Barry Harris: A Thousand Percent Music Man
Asked to define bebop, Harris replies simply. "I think bebop was mostly syncopation. You have to...uhhh, it's hard. Now I am beginning to feel you have to feel six against four. And you have to feel the 'ands' of the beats as much as you continue with the 1,2,3,4. That's the beats, but the other half of the 1,2,3,4 is one and two and three and four. The drums lost it. They don't play 4/4. They cut the time most of them. You have to make them aware of it. They don't even think four.
Among those with whom Harris has had a longtime working partnership is drummer Leroy Williams, with whom he will be appearing at the Village Vanguard this month. About Williams, he says, "In some kind of way, I feel the 'ands' with him. I feel the syncopation. For his part, Williams remembers when he first heard Harris playing with Paul Chambers over 40 years ago, before even meeting him, and thinking of Harris' music, "...That's it! Of Harris himself he says simply, "Barry goes deep you know. A lot of piano players are good. But Barry, because of his love of music, he goes deep like the great ones. ...He's a music man, Barry. A thousand percent all the way.
Music history comes to life as Harris recalls Coleman Hawkins, with whom he played for several years in the '60s: "Oh, that was beautiful. That was a good experience. ...Coleman Hawkins made Bird come down off of the pedestal I had put him on. Because I could see the playing was not limited to Bird. Bird is the great influence when it comes to rhythm. He changed drums. He changed everything. But Coleman could play. Pres [Lester Young] could play.
By contrast, Harris observes unhappily that too often musicians today "just like sitting around playing patterns, as if learning patterns is going to make them learn to play. He bemoans many of them sounding alike and that quality went out the window and was replaced by quantity. "They play a lot of notes, but...just imagine someone who talked incessantly. Then they take a big gulping breath and they come right back in and start talking again. And that would be sickening to listen to!
"See what it is, he continues. "We're talking. We're pausing. These pauses aren't necessarily silence. These pauses are for emphasis. These cats don't even pause. They think the more notes you play, they think the longer you play, not only do they want to play more notes, they want to play forever. They can't even write a short story, how [are] they going to write a novel? When they can't even make a poem. A little short poem.
Being a peripatetic traveling teacher, Harris has been known to land in New York after a lengthy tour of Japan, look at his watch and remark, "I have time to go teach my class. It's being with people all over the world as a teacher that Harris feels keeps him centered in his life. "They're like one big family. I have homes all over the world...
What would he like listeners to get out of his own music? "I wish I could give them the feeling that Bird gave me when I first heard him. Oh Lord!... When I heard Bird with strings for the first time in person... I think he was really a spoiler, because when I go to hear somebody, I expect to get that feeling. It's a drag.
As a final bit of sage thought he adds, "Well this is my conclusion, that you have to give that feeling to yourself. And then maybe you can pass it on to someone else. So some kind of way, you have to make yourself feel this thing.
· Barry Harris - At the Jazz Workshop (Riverside-OJC, 1960)
· Yusef Lateef - Eastern Sounds (Prestige-OJC, 1961)
· Lee Morgan - The Sidewinder (Blue Note, 1963)
· Barry Harris - Live in Tokyo (Xanadu, 1976)
· (Various) - Interpretations of Monk: Live From Soundscape Series (DIW, 1981)
· Barry Harris - Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 12 (Concord, 1990)
Barry Harris CD Reviews at AAJ.