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Dr. Barry Harris

Major bop pianist, Barry Harris, has devoted his life to the advancement of jazz and has received the Living Jazz Legacy award from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Association, and an American Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition, he has received other numerous awards including the Manhattan Borough President Award for Excellence in recognition of his devoted public service in the field of music. In 1999, he was also awarded the Mentor award for his work with children at the Manhattan Country School in New York City. Pianist, composer, lecturer, teacher, mentor, Barry Harris is a living master and colossus of the modern jazz age.

A Reservoir release, "Live in New York," captures Harris along with Charles Davis (tenor sax), Roni Ben-Hur (guitar), Paul West (bass) and Leroy Williams (drums) delivering two nights of jazz reflections at a local nightspot in August of 2002. The charming commentary by Harris as a lead-in to the six-track CD is a personal one, making this a great offering to the collector.

It is with pleasure that JazzReview provides the following previous Harris interview, obtained by Carla and Jason Rupp:

2003 Jazz Journalists Association Award Winner Barry Harris, pianist and legendary teacher, sat down with Carla and Jason Rupp, JJA members, on June 17th, 2003. He met with them just 30 minutes before holding five hours of jazz piano, vocal, and instrumental workshops, each filled with musicianship and theory, for his students, who come to the New York City weekly sessions on Tuesday evenings. The organization for jazz writers decided to present Harris with what they call a Discretionary Award at the famed B.B. King’s nightclub in Times Square on Wednesday, June 25th at their annual awards ceremony. This master musician and teacher kindly consented to answer questions about his life. He is humble, and he has a sense of humor. Jazz is his life. He just keeps learning along with his students. He has had thousands of students over the years.

Harris is one of the New Jersey jazz musicians who agreed to pose for a photograph, just like the jazz musicians in Harlem did for that famous photo on the steps in Harlem. This recent interview with "Barry," as he prefers to be called, is Carla Rupp and Jason Rupp’s transcription of the Q&A with Harris, held at 6 p.m. at the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Community Center, 250 W. 65th St., in Manhattan, where he holds his classes between 6:30-11:45 p.m.

People come from all walks of life, all occupations, and from all over the world to study with Harris. He welcomes anybody to try out his classes. He teaches group piano the first two hours, then vocal students at 8 p.m., and instrumental jazz after that until closing. A band is provided for the singers, who all learn a new song to sing, usually with a microphone and with a rhythm section, for the audience. You do not need to bring any material or song with you, just a notebook and perhaps a small tape recorder. If you come once, the classes are $12, and if you register, the sessions are $8 each. We caught him just before starting the night of classes and here is what he said:

Carla Rupp: What are your proudest achievements?

Dr. Barry Harris: My proudest achievements-that’s very general-they probably have yet to happen. What can I say? They have yet to happen.

Carla Rupp: That’s very positive optimistic.

Dr. Barry Harris: Yeah.

Carla Rupp: Because you believe in the future.

Dr. Barry Harris: There are a lot of things I’m proud of, but the proudest have yet to come.

Carla Rupp: That’s probably why you teach because all these proud things are going to happen.

Dr. Barry Harris: That’s right.

Carla Rupp: We’ve read a lot of interviews with you, and there’s been so much written. We know that many people have influenced you. I’m going to give you a chance to mention the people.

Dr. Barry Harris: Well, being a bebopper, of course I’m influenced by Bird, Diz, and Bud Diz, Bird, and Bud, and Coleman Hawkins, Prez, also there are a lot I’m influenced by. Then you’re influenced by the unknowns at home. The unknowns are the ones who really make you. They’re the ones that nobody will ever know their names, you know. Then we start talking about oh, I might say influenced by Will Davis, and you might say, "Who the hell is Will Davis?" There was a Will Davis [Chuckle], a piano player. I’m just saying that to say there are a lot of people who influence you. Some of them are people still at home. Some are gone. But, you know, you’re influenced by a lot of people.

Carla Rupp: What is the precious thing about jazz that you love?

Dr. Barry Harris: [Laughing. Smiles] What’s so special about jazz?! It’s my life! I have nothing else. It’s my life; it has been my life all my life.

Carla Rupp: It’s your life. That’s right. How does jazz help the general public?

Dr. Barry Harris: If we do it right, and the general public hears you, they will feel something. And when they depart, they will know that they got somewhere. I think that’s what it is. They know that they’ve been somewhere. You can make people know that they’ve been somewhere. When they go out and walk out into the street and instead of the usual drain, they say, ‘I have been somewhere!’ And you both get a special feeling. So, that’s about it.

Carla Rupp: Do you feel a spiritual calling in your mission?

Dr. Barry Harris: Of course. My calling right now, anyhow, is that I teach all over the world. I’ve just come back from London, and then Paris. You know, I teach all over, when I’m not with my students here in New York.

Carla Rupp: We know you do. We get your e-mails [from]. What things make you happy-some little things or big things?

Dr. Barry Harris: To see some of the people improve [referring to his students, who were starting to arrive, in the room] and get better. That’s a beautiful thing.

Carla Rupp: Does anything make you sad?

