Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Harris, Barry (Doyle)

Pianist Barry Harris seamlessly blends bebop’s lyrical phrasing with an exceptional accompanying style, drawn from his sophisticated harmonic palette. This instrumental grace placed him at the top of the Detroit music scene in the 1950s alongside fellow pianist Tommy Flanagan, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and trumpeter Donald Byrd. He has mentored many young jazz musicians, including bassist Paul Chambers, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and alto saxophonist Charles McPherson and remains an active educator and performer on the New York scene.

Barry Harris

Barry Doyle Harris was born on December 15, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan. Growing up in a poor neighborhood, Harris came from a family that enjoyed and celebrated music. At the age of four, Barry began to receive piano lessons from his mother and became proficient rather quickly. He continued to study as a young boy under the instruction of Neptune Holloway, a local preacher.

During his teenage years, Harris came to an important junction in his life when his mother asked him to decide whether to continue studying church music or to study jazz.

With his mother’s blessing, Barry decided to study jazz. While attending Northeastern High School, he performed in his high school jazz band and was a classmate of future Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, himself an able pianist. Soon after, Harris won first place in a talent show at the Paradise Theater, which further encouraged him to become a professional musician.

While continuing to study, Harris realized that through all of his time practicing he was still not the best when it came to soloing. At the age of seventeen, a woman loaned Harris a device that allowed him to play any record in any key. With this device, he began to learn his favorite records by ear, which helped him develop his soloing capabilities. The first song Harris learned with this device was “Webb City” by trumpeter Fats Navarro.

The pianist on Navarro's recording of “Webb City” was Bud Powell, who became a big influence on Harris. Barry began to absorb records featuring Powell and other artists of the bebop idiom including alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Other influences on his during this time included pianist Al Haig and George Shearing.

Harris was able to see Parker perform live when he came to Detroit, once at the Forrest Ballroom during the period when the saxophonist was performing with strings. Emboldened by these experiences and confident in his advancing technique, Barry decided that the next time Parker came to town he would try and sit in with him. He ultimately sat in with him a few times, one occasion being at the Graystone Ballroom where he was able to play a blues in C major with the saxophonist.

Taking his career into his own hands, Harris began to perform locally at high school dances and other engagements throughout the Detroit area. In 1950, Barry made his first recording with local Detroit saxophonist Wild Bill Moore. During this time, he was befriended by tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons, who would often ask him to sit in with pianist Junior Mance.

Beginning in 1953, Harris worked as the house pianist at the famed Blue Bird Inn on Detroit’s west side. Whilst performing there, Barry had the opportunity to perform with trumpeter Miles Davis as well as engagements with drummer Elvin Jones and saxophonist Yusef Lateef.

Following his stint at the Blue Bird Inn, Harris went to New York City for the first time with drummer Max Roach’s quintet, his first group after the deaths of trumpeter Clifford Brown and Bud Powell’s younger brother, pianist Richie Powell in 1956. The same year, Harris performed on trumpeter Thad Jones’s The Magnificent Thad Jones and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley’s Messages.

Harris spent the remaining years of the 1950s as the house pianist at several clubs in Detroit including the Rouge Lounge and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. Barry accompanied several artists that would journey through town including tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Flip Phillips and singer Nancy Wilson.

Harris’s accomplishments in the Detroit jazz scene garnered him a lot of praise. A number of the city's younger musicians came to see him as a mentor including bassist Paul Chambers, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and alto saxophonist Charles McPherson. These younger artists often went to Barry for advice and guidance for their own burgeoning careers.

Barry’s mother’s house often became the place that traveling musicians stayed at when they were in town. Harris’ reputation brought him to the attention of traveling musicians, who would come to him for his musical insights. One such musician that showed up was

tenor saxophonist John Coltrane when he was in town with Davis and alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley.

In June 1958, Harris recorded Breakin’ It Up, his first album as a leader. Recorded for the Argo label, the album featured bassist William Austin and drummer Frank Grant. Two years later Barry left Detroit for New York City in order to perform with Adderley’s quintet, an association that would expand his presence in the national jazz scene. 1960 also saw him recording the album Barry Harris at the Jazz Workshop alongside drummer Louis Hayes and bassist Sam Jones.

After performing with Adderley for a brief time, Harris performed and recorded with Lateef and trumpeter Lee Morgan followed by stints with guitarist Wes Montgomery and Charles McPherson. In 1961, Barry signed with the Riverside label and released the record Listen to Barry Harris, a solo piano record that featured the originals “Ascension” and “Sphere” and the standard “Body And Soul,” which best complements his performance on the record.

Harris begins the song with an introduction that implements light trills and long, lush phrases. Barry fills the entire song with numerous techniques and ornamentations, filling every space of the track with melody. What’s most striking about his performance is how he goes back and forth between a light touch and a more percussive touch, making it appear as if there is a different pianist at different points in the song.

In May 1962, Harris released the album Chasin’ the Bird, which featured the originals “Around the Corner” and “Stay Right With It.” During this time, Barry’s profile brought him to the attention of some of the musicians he admired including tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. In 1965, Barry began to perform with Hawkins until the saxophonist’s death in 1969.

