“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.”
What was the music scene like when you were growing up in Philadelphia the 1950s and ’60s? Do you think the preponderance of music around you helped shape your musical identity early on?
Oh yeah, very definitely. For one thing, there were lots of little clubs where young players could work and play. Not for a lot of money, but they could hone their craft. There was a place I used to play a lot when I was in high school called the Sahara. There was also a place called Spider Kelly’s that I started working at when I was underage. I wasn’t even supposed to be in there! Philly also had a great 24-hour jazz station [WHAT-FM] that Joel Dorn was one of the DJ’s on. He would later become a producer for Atlantic Records. I also met a lot of my peers while I was in high school in Philadelphia—people like Reggie Workman, Arthur Harper and Sonny Fortune. Playing with those guys was incredible.
At one point we didn’t have a record player, and I had heard Horace Silver’s song “Señor Blues” from his album 6 Pieces of Silver on the radio. So I would go to this luncheonette that was about five blocks from my house, and put money in the jukebox to hear it. I would be there almost all day, playing it continuously. I remember the flipside of the record was called “Enchantment.” A lot of things were on jukeboxes back then. And they were hits like John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” and others.
You also played R&B early on in Mel Melvin’s band.
Photography by Juan Patino Right. My brother got me that gig, and it was a great experience. You would play for dancing, and you would play for dancers. They would call them “shake dancers” or “interpretive dancers,” and they were scantily clad. You’d also play for singers and tap dancers and comedians. So it was a real variety show. I was always the youngest person in the band, and thankfully, a lot of the guys would have mercy on me and call out the [chord] changes to me when we were doing things I may have been unfamiliar with.
You studied piano with Vera Bryant Eubanks, the mother of famed guitarist Kevin Eubanks and the sister of pianist Ray Bryant. What kinds of things were you studying with her?
Mostly classical stuff, like Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and pieces like that. Eventually, I wound-up studying with Ray Bryant’s teacher, who was an older woman who lived across the street form my house. Her name was Harriet Reed. The last piece I worked on with her was Edvard Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor for four hands. Although there was only one piano!
Were you working on any technique exercises with her, like Hanon or Czerny?
Yeah. I worked on Czerny. To my chagrin, I’m sorry that I didn’t continue with classical music.
What tips can you impart to pianists looking to get their “chops” in better shape?
Playing technical exercises would be one. But also I think it’s important to practice playing sometimes. One of the things I used to do was take a song like “Cherokee” and play it as fast as I could, alone without stopping, for 20 to 30 minutes. And whatever mistakes you make, you have to live with, because when you’re on the bandstand, you can’t stop to correct yourself.
Would you use a metronome?
No. I never used a metronome.
That’s crazy, because you are known for your rock solid sense of time.
Whenever I play with a metronome, it screws me up! [Laughs.] It’s like playing with a click track in the studio. It’s hard for me.
I read that you had planned to go to college at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, but at the age of 17, you got a last minute call to join Yusef Lateef on tour in Detroit. Did you get your college degree later on?
Yeah, due to Yusef’s influence. I went back to Manhattan Community College. At the time, he was teaching there. I had some classes with him, and I took math and English. When I went on the road with Yusef, I would always go to my teachers and say, “Look, I’m going to be out of town. What material will you cover during that time?” And they would tell me what chapters they would be covering. So when I came back, I would be ahead of the class. I was working every night while I was on the road.
What do you remember about those early days and gigs in New York?
When I first moved to New York City, I moved right next door to my brother Bill on East 6th Street, where all the Indian restaurants are now. It was a great block. There was a lot of music and a lot of coffee shops. I was within walking distance of [famed jazz venue] the Five Spot, so I could walk over there. The same people that owned the Five Spot owned a place on St. Mark’s Place called the Jazz Gallery. I could walk over there too, and I remember seeing Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, and even John Coltrane’s first group with [pianist] Steve Kuhn and [drummer] Pete La Roca there. And across the street, Lee Morgan and Albert “Tootie” Heath and Spanky DeBrest shared an apartment with Reggie Workman. And up the street from them lived Ted Curson, and upstairs from them lived Pepper Adams and Elvin Jones.
Soon after you moved to New York City, you were off touring with legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, and countless others. Why do you think you were and continue to be so in demand as a sideman, and what qualities do you think make a good accompanist?
I think there are some non-musical things that help in terms of being reliable and showing up on time for the gig. But hopefully, I think talent has something to do with it. Also, I think being able to play different kinds of music is important. For instance, playing with Stanley Turrentine is one thing, but working with Ron Carter is another. Being able to play with all those different kinds of people and in different genres is a big plus.
You’re also known as someone that never plays to overshadow the leader or the song. You seem always to be playing to lift someone else up.
Oh yeah. I like to think of myself as a team player. It’s not about drawing undue attention to myself. It’s about making the music work. That’s when I have the most fun.
Do you have any words of advice for musicians about how to play better in ensemble situations?
I think it’s really just about listening and what makes the music work, not what makes you stand out. Because when you listen to a group, if the group sounds good, you’re gonna say the group sounds good. If the group sounds bad but you sound good, the group still sounds bad!
