So this past Sunday was a real interesting evening. Our Jazz Arts Academy Spring Semester Student Showcase took place at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park. More than 120 people were in attendance and the kids just played great! That in itself was pretty cool. For these young musicians to have this kind of an opportunity to play in a real night club and to get a chance to really shine in front of a large, friendly crowd was something special to witness. They each stepped up their game and came prepared to play their best.
It is certainly a testament to the dedicated instructors who have been working with these kids most of the year to hear how much they have improved. Brandon McCune is such a gifted musician himself and we are so grateful that he is dedicated to teaching and coaching in such an effective manner. Special thanks to our Education Coordinator Alan Abraham who has been keeping the program running smoothly while also mentoring our kids, stepping in when needed and adding another layer to our educational offerings.
But what really made the evening special and a real inspiring treat for the students and for all of us, was the surprise arrival of Jazz Legend Barry Harris. Barry has been a dear friend of mine for many many years and it was really touching for him to make the long trip to see our program. Many years ago I had worked on his music as an editor and copyist and I have conducted some very memorable large jazz orchestra concerts for him at Lincoln Center and at Symphony Space in NY. Special thanks to our newest board member, Alan Lucas who actually made this happen and drove Barry down for the evening.
It was interesting —to say the least — sitting next to Barry as he was listening to our kids... He was really intensely listening and enjoying every minute. As Alan Abraham opened the concert by introducing a small group of selected students who played the jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street,” Barry lit up and smiled like he was a kid in Disneyland with Mickey giving him a personal tour of the castle. He was singing along and adding harmony and countermelodies the whole way through the tune. As it happens this was a tune that he himself recorded and has used as a teaching method during his improvisation workshops.
It was then that instructor Brandon McCune brought up the larger group of students for the balance of the program. The beginning tune for that segment was of course: “Song For My Father” a composition by Horace Silver which we thought appropriate for this father’s day concert.
Once in a while Barry would lean over and say something so very astute that it was evident he listens to everything. Every note, every player, every sound… and he analyzes it and no doubt recalls his recordings, past performances and his friends and colleagues through the years.
With the next tune, as the group played “Blue Train” (a blues, written by John Coltrane) he leaned over and said "Coltrane was in my house in Detroit and asked me about what I was teaching all these young musicians about the music and why was I doing it.... I told him I want the music to live forever!"
Then they played the tune So What (From the classic 1959 album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis) which begins with an iconic piano and bass introduction that was written by Gil Evans. On the original album Bill Evans (no relation) played the piano part and Paul Chambers played bass. Our young musicians played that intro exactly as it was on the record with Ben Figuly giving up his drum throne to sit on piano and with Paul Reinhold doing justice to the bass part. Just at the end of this intro Barry tells me that he gave Paul Chambers his first lesson and taught him to play bass!
After we asked Barry to play for us the crowd gave him such a warm and enthusiastic ovation for his beautiful solo piano playing on Billy Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom". With that kind of inspiration, the students went on to play three more jazz standards and really showed off their improvising skills. The final tunes on the concert were; “Maiden Voyage” by Herbie Hancock, “Sonnymoon for Two”, and “St. Thomas” both by Sonny Rollins.
Barry told me he enjoyed the performance so much and he had such beautiful things to say about our program and about the students. In fact, afterwards Barry singled out a few exceptionally talented kids and even went so far as to invite our drum student Ben to join him on stage and “sit in” for a tune or two during Barry's appearance in July at one of the most historic and venerable jazz clubs in world, the Village Vangaurd. Barry will be appearing there during the week of July 3rd to July 8th. Barry is 89 years young and is still touring the world playing and teaching jazz.
It’s one thing to admire and study the music of the bebop era. But Barry Harris lived it, becoming one of Detroit’s best jazz pianists in the 1950s before relocating to the New York area — and eventually moving into the New Jersey estate where Thelonious Monk himself resided. At [over] 80, Harris still speaks bebop as his musical language, though it’s transformed in his hands into something supple, round, warm.