Detroit Bebop Master Passes:
Barry Harris 1929–2021

Barry Harris, the revered Detroit master of traditional bebop, died on December 8 in New York just short of his 92nd birthday. Because of publication schedules, by the time this appears, readers will have read many articles about his life and work, including Mark Stryker’s heartfelt overview of his life written for NPR and Ethan Iverson’s clear exposition of his harmonic codifications of bop language in The Nation. Harris left Detroit and lived in New York for six decades; here, true to the mission of SEMJA, we will focus on his early years and on his unique role in the musical world of the Motor City.

Like many kids around him, Harris learned to play music from his mother and in church, studied the classics with private neighborhood teachers, and then went to Northeastern High School, eventually taking courses at Wayne State University. He gravitated toward jazz early and he and his fellow high school students, like saxophonist Walter Strickland, bassist Ernie Farrow including another young pianist named Berry Gordy, mostly learned from each other. Lessons from the masters came in the form of recordings. As he told Lars Bjorn on November 6, 1998, in an interview conducted before he took to the stage of the Kerrytown Concert House,

“I am an East Side person. I grew up on Forrest and Russell. I started out on St Aubin and Erskine, then I moved to Warren between Hastings and Rivard, then I moved to Alexandrine, then back to Russell and First. I could not solo as well as the cats on the West Side. Clarence Beasley, Willie Metcalf…. They were a little more advanced than the East Siders. Maybe they could not chord as well as me, but I couldn’t solo, so I borrowed a machine from Bess Bonnier. She had a machine that slowed things down, you could slow it gradually. It was a record player. That’s how I learned how to solo. I had a close relationship with Bess, we would call all the time, we are the best of friends.”

Telling another version of this story in another context, he further explained that the first record he worked on in this manner was Bud Powell’s just released “Webb City,” recorded in 1946 by The Bebop Boys, including Sonny Stitt and Fats Navarro as well as the composer on piano. The tune is one of the countless heads based on the harmonic sequence of “I Got Rhythm,” and the opening solo was a classic example of Powell’s modern jazz language that obviously made a lasting impression on Harris, who spent the rest of his life distilling and expanding it. He would return to the piece twice in the studio, once in 1967 leading a wonderful sextet on the record Luminescence. Here the opening solo is by baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, an old friend and student from his Detroit days, who leans back into a more traditional way of playing, working remarkably in tandem with Harris, as the two revisit their younger days with relish and excitement. A few years later he would also record it with the sole survivor of the ephemeral Bebop Boys, Flint-born Sonny Stitt.

Harris was 17 when he first studied “Webb City,” but even though he claimed that it was all slow going, he progressed quickly, and by the time he would lay down his first record in 1950, he was fully conversant with bop language. The “a” side of the 78 was taken up by “Santa Fe Shuffle,” featuring a vocal group The Croquettes, that included Harris’ wife Christine. The second side was a typical bop up-tempo feature for the tenor saxophone of Frank Foster, followed by a briefer Harris solo. Listening to the piano after all these years, it is evident that the lessons from Powell, Charlie Parker and others had been well absorbed and that the essence of Harris’s style, which would serve him for a lifetime, were already in place. The essential way in which he rides and connects the changes is all there; his rhythmic concept, was still incipient, as he still rides too much on the beat. Very soon he would start to lay back more, letting it push him along, rather than sitting on top of it. The next few years were crucial to his development, as he gained experience working on gigs with his Detroit contemporaries, but also with visiting musicians such as Miles Davis and Lester Young. In 1954 he took over the piano chair from Tommy Flanagan in the famed house band of the Blue Bird Inn, gaining both in experience and exposure as one of the top jazz players in the city. Harris also became something of a house pianist at the Rouge Lounge in where he accompanied jazz greats like Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Lee Konitz, and Lester Young, in 1955–1957. He also performed there with his own groups. In July of 1958 Harris recorded the first album under his own name in Chicago for Argo Records: Breakin’ It Up. He was accompanied by bassist Will Austin and drummer Frank Gant. It was a remarkable session which was a two-fer for producer Dave Usher (also from Detroit), who recorded Sonny Stitt on the first day and the trio alone on the second day. Harris’ relaxed swing is on great display throughout the two sessions. The opener “All the Things You Are” is a perfect illustration of Harris’ individual and well-crafted approach. The oft-played standard is played at an unusually slow tempo introducing just enough tension to the proceedings to allow Harris to show off his relaxed approach to swing.

Like so many young players in the days before the rise of the jazz education establishment, Harris had to work out how to improvise by listening to records and from informal advice from friends and mentors, but he also had an inborn pedagogical streak that prompted him to begin to teach his distillation of bebop principles to others, using his mother’s house and eventually the apartment he lived in once he got married.

Parker, Powell, Monk, and Gillespie never formalized the unspoken principles of bebop soloing, some of which were not necessarily new, but built on earlier jazz history. Harris figured out the essence of the code, focusing on ways of creating logical lines over extended harmonies and procedures for moving faultlessly from one chord to the next. He taught almost exclusively by ear, without written materials, instilling intuitive ways of playing, engaging the whole body as well as the intellect. Some of what he taught was later formalized and labeled by others who picked up on his teaching and took it further such as Detroit’s younger master musician and teacher Wendell Harrison, but also outsiders such as Indiana University professor David Baker, who is credited with naming the scales with passing notes that were essential to Harris’s method as “bebop scales.” Young though he may have been, the informal daily lessons that Harris imparted to an array of Detroit musicians, influenced an entire generation, and indirectly through disciples the message was passed on to this day. Almost the entire Detroit jazz diaspora that transplanted to New York in the middle fifties and early sixties of the last century was made up of people who had learned, to various degrees, from Harris: Curtis Fuller, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, Roy Brooks, Charles McPherson, Lonnie Hillyer, and many others. While perhaps the best known, he was not the only African American oral professor of the streets. Others who need to be remembered included such teachers as trumpet master Robert “Boysie” Lowery in Wilmington, Delaware, who taught young musicians in that part of the country, most notably Clifford Brown.

Harris stayed home when many others moved east, aside from short stints on the road with Max Roach and Cannonball Adderley. But in 1960 he too relocated to New York City, where he performed with his own groups, mainly trios, but also with major players such as Coleman Hawkins, Lee Morgan, and Dexter Gordon, always maintaining his teaching, which took over in his last decades as his main preoccupation.

Throughout all this, he very much remained anchored in the ways of his early days, sticking with the bebop language he had worked so hard to master, even as other trends were taking over around him. Although he rarely came back to Detroit — except during the holidays, when he would perform a regular annual Kwanzaa concert at the First Unitarian Universalist Church — he never stopped touting his local roots or with working with other Detroit expatriates. Sticking to his personal style, he continued to perfect his command of the language, honing his phrasing and harmonic explorations while ever perfecting his piano technique, even taking classical lessons late in life. For some, he was too rooted in the old ways of playing, and yet generations of young players, from New York to Tokyo, sought him out to learn from the source. Harris lived inside the music—he taught others to use their body not so much the fingers—and it lived through him. He was not an imitator or a rigid revivalist as so many are today, but could say with Jean Jaurès, “we are the true heirs of the flock of our ancestors: we have brought out of it their flame, you have only preserved the ashes.”