Your new album Book of Intuition is your first recording with your longtime working trio of Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. Why did it take so long to go into the studio with them?
That’s a good question! I guess because we were able to work without having a recording, it just never came up. Since we’ve played together for so long, when we went in to record, we recorded something like 20 songs over two days. And we chose ten for the album.
What is it that has kept this particular ensemble together for so long?
What I like about Johnathan is that he’s young and he’s got all of this energy. He approaches the music with a different dynamic, so to speak. For instance, when we “trade fours,” I literally have to count sometimes! But that’s good for me, because it makes me pay attention and be aware of where I am. I can’t just “lean,” like you can with someone who plays very logically. Also, he has this energy where he’s very loose and at the same time you know where he is when he’s playing time.
When I heard Johnathan Blake with you live, I thought he had the swing of an old jazzer, with the fire of a hip-hop drummer. And it seemed to keep you on your toes. Your solos were blazing!
That’s what he makes me do! And I love Kiyoshi because he has a beautiful sound, and he also takes lots of chances when he plays. He can throw you some curves. Again, he makes you pay attention.
What do you look for in bass players and drummers?
Good time, good taste, and fire. On occasion, when Kiyoshi and Johnathan aren’t available, I’ve used other players like Linda Oh on bass. I really like her playing. And on drums I’ve used Justin Faulkner, who plays with [pianist] Jacky Terrasson.
Your new album is decidedly heavy on original material. What was it that inspired you to start composing your own songs early on?
I think it’s important, because that’s your vision. My brother also encouraged me to write music. He moved to New York quite a few years before I did. After he moved there, I sent him some music. I sent him probably the first song I ever wrote, called “Helter Skelter.” And around three weeks later, I got a letter back from him saying “Yeah. I played it with the band and they loved it!” So that was big encouragement for me.
I loved the album you recorded with your brother Bill entitled The Next Plateau. He may have been primarily known as an educator, but his songs were great.
He wrote some different music. [Laughs.] He was a very intellectual player, and he was into Stockhausen, Webern, Schoenberg and 12-tone music. He loved Cecil Taylor, and he even worked with him for a while. Yusef Lateef was also a big influence in terms of me composing. Every time I would write something, he’d go “Let’s try it!” So that was a very good thing. And he would record a lot of my stuff, as did Dizzy Gillespie.
I always tell people, “Standards only got to become standards because somebody wrote them!”
Book of Intuition opens with your song “Magic Dance,” which starts with a supple, rubato, solo piano intro. The first thing I thought when I heard you play this live in New York was “No one has Kenny’s touch.” Who were the players you listened to that pointed you in this direction?
I’d have to say Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. Those were the people that really did that for me in terms of touch, and also [the Modern Jazz Quartet’s pianist] John Lewis. Just the way they touched the piano, and also their lyricism. They didn’t play a lot of notes, but whatever they played just made perfect sense. That’s the thing that drew me to them, and the thing I’m still aiming for.
Do you use the soft pedal on the piano a lot?
When I’m playing a ballad, yes. Also whenever I’m playing solo, because for some reason, it allows me to play stronger without being that much louder. So I tend to use it much more when I’m playing solo.
“Magic Dance” incorporates one of you compositional signatures—the use of Brazilian rhythms. Where did your affinity for them come from?
I think from working with Dizzy and Stan Getz. I think what really got me into Brazilian music was hearing Sergio Mendes’ Trio album Brasil ’65 for the first time. That group really got me interested in it, and then I began hearing other kinds of things like chorinhos and sambas. And I really love it. The harmony is subtle, the rhythms are very playful and joyful, and seductive too.
Your tune “Bud Like” also displays your strong rhythmic conception at the keyboard. There’s an inherent, almost “horn-like” motion that propels them forward. Where does that sense of swing come from?
I think part of it comes from people like Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. But I also love to listen to horn players, especially trumpet players. So I get a lot from them. And also part of that forward motion comes from “hooking up” with the drummer rhythmically.
I remember reading an interview with you where you said, “A drummer’s ‘one’ is the ‘and of four.’”
Yeah. It’s like, “One, two, three, four, umm.” That kind of gives you forward motion. And I utilize that.
“Cook’s Bay” has a terrific groove, very reminiscent of Ahmad Jamal’s version of “Poinciana.”
That’s by design! That song was inspired by a trip I took with my wife to Tahiti. We flew to Papeete, and then we sailed to the Tahitian Islands. One of the islands was Moorea, and you come into Cook’s Bay. It’s so beautiful and peaceful there.
Your song “In the Slow Lane” is all about groove and space. What do you think is hard about playing slow?
I guess trying to restrain yourself. That’s the hardest thing. Trying not to fill all the space up. Let it be empty for a minute. A lot of young people try to play everything they know all the time. But when you have a piece like this, you’ve got to leave space. It’s a very open piece without a lot of chord changes, so somehow you have to make it interesting.
It’s one where the silence is as important as the notes are.
