Legendary jazz pianist, educator, and Detroit native Barry Harris has been one of the bebop pioneers, alongside Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Harris toured with Max Roach in 1956, Cannonball Adderley in 1960, and Coleman Hawkins throughout the mid-1960s. By then, he had moved to New York and, between world tours, has been teaching and playing here ever since. On April 7 and 8, Harris will join Regina Carter at the Rose Theater for an all-Detroit installment of Jazz at Lincoln Center's As of Now series.
As of Now pairs an established jazz composer with a younger, rising star and features commissioned performers premiering their own individual pieces. Last season's spotlight was on Marcus Roberts and Jason Moran. Previous collaborations have included Toshiko Akiyoshi with Maria Schneider, Danilo Perez with Randy Weston, and Eric Reed with Sam Rivers.
Harris is jazz history. Yet he's busy today working on new material of his own and teaching eager students the business of bebop. "Its all about knowledge," he explains. "If you have knowledge, you have a chance in the arts. All I'm trying to do is keep the music alive. I teach all over the world. In the last six weeks, I've been to Madrid, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, and finally Japan‹Sapporo and Tokyo. I've got things that nobody's really explained, like how Bach improvised. When improvisation stopped in Europe, it started over here in America‹because improvisation has to go on. It's funny, 'cause I like to say, 'If Bach and them were alive, they'd be playing at the corner bar, too.' Sure enough, this cat called me and said, 'Barry, you got to read this!' In one of the books about Bach, it said that he was playing organ too much in the church, so what he started doin' was going to the corner café to play! It's just like I said!" he says with a laugh. "At the concert halls and symphony halls, they play dead peoples' music. Think about it. You don't get much of a chance to get commissioned to do something. But now I have been commissioned to play for Jazz at Lincoln Center! We don't have enough of that, where they let you play your music in the concert hall. I just believe that I'm supposed to pass it along."
Harris agrees with Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis that the basic fundamentals of jazz are extremely important to teach and pass on to younger musicians. "A lot of people ignore them," he says. "They've ignored the main thing, which is the rhythm. If you listen to Bird play, then if you listen to Miles play with Bird, there's something about the rhythm that is entirely different than Miles playing with his own group. There's a rhythm difference that is unbelievable. Bird changed rhythm. Not necessarily notes, but rhythm. He was able to do so much with rhythm. He looked like he was so completely free. He could just about do anything he wanted to do. It was not prepared stuff. It was just‹bam!‹do it. They'd be dancin' around and Charlie Rouse would start playing and Monk would sit down at the piano and‹bam!‹start playing. They knew about this stuff."
Something else that Harris thinks is missing today are more musicians who have their own identifiable sound. Take the tenor players, he says. "They don't have individual sounds. They're so keen on not having vibrato and being straight-toned and all that, that they all sound alike. Whereas, before, we could tell when Ben Webster played, we could tell when Coleman Hawkins played, we could definitely tell when Prez [Lester Young] played. All those cats had different sounds. If somebody put on a bunch of today's tenor players, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart. There's no individuality. See, vibrato is your sound. They all should be workin' on their vibratos. I was listening to Sonny Rollins play a ballad. The sound‹man, the sound he gets on a ballad. The vibrato is so beautiful."
Still, Harris has high hopes for the future of jazz. "There's people all over the world trying to learn it," he declares. "More elsewhere in the world than here. There's a couple of teenaged brothers in Italy that you wouldn't even believe. One's a guitar player and one's an alto player. Pasquale and Luigi Grasso. Pasquale plays Chopin on his guitar. They would ask, 'Well, what should we practice?' I'd say 'Bird' and they'd say, 'OK.' Just like that! Then they'd go transcribe everything! They'd start on Bach and Chopin, then they'd transcribe Bud Powell. They're the strangest cats you'd ever want to meet in your life! Pasquale plays stuff on the guitar that other guitarists can't 'cause he's been playin' so long. His hand is so big. But he's just a kid. Lord have mercy! I'm gonna bring them here."
That seems to be a big part of Harris's contribution to the world of jazz‹not just playing it and teaching it, but discovering new jazz talent. There's a lot to be said for mentoring.
How would Harris like to be remembered in the jazz history books? "Oh, Lord," he replies with a smile and a sigh. "Just as somebody who makes sure that the music stays alive. That's all. I'm trying to make sure it stays alive."
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center.