Dr. Barry Harris: Probably sad, that we’re not given the privilege you know we jazz musicians aren’t even given the privilege to be disliked on television. If you aren’t given the privilege to be disliked or liked see, so of course we don’t have any time on television. That’s why I said we’re not given any time to be disliked. I’ve had people come up to me and say, "Jazz? I don’t like jazz." I say, "You say you don’t like jazz, but you’ve never heard me play. So how can you say you don’t like jazz!" So we have a lot of misconceptions about what jazz is. And we aren’t given an opportunity to express ourselves like we were before. We were given more opportunities before [in former decades].

Jason Rupp: What do you still want to accomplish?

Dr. Barry Harris: I want to learn how to play. [He laughs.]

Jason Rupp: I think you do!

Dr. Barry Harris: Nah, you’re always in a learning process. It’s a learning thing. Now what I try to get, I get from my students. I come here to learn from them. When I finally get it, I’m going to tell them to go to hell. [Laughs] I’m gonna leave [here]. They’ve got to find another teacher. I gots to steal everything from them! The teacher is the dumbest member of the class! The reason is because they’ve been in the class the longest. I’ve been in here a long time, so when I cease to be dumb, ha ha, and I’ve copied everything from them, I’ll know what to do: leave ‘em. But, that’s a problem.

Jason Rupp: Everyone knows how much you love your students. They certainly adore you. Can you recall some of the students and people who you have made you the most proud?

Dr. Barry Harris: Oh, there’s quite a few of them, those people I’m proud of there’re a whole lot of them. They’re all over world. Charles MacPherson, Joe Henderson, Donald Byrd, Yusef Lateef, Sir Roland Hanna, trumpet player Lonnie Hill. I just ran into Kirk Lightsey--just as I really started out [early in my career]. And I still am proud of them. Some are gone; some are here. But that’s it. What else do you have?

Jason Rupp: How do you feel to be honored by the JJA [Jazz Journalists Association]?

Dr. Barry Harris: I think it’s nice. I just hate that I won’t be able to be there to accept the award properly. It’s just one of those things. I have to go to Detroit. [A new student approaches and says, "I take it you’re Barry Harris," and introduces himself. "Yes, I’m Barry." "I’m attending for the first time." Barry says, "Well, just take a seat. Glad you’re here. Someone will be with you. We’ll be starting soon. I’m doing an interview."]

Jason Rupp: Do you have some influences outside of the jazz circle or the jazz world that you might like to mention?

Dr. Barry Harris: [Pauses for thought] You mean like Chopin?

Jason Rupp: Yeah, sure.

Dr. Barry Harris: [There’s] a whole lot of cats who have given a lot to the music. All we doin’ is carrying on the music, you know. That includes Duke Ellington and all these people. Count Basie, all of them.

Jason Rupp: I know that you live in New Jersey. What do you enjoy about the New Jersey lifestyle?

Dr. Barry Harris: Well, I think where I live is the best way to live in New York. I can look over to the other side [of the river]. We’re just about to take a picture. I think that’s going to happen Monday, the 23rd of June. We’re going to take a picture of the New Jersey musicians at the New Jersey bank. We’re meeting there and we’re going to take a picture.

Carla Rupp: Great.

Jason Rupp: That’s nice.

Dr. Barry Harris: There are a lot of musicians over there, and that’s going to be nice. We’re trying to duplicate what happened in Harlem, a picture of all the musicians. So they gonna have that.

Jason Rupp: In your travels, what are your favorite places and why?

Dr. Barry Harris: Holland is one of the favorite places that are my favorite because of a certain piano teacher. His name is Franz Elsen. From all the good piano players in Holland, I can tell that they had the best teacher. He’s in The Hague. And there’s a good teacher, Vince, in Switzerland. I go there to teach, and I enjoy it a lot. And then I go to Verona, which I enjoy the most. The place I like the most is Italy. If I were just to suddenly say, ‘Later to U.S.A.’, I’d go straight to Italy and live out the rest of my life.

Jason Rupp: Boy, they love jazz over there.

Dr. Barry Harris: Yeah, they do!

Jason Rupp: Early on in your life, were you ever on a path to a different occupation?

Dr. Barry Harris: No, I knew what I wanted since I was four years old when I studied the piano.

Jason Rupp: Do you have any advice for jazz journalists?

Dr. Barry Harris: Don’t get me started. I think they should go to music school, and they should be very careful about what they say.

Jason Rupp: Who are some of your favorite jazz journalists--and favorite magazines?

Dr. Barry Harris: Oh, I don’t want to get into trouble with the magazines. As far as the journalists, there are a lot of good ones, such as Ira Gitler, Gary Giddens, and Dan Morgenstern, and there are a lot more.

Jason Rupp: How do the magazines treat you in Europe?

Dr. Barry Harris: In Paris right now, I’m on the front page of Jazz Hot magazine. I’m all over the magazine. I got to go to class now.

Carla & Jason Rupp: Thanks, and congratulations, Barry.

Carla and Jason Rupp enjoyed their time with Barry Harris, who welcomes anyone, professionals or amateurs, to study with him and improve their musical sensibilities. The noted jazz pianist has a website link below.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Barry Harris
  • Interview Date: 10/1/2003
  • Subtitle: Beloved Jazz Teacher Speaks
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