Interview: Kenny Barron

September 19, 2016

“That’s one of the great things about getting older,” legendary jazz pianist Kenny Barron joked to a sold-out house at New York’s Jazz Standard, as he searched for his reading glasses before launching into the Dizzy Gillespie tune “Bebop.” With longtime bandmates Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums, Barron’s blistering version of the bebop classic would be impressive for a musician a third of his age. But considering the acclaimed pianist and composer just celebrated his 73rd birthday, his rendition was all the more mind blowing. He is quite simply at the top of his musical game.

For more than 50 years, the name Kenny Barron has been synonymous with touch, taste, and time. He’s that rare melding of groove and grace, a pianist who can silence a room with a gentle ballad, and then bring it roaring back to life with his singular sense of swing. Nobody in jazz has a more buoyant eighth note, an emotion the late keyboardist Kenny Kirkland seconded when he once told me, “Kenny Barron taught me how to play the blues!”

I was lucky enough to apprentice Kenny for four years at Rutgers University during the late 1980s and early ’90s; my musical conception hasn’t been the same since. Following the release of his acclaimed new trio album Book of Intuition (Universal), I sat down with my mentor beside a 9-foot concert grand at the new Steinway Hall in New York City to talk about a life spent in pursuit of musical mastery.

I read an interview with you recently where you spoke of a pianist you once knew back in your hometown of Philadelphia who told you, “Musicians should always be humble because music comes through you, not from you.”

The pianist you’re talking about was a friend of my family’s named Hasaan Ibn Ali. He and my brother [the late saxophonist and educator Bill Barron] were very, very close, and he was a little “left of center” in terms of his equilibrium. He was a little “out there.” But that was one of the things he said; that musicians should always be humble, because there’s a higher source for the music. And I really believe that. I was a teenager when I heard him say that, and it really made an impact on me.

I have memories from when I studied with you at Rutgers; I’d say, “I saw you on TV last night with so and so,” and you’d reply, “Cool. I didn’t see it.” You were never the one telling people of your latest achievements.

For me, it’s always been about making the gig. That’s really all it is. For instance, playing at Carnegie Hall for most people is a big deal. And I suppose it is. But for most jazz musicians, at least, it’s about making the gig, as in, “The gig is at Carnegie Hall? Ok, what time do we start?” That’s really all it is. It’s not about seeing your name up in lights. Hopefully, it’s about making the gig, and using that gig to improve as much as you can.

I would imagine that the people whom you looked to as beacons of inspiration were always trying to improve their art as well.

Oh yeah, and I can point to all of them, especially [jazz musician and composer] Yusef Lateef, who encouraged me to go back to school. He also encouraged me to write by playing my music and recording it. Other people influenced me as well. By watching them improve themselves, I would think, “Oh yeah. I want to do that. I want to get better each time I sit down to play.”

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