American songbook: An intimate chat with jazz pianist Barry Harris

Music legend Barry Harris says he relies on the American songbook for his performances. (Photo: Alan Dunlop)

Music legend Barry Harris says he relies on the American songbook for his performances. (Photo: Alan Dunlop)

When a musical legend comes to town, you don’t want to miss the show.

When the concert is in the intimacy of a club seating fewer than 100, you make your reservations immediately.

That is the setup for the return to Montreal of pianist Barry Harris, 83, an active teacher and performer. When we last saw him in the late 1980s, fans were packed in, standing next to the piano at Club 2080 on Clark.

Harris is one of the few left on the scene who can say truthfully, “I played with Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Gene Ammons and Thelonius Monk.”

Harris not only played with Monk, he shared living quarters with him in the 1970s at the Weekhawken, New Jersey, home of jazz patroness the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

Guess what? Harris still lives there, and when we spoke, the conversation turned naturally to tales of Monk, the unique pianist and composer of such classics as Round Midnight, Straight No Chaser, Ruby My Dear and Pannonica.

He also discussed gearing up for his performance: “I don’t believe in a set list. I just sit down and start playing. One is always nervous, but the more you do, the less the nervousness shows.

“I try to judge the crowd and figure out, ‘what can I play?’ I don’t tell the drummer anything, and sometimes he just looks at me as if to say, ‘Lord have mercy, what song will he be playing?’ ”

Harris’s mother, Bessie, was a church pianist who taught him to play, but he makes a clear distinction between the spiritual tradition and his own style.

“When my mother would come to the club, the first thing I would do is play a church song. But otherwise, there is little connection.”

Harris is from Detroit, which spawned such great jazz names as Thad, Hank and Elvin Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, Yusef Lateef and Kirk Lightsey, but Harris says there was nothing special about the city.

“Things were happening in Newark in 1952, with Hank Mobley and Walter Davis. I remember saying they sounded like we sounded. It wasn’t the city that mattered—it was the time. The same thing was happening in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.”

Recalling his childhood, Harris says, “I was so shy, when I got out of school I ran home and played the piano. Roland Hanna once told me he and Sonny Red used to climb those stairs just to listen and learn how to play chords—we lived upstairs.”

Harris relies on the standards—the so-called American songbook—for his performances and he sees this remarkable collection as part of what is now a classical tradition.

“I’m a jazz musician, but a classical jazz musician. What the Europeans did, very wrongly, is they stopped improvising. That’s what we started in the U.S.A. Most of the composers of the standards were of European origin.

“We added drums and stuff. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin would have been happy to be living now. They wouldn’t be playing in a symphony hall because that’s for dead people’s music. They would be playing in some corner bar.”

When he plays a standard, Harris says he’s “following the outline and trying to build on the outline.”

“Somebody once told me, and I believe it, ‘You have to harmonize melodies, not melodize harmonies’.”

“I’m a firm believer that the greatest thing to happen to the music, the true renaissance, came from (bebop giants) Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Tadd Dameron.”

Harris has no time for some of the simpler tunes that became popular, post-bop. “Can you hear Charlie Parker playing Watermelon Man (the funky Herbie Hancock tune)? Get outta here. Even The Sidewinder (Lee Morgan) or Dis Here Dat Dere (Bobby Timmons). These cats started writing all this funny kind of music because they really didn’t know what jazz was about.

“When Charlie (Bird) Parker died, Miles didn’t carry on the tradition. Max (Roach) didn’t carry on the tradition. Coltrane knew who the greatest musician was—he was standing around listening to Bird like all the rest of us.

“I don’t go for all that avant-garde stuff. There is too much beautiful stuff to be played.”

Contrary to the popular cliché, a lot of the knowledge of the music came from the dance hall, not the jazz club. “We only played at dances. I went to see Gene Ammons, and he let me sit in. Bird let me sit in. The clubs came later. There were big bands, amateur hours.”

Monk was unique. “I think he is the only cat that said one day, ‘I am going to play different from everybody.’ And he did that, and he had a benefactress who helped him.

“I remember once Monk was playing My Ideal. Then I sat down and played My Ideal and we went on for an hour, back and forth, playing My Ideal. That was the best time I had with Monk.

“When I play Round Midnight, or another Monk tune, I play it as if I were him. It’s real weird.”

The piano Monk played still is in the house they once shared, but Harris prefers his own Petrof grand.

He does not rest on his considerable laurels: he is booked to perform and teach in Europe and Japan. Retirement is not part of his vocabulary.

(Photo by Alan Dunlop)

(Photo by Alan Dunlop)


The Upstairs series during the Montreal International Jazz Festival features outstanding artists best appreciated in the superb vibe and acoustics of our finest jazz club, at 1254 Mackay.

Barry Harris, with Ray Drummond (bass) and Leroy Williams (drums) performs June 28 and 29 at 7 and 9:45 p.m. Each set is $45 plus taxes. June 29, Harris gives a three-hour master class at noon. Bring your instrument. $25.

June 27, the outstanding Israeli-born guitarist Gilad Hekselman with his New York trio, 7:30 and 9:45 pm. $22.50 plus taxes per set.

July 3 and 4, veteran vocalist Helen Merrill, 82, with her trio, 7 and 9:45 pm, $45 plus taxes per set.

July 5, pianist Bill Charlap, master of the standard repertoire, 7 and 9:45 pm, $30 per set.

July 7, Montreal-based vocalist Ranee Lee,

7 and 9:45 pm, $30 per set. 514-931-6808,

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