got Rhythm,” that perennial admissions test to the bebop fraternity. But for “Apple Jump” it is slowed down to a gentlemanly pace set by Harris’s introduction. In these eight-bars one is immediately made to know that the session will be a work of joint genius, Harris setting the course with his restrained confidence and generous musicality.

Harris’s style at the piano is instantly recognizable for its subtlety and verve, its commanding control that, like the Bird of Red Gold, is not constrained by limitation but takes flight.  Rather than unfettered fantasy, it is control that fires the creative spirit, a gift from above that has now flown.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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