A Conversation with Kenny Barron and Benny Green (by Tom Gsteiger)

Kenny Barron and Benny Green played a series of duo concerts at Marians Jazzroom from April 17-21, 2018 as part of Jazz Festival Bern, in Bern, Switzerland. In this conversation, which took place on April 21, they mused on aesthetics, technique and other piano players. They both can look back on illustrious careers as bandleaders and sidemen (i.e. they both played with the great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard).

The interview was edited by Juan Rodriguez, longtime Montreal music journalist.

Tom Gsteiger:  What are the main challenges when you’re playing duo?

Benny Green:  For myself in this specific instance, playing with Mr. Barron – well, he’s one of my favorite pianists of all time and my favorite living jazz pianist. That means I have all the recordings of his I can find. Although I’m trying to develop my own voice he is a deep influence on me – conceptually, stylistically, in terms of feeling, so playing with him my natural innate respect for him means not being in his way. But Mr. Barron also reminded me that he wants to feel and hear my piano too. So the big challenge for me is to just go ahead and play and not simply step back and listen.

Another pianistic challenge is the issue of not having a steady pulse of quarter notes from the bass or ride cymbal and whether playing solo piano or duo, how the swing element is negotiated. Mr. Barron has been helping me to kind of liberate myself from a sense of being shackled, so to speak, from specifically playing some sort of quarter notes in the bass all the time, so that we can play the piano as we would in a trio and not put ourselves in a solo or duo box.

Kenny Barron:  One of the challenges is being compatible with your duo partner. I’ve been in situations playing duo where you’re just not compatible. That doesn’t mean you’re a good or bad piano player, but some people are just not compatible, period. So that’s the first thing, finding the right partner. Benny for me is ideal. I’ve only had a few: Mulgrew Miller, Tommy Flanagan, and Barry Harris. It was very easy to play with them.

TG:  What makes them compatible?

KB:  People feel things differently. When you feel things closer to your partner that makes it much easier, in terms of swing and how you feel pulse. If that’s close, it works.

TG:  Did you prepare for this week here in Bern?

KB:  Not at all. Benny took it upon himself to create a set list.

BG:  I want to mention that I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Barron and Mulgrew Miller play duo, and I had the impression that there was no script to what they’d play, it was pure spontaneity. To be completely honest, the reason I worked out some sets was for myself because I don’t know that many songs …

TG:   You know enough!

BG:  Oh, that’s kind. I feel like those of us who are on a path never know enough. We want to keep learning more. There were a couple of Mr. Barron’s songs that I’ve been playing with my own trio and solo. I investigated some others that we could play because while Mr. Barron is an incomparable pianist he’s also a beautiful composer and it would have been wrong of us not to play his music as well as some standards that he’s recorded more than once.

TG:  How did the music develop during the week? Did you talk about it after the concerts?

BG:  I’ve been accused of being an “over-thinker.“ I’m trying to respect Mr. Barron in not over-talking things because actually everything is so clear in his playing. I have infinite things that I want to clean up, infinite things to improve, infinite things that I want to edit out of my playing. But if I’m in the music, and not in my ego, it’s very apparent that I shouldn’t have to ask a million questions. I’m just grateful to be a part of this.

KB:  I agree with that. There are things Benny is showing me, things I need to work on.

TG:  But there’s an age difference of twenty years between you two…

BG:  And there’s a difference of profound mastery on his part. Regarding the age difference, a friend of mine once said, “It ain’t your age, it’s your stage.”

TG:  When did you become aware of Mr. Barron’s playing?

BG: The very first recording that got my attention as a teenager was by the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard called Super Blue. It had Freddie and Joe Henderson soloing on a piece called ‘Take it to the Ozone’ – and Mr. Barron took no prisoners! I didn’t realize I was already hearing Mr. Barron quite often on a radio station, K-JAZZ, in the San Francisco Bay Area. At that time they were playing a track by Freddie from 1967, a piece written by the late great Dr. Billy Taylor entitled ‘A Bientôt’ …

KB:  Oh, wow …

BG:  Yeah, a beautiful Bossa Nova. It was a hit on the radio. And I didn’t know it was Mr. Barron. He was one of the very first masters of the Bossa Nova. He was working with Dizzy Gillespie in the early 1960s and I believe it was Dizzy who brought a lot of Brazilian rhythms over …

KB:  Yes, he did, Dizzy and Stan Getz …

BG:  So Mr. Barron didn’t come into Bossa Nova after the fact, he was right there laying the groundwork for us. Just the sexiness of how that music breathes, he is a grand master. Admittedly, as a kid I was more drawn to listening to someone solo than appreciating what comping and accompaniment even is. Just as when Mr. Barron or I hire a bassist or a drummer, we don’t look for the one who plays the hottest solo, per se, we look for someone who can really groove and hook up with the band. That’s why Mr. Barron has always gotten the calls, besides the fact that he is a great soloist, it’s how he makes the music feel. I place Mr. Barron appropriately on a short list, chronologically speaking, consisting of Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, Mr. Barron came next and Mulgrew Miller followed him. If you just look at the record dates of their generation they’re the ones that got the calls for the dates. Not because of politics, but because of how they made the band feel. They knew how to give the music just what it needs. Wynton Kelly was also a master of that.

TG:   And when did you first meet Kenny Barron in person?

BG:  I was born in New York City in 1963 but I grew up in Berkeley, California, and moved back to New York in the spring of 1982. My first chance to actually shake Mr. Barron’s hand and introduce myself was at a great club that we loved called Bradley’s.

TG:   What were your main experiences as a sideman, Mr. Barron?

