Barry Harris, the bandleader, composer, educator and bebop piano perfectionist and interpreter, who kept the idiom alive on stages throughout the world and taught his music fundamentals to thousands of students for seven decades, died on December 8, at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, N.J. He was 91 and lived in Weehawken, N.J.

Harris had been hospitalized for the last two weeks and died of complications due to COVID, said Kira von Ostenfeld-Suske, who was part of a small support team of friends and students that helped Harris in recent years. 

He continued to lead classes on Zoom for about 100 international students until two weeks before his death. 

Last month in November, this writer had the pleasure of seeing him at a concert celebrating NEA Jazz Masters at Flushing Town Hall in Queens. Standing ovations greeted him as he was assisted on stage. He had to be assisted on playing the first Monk tune but by the second tune, it came together, as he implemented those lingering improvisational chord structures. He followed with a blues duet and banter with his good friend of 70 years and fellow Detroit native Sheila Jordan. He also sang a rendition of his noted ballad, “The Bird of Red and Gold.” Unfortunately, that was to be his last performance.

Somewhat slowed by a stroke in 1993, Harris soon returned to form and continued to perform all over the world until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down clubs and concert halls in 2020. 

“At 21 years old, I became a student of Barry Harris. He taught me a way of looking at the piano, at chord structure, that I have never seen anywhere else (before or since),” said pianist, composer and producer Rodney Kendrick. “His teachings have allowed me to dive deeper into the music of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Monk, Duke, Randy Weston, and a host of others. His teachings have allowed me to forge my own sound based on the foundation that they left. Barry Harris was my mentor and my friend, one of my musical friends and truly a gift to us all.” 

Harris was a consummate freelancer who enjoyed playing in a variety of diverse settings from a local spot in Detroit to inaugurating the Lincoln Center’s Penthouse piano series in 1997.

His many honors include NEA Jazz Master in 1989; honorary doctorate from Northwestern University in 1995; 1998 Lifetime Achievements Award for Contributions to the Music World from the National Association of Negro Musicians; and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Barry Harris at Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theatre, New York NY 7/21/84 © Brian McMillen

In New York, Harris befriended the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (known as the Jazz Baroness), who was a devoted patron of jazz and an heir of the Rothschild fortune. Monk’s popular tune, “Pannonica,” is named after her, as well as Harris’ “Inca.” In 1963, she invited Harris to live in her home in Weehawken, N.J., along with a multitude of cats. A few years later Monk moved in and resided there until his death in 1982. The house contained two pianos next to each other, giving them the opportunity to become close friends while practicing together for hours a day. The baroness died in 1988, but she stipulated in her will that Harris could stay in the house until his death.

Harris at age 84, was a marquee magnet regardless of the country. When he appeared at the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City, the line extended down the block. “Once I heard bebop in Detroit, I didn’t want to play anything else and that urge continues today,” said Harris during an interview with this writer for the AmNews. “I like playing ballads, they are so beautiful. The great composers like Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin aren’t played much in a jazz context.”    

Harris appears in the 1989 documentary film “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” (produced by Clint Eastwood), performing duets with Tommy Flanagan. In 2000, he was profiled in the film “Barry Harris—Spirit of Bebop.”

Barry Doyle Harris was born on December 15, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan. He was the fourth of five children. His father, Melvin, was a mechanic; his mother, Bessie (nee Johnson), was a church pianist at Mt. Zion Hill Baptist Church. She began teaching him piano at age 4. Harris later played at the church as an adolescent.

With no piano readily available for band members at his junior high school, Harris took to the clarinet; faced with the same problem at North Eastern High School, he played bass in the school’s orchestra and band. “I played clarinet and bass just to be in the band but I always played piano. Piano is my life,” Harris stated to Scott during an interview. 

Harris graduated from high school in 1947; his prom date was Margaret Farrell, Alice Coltrane’s (maiden name was McCloud) older sister. He was classmates with the founder of Motown Records, Berry Gordy Jr. who also played piano. 

“I was 17 when I first saw Charlie Parker at a dance hall and 21 when I saw Art Tatum,” said Harris. “I became entrenched with Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.” He was also influenced by Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, and Thelonious Monk.  

