The Defiance of Barry Harris

New from me in The Nation: “The Greatest Teacher of America’s Great Art Form.”

Thanks to my editor Shuja Haider for major help whipping this essay into coherent shape.

There are Barry Harris memorial ceremonies today and tomorrow:

Below: Sunday night, the last set, the final time Barry Harris played the Village Vanguard in October 2019. As he made his way to the piano, I suddenly realized this was it, that I wouldn’t get to bathe in his presence again, so I broke protocol and took this photo.

The first record Leroy Williams and Barry Harris made together was Magnificent! with Ron Carter in 1969. For me, this trio album is the beginning of the most profound Barry. A key is turned in the lock and for over a decade the maestro will be at his peak as a player. (Mark Stryker’s invaluable list offers a more detailed and informed viewpoint.)

During that time, Leroy and Barry kept on trying to play the upbeats later than the other. Heavy swing. Leroy is invaluable on any record he’s on, but those tracks with Barry are truly something else. Leroy Williams and Barry Harris together! No doubt about it.

I didn’t know Barry, but I was around him occasionally because we shared the same piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff. At one of those gatherings (around 2005 or so) I got up the nerve to ask him, “Hey Barry, how many trio gigs have you done without Leroy Willams since 1969?”

Barry thought about it for a moment, then replied, “One.”