You cover a few songs by other artists on the album, including Thelonious Monk’s “Light Blue.” What is it about Monk’s music that has provided decades of inspiration for you?
I really love his writing. His compositions are like a thing unto themselves. They’re quirky, they’re interesting, and they’re not that easy to play. They’re challenging. Every time I play through one of his songs, I’m always saying to myself, “How did he think of that?”
“Prayer” begins with a duet between you and Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bowed bass. It’s a definite mood change on the album.
That song and “In the Slow Lane” were both written for a film called Harvest Moon, about a man who had a stroke starring [the late actor] Ernest Borgnine.
“Nightfall” is a fitting album closer and a tribute to its composer and your frequent collaborator Charlie Haden. What do you remember most about your work together?
We never really played things that were fast, so there were a lot of changing moods. Charlie had a beautiful sound on the bass, and a simplicity about the things he played.
Speaking of duets, I can’t help but mention People Time, the album you made with Stan Getz. To me, it still stands out as truly a master class in playing in a duo setting.
Well, it’s interesting because that was the first time I ever played duo with a horn player. Playing duo with a bass player is fairly easy, but playing duo with a horn player meant I had to be a lot more supportive. I had to figure out what I was going to do and how I was going to approach particular songs. And we didn’t rehearse for any of it!
Did your duo concerts and album with him come from playing a tune or two in that setting during full band concerts?
Photography by Juan Patino That’s actually true. We would play Benny Carter’s song “People Time” always as a duo, and somebody once asked Stan, “Why don’t you guys record duo?” So he thought about it and said, “Yeah, we’ll do it!” Our rehearsal was a gig in Boston at the Charles Hotel, with Stan saying things like, “Ok you know this song? What key do you do it in?” That was the rehearsal! The same thing happened when we went to Copenhagen. Stan just said, “Oh, let’s play these songs.” We had no idea how we were going to start or end the concert. We were flying by the seats of our pants. And that’s what I think made it interesting. I had to ask myself, “In this song, am I going to play stride or walk a bass line? What am I going to do?” These were decisions made in the moment. And that’s what made it fun.
But it also seemed like a pairing of like musical minds.
I think you’re right, because Stan and I both loved lyricism. He could play a ballad and make you cry.
In a salacious age of instant celebrity, what keeps you centered and striving toward continued artistic excellence?
Well, it was never my idea to play music for that reason. One of the things I tell my students about making this kind of music is, “If you’re looking for fame and fortune, you better try and be a rapper!” You do this music because you love it. Fame and fortune may be a side effect from it, but that’s not why you do it.
You played Fender Rhodes on some of your early solo albums. And it’s interesting, because there’s a resurgence of it now on work by people like Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin and others. Did you enjoy playing Rhodes?
For certain kinds of music, I enjoyed it. I don’t know if I’d use it to play straight-ahead jazz on, but I like using it to create certain kinds of effects and moods.
Are you listening to anything new these days that our readers might be surprised about?
I love [pianist] Gerald Clayton’s new record Life Forum. Obviously, I also listen to a lot of Brazilian music. But I listen to everything. On my iPod, you’ll find everything from James Brown to string quartets!
What has your career as a teacher taught you?
It taught me that I don’t know everything! [Laughs.] I’ve learned a lot from my students, because sometimes they have ideas that you don’t even think about. Students today are incredibly well-prepared. They play in odd meters like it’s nothing. That’s not something I grew up doing, going back and forth between seven and nine. There have been occasions where I’ve heard my students play and I’ve thought, “Damn, I wish I could do that!” So I’ve learned a lot from them. I had one student who was from Nicaragua, and when I wanted to learn about playing montunos, he was very generous with his knowledge.
You recently said, “Music is a journey, but you never want to arrive.” So is the goal the same as it ever was for you?
Yeah. You keep searching, and you try to find new things. They may not be new, but they’ll be new for you. So there’s lots I still want to do.
If you could impart some advice on the next generation of aspiring artists from your 50-plus-year career in music, what would it be?
One of the things I tell students is, if you’re going to play music, do it for the right reasons. And also, listen to all kinds of things, because you never know what you may be called to do. Even listen to music you don’t like sometimes, because there’s something you can gain from it. So be open and receptive, especially now. Being able to earn a living doing what you love to do really is the goal. For me, that’s success.
Kenny Barron Has an App!
“Being able to look over the shoulder of a jazz piano master and watch exactly what he does is something all aspiring pianists crave,” says Dominique Peretti, the developer of Kenny Barron’s new iOS app Contrary Motion. “As a former music student doing software development for a living, I knew I had to make such an app with my hero Kenny Barron. “When I showed to Kenny the prototype I had coded, he immediately said he would be a part of it. He eventually came to my house in France and played the piano for a couple hours. As you can imagine, it was one of the greatest days of my life! I didn’t want the app to be only instructional: I wanted it to capture the feeling of standing just beside a pianist at a private concert. The app runs on iPhone and iPad, and more songs will be added to it in the coming weeks.” Find out more at contrarymotion.co.