Kenny Barron's interest in piano began in Philadelphia, his birthplace and that of many jazz giants. "In Philadelphia in the late '50s there were a lot of local clubs where young players could play," says Barron. "There were also three major clubs that would bring guys down from New York. There was always a lot of music there when I was growing up."
His family was musical. Barron grew up with two brothers and two sisters. His older brother Bill played tenor saxophone but his mother made sure that all the children studied piano. With Kenny, it stuck. "I kinda had no choice," Barron notes. "Plus," he adds, "my brother had all these old records: Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro and people like that, so I was surrounded by the music." Barron lists his biggest influence as Tommy Flanagan, for his lyricism. Other influences include Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, McCoy Tyner and Thelonious Monk.
Barron moved to New York City in 1961 where he worked with many leading musicians including James Moody, Lee Morgan, Roy Haynes and Lou Donaldson. He spent several years playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard, and has served as pianist for Philly Joe Jones, Yusef Lateef, Ron Carter, Jimmy Heath, Stan Getz and Buddy Rich. He co-led the group Sphere in 1980s with Charlie Rouse; Sphere included musicians Buster Williams and Ben Riley.
Barron's love for the piano is obvious. "The piano is the orchestra," he says. "Everything is there. For me, it's the perfect way to express myself because I can be the entire orchestra: strings, bass, percussion. The best horn soloists usually play the piano, too." Barron explains that every jazz pianist has a unique touch. "There is a difference in touch between McCoy Tyner, who's very percussive, and Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones, who have much lighter touches." And age is a factor, too, he says. "Somebody who is older would've listened more to bebop, while somebody who is younger might have a more European influence or avant-garde influence."
Barron says Janice Jarrett has written lyrics for about 40 of his compositions, so he'll put the vocalists front and center for this concert. "I have worked with Grady and Gretchen before. They're both conservatory trained and their intonation is dead on so it makes it very easy to work with them. If you have complicated lines you want to write out, they can sing 'em." Barron says when he accompanies vocalists, he makes sure to stay out of the way of the lyrics, a marked difference: not getting in the way: from accompanying a horn player. Their March collaboration in The Allen Room is sure to inspire.
For tickets and information, visit Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director of Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center.