Bop to basics

Jun 25, 2003 at 12:00 am

For the record, the first draft of this article connected six decades of dots between the insights of bebop and those characters who decipher the computer code of faux reality in the Matrix movies. That draft also digressed to a Pablo Neruda poem about a hard-working confectioner.

And it missed the essence of what pianist Barry Harris says about music and life: Keep it simple, man, keep the music simple.

If you need convincing on the simple principle, Harris has a show-and-tell in his act. He assigns numbers 1-8 to the notes of a basic scale. He asks audience members to pick numbers and shout them out. He takes four or so, messes around with the corresponding notes in this order and that. He settles into an impromptu melody, cues his rhythm section and off they swing.

“It shows you how simple it is to make beautiful things,” he said the other day, over the phone from his home in New Jersey. “It’s a gas. It sort of makes people part of me, and makes them go for everything I play after that.

“Jazz is some beautiful stuff. We don’t have to dub and dub and overdub and spend a million dollars making one record. That’s the most ridiculous shit in the world.”

Harris’ roots go back long before the days of bloated studio budgets. He grew up in Detroit during the Depression, idolizing pianists such as Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell and Al Haig. The Harris household — on Russell near Forest — became one of the great jam-session sites in the history of Detroit jazz; a generation of musicians hung out and traded bop secrets.

Like many of his peers — Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell and Milt Jackson, to name a very few — Harris migrated to New York, working first with Cannonball Adderly and later with fellow Detroiter Yusef Lateef, Coleman Hawkins and others. His consistent eloquence as a descendant of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk has hardly gone unnoticed. In fact, since Monk passed away in 1982, Harris has emerged as one of Monk’s greatest interpreters.

Harris shrugs off that praise (“I play some Monk, and I play it as well as I can”) but is unstinting in praising Monk, recalling, for instance, an informal practice session:

“One time when we were together, he said, ‘Let’s play.’ And so we sat down, and he played ‘My Ideal.’ And I came right behind him and played ‘My Ideal.’ And we kept doing that over and over and over and over. And I have no idea how many times we did it. It could have been 50. It could have been 100 — over and over and over. … I can’t tell you what it does for a person to have such a challenge.”

In demand as a teacher and performer, Harris recently returned from playing both roles in London and Paris. But aside from an annual Kwanzaa gig at First Unitarian Universalist Church, his Motown visits are rare. He played the Ford-Detroit jazz fest a few years back, but he hasn’t had club gig here in well over a decade. He noted that he’s never been invited back to accept an honorary degree or to deliver a lecture at his alma mater, Wayne State University, or any Michigan university.

Given the chance, no doubt, he’d lecture on the importance of fundamentals, and perhaps mention the horrible Monk interpretations he once suffered while judging a competition.

“Sometimes it was the people who played the simplest stuff who sounded the best,” he said. “Simplicity is really underneath it all. Even though the powers that be have told us that everything is supposed to be complex and you’re supposed to work your butt off and work hard and be diligent … look here, it’s so simple that they don’t want you to know how simple it is.”


Barry Harris appears for two sets Thursday, June 26, and again Saturday, June 28, at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, 20510 Livernois just south of Eight Mile, Detroit. Tickets are $20. Call 313-345-6300 for reservations.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].