He led a beautiful life. He was a beautiful man. Barry Harris played and wrote the most beautiful music. He shared his gifts openly and inspired tens of thousands of musicians. He was the true keeper of the flame. Sadly, Barry was called home. He was hospitalized for the past two weeks and passed away from complications due to covid. He would have turned 92 next week.
Barry Harris grew up in Detroit, where under his mothers tutelage studied classical piano until coming under the influence of none other than jazz great Charlie Parker. Luckily his mother encouraged his newfound interest in this music and even allowing the family home to become sort of a salon for jazz musicians. Until 1960, when he moved to New York, Barry was a busy sideman, leader, and session player in Detroit. He played with many of the greats passing through such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan. Then, in New York he played regularly with Cannonball Adderly, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gilespie, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt and so many others.
It was not long after, that Pannonica de Koenigswarter— the British scion of the Rothschild dynasty and patroness of the New York jazz scene, which dubbed her the “Jazz Baroness”— befriended Barry and introduced him to many jazz luminaries, including pianist Thelonius Monk. Monk became a lifelong friend and they even lived together in a house owned by the Baroness in Weehawken, NJ. A house that I was privileged to visit on many occasions. On the first floor there was a ping pong table which I remembered seeing in an iconic photograph of Monk from many years ago. Walking up the stairs you see two grand pianos in a large open area, both facing enormous glass picture windows with a spectacular view of Manhattan just across the Hudson River. All around that big room there were trophies, plaques, gifts and honors from so many societies, colleges and organizations. In addition to honorary Doctoral degrees there were recognition letters, and awards: by the White House, from the House of Representatives, the presidential awards, and the NEA Jazz Masters Award. And then the music. Cabinets full of arrangements and sheet music lined the walls. Scores, both finished and unfinished, choir parts and lead sheets, full scores and orchestral parts everywhere. Barry lived in his own library of his own creations and thus, we are all enriched by his music, his life’s work and his life.
Barry Harris was dedicated to teaching and mentoring students as well as professionals of all ages. Together with Larry Riddley, Jim Harrison and Frank Fuentes, He founded the Jazz Cultural Theater in Lower Manhattan in 1982. It was primarily a performance venue featuring prominent jazz artists and also hosted jam sessions and recordings sessions. Additionally, it was known for Barry's music classes for vocalists and instrumentalists, each taught in separate sessions. Barry was renowned as an educator, teaching courses in jazz theory, piano, and voice at several schools and institutions in the New York area and delivering master classes and lectures throughout the world. These workshops were legendary and mentored and inspired tens of thousands of students worldwide. He continued these classes and workshops throughout his life even up to just a few weeks ago. The past few years they were offered virtually over zoom and were attended by students from all around the globe.
Over the years he put together a choir from his voice classes and dubbed it the Barry Harris Singers. He wrote beautiful custom arrangements for them and included this group in his large orchestral productions. These dedicated singers came from all walks of life from every age group and from every race, creed, color, and nationality imaginable. Th
ey showed him such admiration and love that they often followed him to his concert or club appearances. Sometimes when he noticed some of his singers in the room he would play just a hint of a musical phrase and the singers would break out and begin to sing along with him to one of Barry’s creations, often to the astonishment of the audience.
I had the distinct honor of conducting for him and his larger orchestra productions after the passing of our mutual friend composer Coleridge Taylor Perkinson. I was always struck by the consistent beauty of the music and the people who would come out to honor him, audiences and musicians alike. He would call on his many friends to join in with him on stage for these extravagant performances and this remarkable production was made that much more sublime with the addition of guests such as Clark Terry or Jimmy Heath et al.
In these concerts Barry would arrange every piece to be performed. On occasion I would help him put his scores together and copy parts for the orchestra. It was an advanced theory lesson each time I worked with one of his scores. More astonishingly was when I would sit with him as he worked on a new piece of music. With pencil and paper in hand, sitting in front of the TV watching Judge Judy or something like that, Barry would be throwing out remarks and jokes and commentary about the TV show, all the while filling up that score paper with what would be revealed later in concert as the most beautiful sounds imaginable.
Just a few years ago Barry accepted our invitation to attend one of our Jazz Arts Academy student showcase concerts. We managed to talk him into playing for us and he was so very gracious and inspiring to our students and our audience as well. I am grateful that he attended and that I have been blessed with knowing him and learning from him for many years. He was indeed the true keeper of the flame. And he inspired and enabled the rest of us to do what it takes to keep that flame burning forever. RIP Barry Harris.