Detroit, a jazz haven from the 1930s through the 1950s. Harris’ favorite place as a teenager was the Blue Bird Lounge, where he watched musicians like Miles Davis and Sonny Stitt through the window. 

As a teenager he was befriended by saxophonist Gene Ammons whose pianist was Junior Mance. “Junior would sometimes get up and let me play in his spot with Gene, I was only 17 then,” said Harris. Many of his friends in high school followed him and his group because they played dance music and gave dances. In an AmNews interview he shared, “When you think about it, the dancing is what is missing today from jazz, the dancing is a key part to the music that was lost.”

When Harris was old enough to play in bars, he became a regular pianist at the Rouge Lounge where he backed some of his favorite musicians like Lester Young. He sometimes sat in with bebop hero Charlie Parker, when he was in town.

Harris made practicing a daily ritual and many musicians such as Frank Foster, John Coltrane, Bennie Maupin and Joe Henderson stopped by his house regularly to get advice from him and share musical concepts. Bassist James Jamerson and pianist/organist Earl Van Dyke, who were regulars, acknowledged Harris’ mentoring influence. They both went on to become legends in the Motown Records studio band The Funk Brothers. In his early jazz days Jamerson was an occasional member of Harris’ trio.

In the early 1950s Harris received a call from saxophonist Benny Golson requesting that he come to New York for his recording date; he soon returned to record with Thad Jones. Returning in 1955, he joined Max Roach with Donald Byrd, Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown. In 1958 he recorded his first album as a leader “Breakin’ It Up” (Argo Records) with bassist William Austin and drummer Frank Grant. 

After his stint with Cannonball Adderley in 1960, Harris remained in New York City’s jazz environment. That same year he led his own trio on the album “Barry Harris at the Jazz Workshop” with bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes. During that time, he met Monk which developed into a life-long friendship. 

In 1961 he signed with Riverside Records and recorded “Listen to Barry Harris,” a solo album that featured his originals “Ascension” and “Sphere.” This early recording demonstrates a rich bold tone that keeps giving, each note is profoundly accented and touches your heart like a warm mother’s touch and swings softly with fluctuating melodies and cascading rhythms. 

As a youngster Harris was in awe of Coleman Hawkins and listened to his music constantly. In 1965, he performed with Hawkins and played with the saxophonist until his death in 1969. He sometimes sat in with Parker, bebop’s leading man, when he was in town.    

Harris became a first call pianist for musicians such as Sonny Stitt, Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan, and Charles McPherson. During that 20 year-span, he also recorded 19 albums as a leader. He appeared on albums with Adderley and other musicians, including saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley. He was a key contributor to trumpeter Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” which became a jazz hit in 1964.

Harris’ desire to teach and play music in a friendly nurturing environment for young and established musicians led to the creation of the Jazz Cultural Theater (JCT), a storefront located between 28th and 29th Street on 8th Avenue. The co-founders and partners were Harris, bassist Larry Ridley, jazz promoter Jim Harrison and Frank Fuentes. The project was financed by Baroness Pannonica. 

JCT was also known for Harris’ music classes for vocalists and instrumentalists. It was a popular jazz scene until the landlord doubled the rent. Harris recorded his album “For the Moment” (Uptown Records, 1984) at the site. 

“Barry single-handedly went out and took bebop around the world and back again as a teacher, and artist,” said saxophonist, composer and owner of Bill’s Place Bill Saxton. “I had the pleasure of studying with Barry in 1976, he was a master. I have watched his uniquely styled music program evolve into a format for jazz studies program.”   

Over the years beginning in 1974, Harris utilized various sites to run his weekly workshops including University of the Streets and Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Community Center. Often over 50 aspiring and established musicians and singers attended. Harris’ lessons will be a part of their musical DNA for life. 

“The most important thing I have done as a musician and educator is to teach young people how to play jazz,” stated Harris during an interview with AmNews. “My main thing is to keep jazz alive. I travel the world from Europe, to Japan and Spain to play and teach this music.”

Harris is survived by his daughter, Carol Geyer, and son-in-law, Keith Geyer, who live in metro Detroit.

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