We’re welcoming the Winter Solstice with a heart-warming story celebrating jazz great, Barry Harris!

As a classically trained pianist and music enthusiast, my boss Linda Wehrli loves discovering virtuosos who have affected the lives of modern day musicians. She recently learned about the passing of jazz pianist and educator who was the resident scholar of the bebop movementBarry Harris. Known as the “

First, a little background. Harris was an American jazz pianist, composer, and educator who, as a musician, became known for his virtuosity, marked by complex chord structures and speed of play. Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1929, he became an exponent of the bebop style that became popular after World War II. He played with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Yusuf Lateef, Coleman Hawkins, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Stitt, among many other musicians. Thelonious Monk, a close friend, and Charlie Parker are considered to be among Harris’ main influences.

Under his mother and church pianist Bessie Harris’ tutelage, Barry began studying piano at the age of 4. He continued to study classical music throughout his youth until coming under the influence of Parker, whom he first heard in Detroit in the late 1940s. Talk about a great influence!

Harris’ family home became a salon for jazz musicians, his mother encouraging his newfound interest. He started hosting informal lessons at Bessie’s house. Musicians with considerably more experience often sought out his off-the-cuff symposiums, hoping to soak up what he called his “rules”: exercises and frameworks that could help them unpack the complex — but often unwritten — structures of bebop.

Harris also worked as a sideman, session player, and lead player in Detroit in the 1950s, when he played with such stars as Davis, Parker, and Sarah Vaughan.

In the 1960s, Harris moved to New York, where he played regularly with Adderley and Hawkins.

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 Harris and introduced him to many talented musicians, including pianist Monk. Good connection!

He recorded more than two dozen albums, including a string of celebrated releases in the 1960s for the Prestige and Riverside labels. All those LPs featured him either in small ensembles or alone at the piano, demonstrating his wily, wandering harmonic sense and his unshakable feel for bebop rhythm.

In the 1970s, Harris ended up living with Monk at de Koenigswarter’s house in Weehawken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. On top of becoming a renowned educator, teaching courses in jazz theory, piano, and voice at several schools and institutions and delivering master classes and lectures throughout the world, Harris also founded Manhattan’s Jazz Cultural Theatre, a performance venue featuring famed jazz musicians as well as jam sessions and music classes for musicians young and old. At some of those performances, he featured a choir made up of children from the neighborhood. Ms. de Koenigswarter helped to finance the establishment, but Mr. Harris declined to sell liquor, favoring a community orientation that would allow for children to be there at all times. As a result, he didn’t turn a steady profit.

The theater closed after five years when the rent jumped, but Mr. Harris just moved his operation elsewhere and kept on teaching: at public schools, community centers and abroad.

Barry Harris, right, over sees progress of student Itay Goren during a teaching session at the community center on W. 65th St. in New York City on Aug. 15, 2000.

Throughout his career, he remained an independent educator; he never joined the faculty of a major institution, instead choosing to embed himself within New York’s music community, reaching students of all ages. Writing in 1986, the New York Times critic Robert Palmer described Mr. Harris as a “one-man jazz academy.” Now that’s impressive.

[Tweet ““We believe in Bird, Diz, Bud. We believe in Art Tatum. We believe in Cole Hawkins. These are the people we believe in. Nothing has swayed us.”  – Mr. Harris to his students later in life, name-checking bebop’s founding fathers.”]

Harris was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1989. He went on to receive multiple honorary doctorates and was often referred to by friends and students as “doctor.” Now that’s a doctor that I’d like to visit. 🙂

Mr. Harris teaching a class in Midtown Manhattan in 2020.

His last performance was in November, in a concert featuring recipients of the Jazz Masters award. He did not play the piano, but he sang a rendition of his own ballad, “The Bird of Red and Gold,” a tale of inspiration and triumph he had first recorded, in a rare vocal performance, in 1979.

Over time, Mr. Harris’s students were devoted in carrying on his work. With his blessing, one former student set up a venue in Spain called the Jazz Cultural Theater of Bilbao. How cool!

Interviewed by The Times shortly before the pandemic, Mr. Harris had not lost any passion for teaching. Pondering the experience of hearing a student improve, he said, [Tweet ““It’s the most beautiful thing you want to hear in your life.””]

From performing, teaching, and touring with staunch devotion, it is evident that Harris had a profound impact on jazz musicians everywhere. We hope you enjoyed the Music History lesson and will continue to explore this remarkable man. If any of our readers knew, were taught by or played with Barry Harris, we’d love to have you share your stories in the comments below. Thanks!

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Music History 101 reviews selected musicians from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to share on your favorite social media. Comments appreciated! If there is an musician you would like us to feature, please comment below. Thank you for your support!

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