1965 also saw Harris performing on tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s album Gettin’ Around. Joining Bob Crenshaw, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and drummer Billy Higgins, Barry’s finest work with the ensemble is the song “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.”

The song begins with the entire ensemble starting the arrangement with Harris accompanying while Hutcherson responds with small phrases while Gordon plays the melody. In order to fully evoke the sentimental emotion of the song, Barry plays brief chords high in the register of the piano in counteract the resonance of the other instruments. During his extended solo Harris continues this design, but includes small chordal motifs along with his longer phrasing.

On April 20, 1967, Harris recorded the album Luminescence for Prestige Records. The album includes contributions from Bob Crenshaw, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, tenor saxophonist Junior Cook, trombonist Slide Hampton and drummer Lenny McBrowne. Two years later he recorded the album Magnificent, which included the Charlie Parker penned tunes “Ah-Leu-Cha” and “Dexterity.”

In the early 1970s, Harris began an association with saxophonist Sonny Stitt, recording his 1972 albums Constellation and Tune-Up! These albums have since been regarded as some of Stitt’s finest work with Barry deserving acclaim as well. His talents with Stitt can best be represented by “I Got Rhythm” from Tune-Up!

Harris’ accompaniment during this up-tempo version is pitch perfect by allowing space to occur between the I-VI-II-V chord progression of the song, breaking up the harmony while bassist Sam Jones easily supports. Stitt solos on both tenor and alto, with Barry playing a little different on both solos in order to better support the harmonic complexities of the two different instruments.

During the mid-1970s, Harris toured throughout Europe and Japan with his own ensembles while recordings for the Xanadu and Milestone labels. By this time, Barry began a second career as a teacher with Jazz Interactions, a non-profit organization run by trumpeter Joe Newman and his wife Rigmor.

In June 1975, Harris recorded the album Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron, an album dedicated to the compositional genius of Tadd Dameron. Included on the record are Barry’s renditions of Dameron’s “Lady Bird” and “Hot House.” In the late 1970s, he lived for a time with pianist Thelonious Monk at the residence of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter in Weehawken, New Jersey, where he continues to live.

In October 1982, Harris co-led a quartet with tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. By this time, Barry’s classes became so popular that in 1982 he started his own school called the Jazz Cultural Center on Eight Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets. His school became a platform for his unorthodox pedagogy in the jazz idiom. Harris ran the school until 1987 when he decided to close it due to the costly price of the rent. 1982 also saw Barry being recognized for the “Preservation and Proliferation of the Jazz Heritage” by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, Newark.

On March 2, 1984, Harris released the album For The Moment on the Uptown label. Joining him on the record was drummer Leroy Williams and bassist Rufus Reid, who brought their talents on several Harris originals including “Save Some for Later” and “To Monk With Love.” The following year, Barry was the subject of the documentary film Barry Harris: Passing It On by directors David Chan and Ken Freumdlich.

In 1987, he released the album The Bird of Red and Gold, which featured his solo renditions of several standards including Monk’s “Pannonica.” In 1988, Harris performed on the soundtrack on director Clint Eastwood’s biopic of Charlie Parker entitled Bird. The following year, Barry appeared in the film Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser, which was produced by Eastwood. In 1990, he toured with bassist Chuck Israels and released the album Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 12.

In 1993, Harris suffered a stroke that briefly sidelined his career, though he built his strength back up in order to perform at the Village Vanguard and the JVC Jazz Festival in 1994. In 1994, Barry released the video Barry Harris Workshop Video. On December 14, 1995, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University. The following year, Barry recorded the album First Time Ever alongside Leroy Williams and bassist George Mraz.

In 1999, Harris was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame as well as receiving the Mentor Award for his work with young students at the Manhattan Country School. The following year, Barry was inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame. On August 26, 2003, Harris released the album Live In New York, which featured renditions of Dameron’s “Casbah” and Monk’s “Round Midnight.” In April 2006, Barry premiered his composition “The Breeze’s Song,” a work that was commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center.

In April 2009, Harris performed at the Village Vanguard alongside Leroy Williams and bassist Ray Drummond. Barry continues to teach including leading workshops at the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Community Center and the University of the Streets in the East Village. Topics during his workshops included piano and vocal techniques and improvisational studies.

Harris lives in New Jersey and maintains an active performance and teaching schedule.

Select Discography

As a leader

Breakin’ It Up (1958)

Barry Harris at the Jazz Workshop (1960)

Listen to Barry Harris (1961)

Chasin’ the Bird (1962)

Luminescence (1967)

Magnificent (1969)

Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron (1975)

For The Moment (1984)

The Bird of Red and Gold (1987)

Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 12 (1990)

First Time Ever (1996)

Live In New York (2003)

With Dexter Gordon

Gettin’ Around (1965)

With Hank Mobley


With Thad Jones

The Magnificent Thad Jones (1956)

With Sonny Stitt

Constellation (1972)

Tune-Up! (1972)

Contributor: Eric Wendell