Jazz Fest staying power

Pianist Barry Harris and drummer Roy Haynes have things in common. Both octogenarians, major jazz figures for more than a half-century, are still going strong. Last month, Harris, 80, released Barry Harry Live in Rennes. At 85, Haynes hasn't released a disc in three years, but the last one was a doozy, a 3-CD 1949-2006 retrospective with an accompanying DVD. 

But their careers illustrate contrasting approaches to music, both valid, both rewarding in their own ways. Harris sticks to his guns to champion the style that marked his musical maturity. Live revisits well-polished Harris originals and the works of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and chestnuts like "Tea for Two." He gives the impression that a tune like Powell's "I'll Keep Loving You" will never give up all its secrets.

A Life in Time: The Roy Haynes Story, though, begins with Roy in the 1949 company of Lester Young and then Miles Davis and Charlie Parker; it continues through collaborations that tap into succeeding musical generations: Andrew Hill, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny, not to mention the young guns in Haynes' Fountain of Youth band, which, at times, veers from straight-ahead style into fusion. 

Harris' story starts in Detroit where his early interests presented a dilemma. "My mother was a church pianist. She gave me a choice. Are you going to play church music or jazz? I chose to play jazz," Harris says during a phone interview. 

"I found something for me, a shy, big-headed cat that couldn't even do one push-up in the gym. I would run home and go straight to my piano. I wasn't no runner. I wasn't no basketball player. I was too skinny for all that stuff. All I did was play the piano."

When Harris' idol Charlie Parker played Detroit, he'd invite Harris to sit in. "So I know about the greatness of Bird, and I sure have not heard that greatness in a while. He was a good influence on us, although he was messed-up himself. Bird was beautiful toward us young cats."

Harris' home became sort of a bebop conservatory. In weekly jams, Harris schooled a legion of bebop aspirants. In a DownBeat interview, the late baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams — to whom Harris will pay homage during the Detroit Jazz Fest — noted that Harris influenced many of his peers in the right way to play and live

In 1960, Harris, then 31, moved to New York to join Cannonball Adderly. Harris became a sought-after sideman before striking out on his own as a bandleader making classic albums for Riverside Records such as Preminado, Chasin' the Bird and Listen to Barry Harris ... Solo Piano.

And through the changes, as bop "hardened" into hard bop and got "soulful" and "funky," as free jazz arrived and, later, fusion, Harris adamantly hewed to his roots in Gillespie and Parker, Powell and Monk. Harris argues: "There have been no improvements in jazz. I'm not going to say Miles Davis was an improvement. I won't say the John Coltrane was necessarily an improvement. I think the music has worsened. I could tell it has worsened because one cat [Herbie Hancock] wrote 'Watermelon Man' — that ain't jazz. How can you write shit like 'Watermelon Man' and be a great jazz musician? Forget that shit. I can't go for that. The music wasn't enough of a challenge for me. I took up the challenge of the beboppers because I felt that was the good challenge.

"A teacher has to perform to show the people he ain't jiving. A lot of teachers can teach, but they can't perform. I can do them both. I'm very forthright. I'm the oldest jazz teacher around, and I think I know more about how to teach jazz, and I can prove it anytime."

Drum roll, please

Haynes, in contrast, found his niche as a sort of a jazz jack-of-all-trades, At 16, he informed his mom of his desire to quit school and leave his hometown of Boston for New York, but his older brother pointed out that New York was already flooded with great drummers such as Jo Jones. Haynes started gigging around Boston in earnest. Pianist Luis Russell — a New Orleans transplant who'd played with King Oliver — recruited Haynes to his Boston band. Then Haynes landed the job of a lifetime with tenor sax great Lester Young. From then on, Haynes played with damn near every important jazz musician — in every style — and he released dozens of albums not counting his work as a sideman.  "It wasn't that I was looking to play with all those guys or to be a part of something new," says Haynes. "They came looking for me. ... They hired me for what I could do — the way that I listened to music and my concepts," Haynes says during a telephone interview from his New Jersey home. 

"I am always listening. I am always trying to keep my ears open. I had an old person say to me many, many years ago that understanding is one of the greatest things in life."

Haynes continues: "I like to paint pictures. I like to tell a story. Some tunes I'm ready to preach on the drums. If the spirit hits you, shout. Sometimes I like to shout on the drums," he continues.

Neither Harris nor Haynes has a retirement plan. Harris continues to conduct his weekly jazz workshop in New York, and he teaches master classes regularly in Japan, London and Canada. 

As for Haynes: "I am 85, and this year I have been working in more countries than I ever have in my entire career. Sometimes I don't even know what country I'm in."

And the key to his longevity: "The secret to the fountain of youth is playing good music for good audiences throughout the world. ... I played with cats from Louis Armstrong to Pat Metheny. I'm still active and I'm still innovating. People appreciate that all over the world." 

Barry Harris appears in "Hot Pepper" on Saturday at 6:30 at the Absopure Waterfront Stage. The Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band performs Monday at 1:30 at the Carhartt Amphitheatre. Full schedule at detroitjazzfest.com, and live broadcast at JazzPlanet.tv

Charles L. Latimer writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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