KB:  The thing I try to do, as Benny mentioned, is make the band sound good. I think my role as accompanist is not to draw attention to myself, just to be there and support what’s happening. If I hear the soloist play a little bit harder, then I dig in a little bit more. If he’s playing really soft then I wouldn’t do that.

TG:   You played with Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, Yusef Lateef …

KB:  They were all important. They were all different. Yusef played a lot of blues, he’s a hell of a blues player. We used to do one song, called ‘Yusef’s Mood,’ and the drummer Tootie Heath would play a shuffle. I remember when we played that it took me back to when I was a kid playing in bars. Working with Freddie was another kind of experience. Sometimes Freddie could lean left, you know, but he was also a master playing ballads, so he taught me something about that, too.

TG:   Your brother Bill Barron, I think he was underrated …

KB:  I think so, too. That may have been partly because he was very quiet. Not shy, but quiet. He wasn’t a self-promoter. He was different. He loved Cecil Taylor, and in terms of composition he loved Schönberg. He had one book I remember called The Schillinger Method. His approach sometimes was intellectual, he was really into analyzing things. And he got me my first gig, a dance band, and it was fun. I was the baby in the group.

TG:   Cecil Taylor just passed away just recently …

BG:  I love Cecil as well. I used to go hear him numerous times at the Keystone Korner, with the alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons. Fascinating, so connected with his instrument. There was a sense of form and shape to the sets. There would be one long played-through improvised set and yet you could feel themes returning and it was a real journey. After I moved to New York I discovered that Cecil was actually a straight-ahead jazz fan. He came to hang out at Bradley’s and we had many conversations. Beautiful man.

TG:   So there’s not that strict a separation between the scenes?

KB:  No, no. I mean I used to see Henry Threadgill come out to hear me. And there are straight-ahead guys who move “out” to hear them. Separation is sometimes in the heads of writers. A B-flat is a B-flat, you know.

BG:  And whatever so-called style or so-called genre a person plays, humans – musicians or not – can feel sincerity. If someone is playing with a feel it’s inviting. There’s no pretense if someone isn’t trying to do something they don’t really believe in. So when we hear Cecil Taylor he’s being pure, THE Cecil Taylor.

KB:  Yeah, that’s him …

BG:  And I love Duke Ellington’s statement: “There are only two kinds of music – good and bad.”

TG:   And what makes good music good?

BG:  How it feels to the individual. Beauty is in the ear of the behearer.

KB:  Perfect!

TG:  Why did you choose the piano as your instrument?

KB:  I had no choice. I had two brothers and two sisters and my mother required it. On my sixth birthday I got piano lessons.

TG:  But I think you’re happy with it?

KB:  Now! I wasn’t then, I hated it. I wanted to be outside playing with the other kids. Eventually I did grow to love it.

TG:   How?

KB:  Well, through my brother. And I had good teachers. One of them was Ray Bryant’s sister Vera, who was the mother of Kevin and Robin Eubanks. She was in high school when she taught me. Also, in Philadelphia there was a great jazz radio station. And my brother had all these 78s, Bird, Dizzy, Miles, Dexter Gordon …

TG:   What did attract you to that kind of music?

KB:  I can’t really say what it was that attracted me to it, but I knew I loved it. I know that Horace Silver came out with Six Pieces of Silver. At that time we didn’t have a record player and I would just run to this luncheonette five blocks away from home to play the jukebox to listen to “Senor Blues” and the flipside “The Enchantment.” Then when I found out that the drummer Louis Hayes was 18 years old, it was like, Wow, there’s hope!

BG:  I really liked the piano as a child. Anytime we’d go to someone’s house that had a piano I would just go sit there and press the keys. We got a piano when I was six years old: My parents told me they didn’t have specific aspirations that either me or my sister, who is four years older, would become piano players. They grew up in the Depression era and they said it was just part of good, healthy, wholesome family values that you had a piano in your home. We didn’t have a lot of money but they bought a beautiful used upright. Once we got that piano I sat there every day just exploring. I asked my parents for lessons, but because we didn’t have a lot of money they wanted to hold off. A year went by and I was still at the piano every day, so they got me my first teacher.

TG:   How did you come to jazz?

BG:  I heard jazz at home because my father played the tenor saxophone in the style of Lester Young who was able to impart such feeling with so few notes. And listening to jazz records, in particular two records he played almost every day: a 1962 album by Thelonious Monk called Monk’s Dream and a collection of Charlie Parker’s 1947 Dial recordings with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter and Max Roach, songs like “Scrapple from the Apple” or “Dewey Square.” I was hearing those records every day; I didn’t know the music was called jazz but I loved how it felt and also seeing my father’s relationship with the sound, which wafted in air, and he would be smiling and kind of moving – there was something very magical going on. It drew me in as a kid. My father started to talk to me about it. The first thing he said was: “I want you to understand that black people created this music. That doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy it, and some people can even play it.” When he saw that I wanted to play this music, he told me: “You’re gonna need to learn standard songs, you gotta learn the history of the music, and I will help you.” My father played with great feeling but couldn’t read music, so he wanted better for me. He instilled in me an honest foundation of what jazz is.

TG:  Is it important to study the tradition ?

KB: Oh yeah, very much so. Study the tradition and listen. Listening is a forgotten art. Especially for a lot of younger people who only go back to Coltrane.

TG:   Or only to Mark Turner …

KB:  Exactly. It’s important to find out who influenced those people. It’s a matter of going back to the source, so you go all the way back to Louis Armstrong. Important to know, not that you want to play like that … I remember doing a gig with Sweets (Harry Edison) and Lockjaw (Eddie Davis). They didn’t believe in long solos. Two choruses! You had to figure it out, learn how to edit yourself. Whatever you had to say you had to do it in two choruses.

BG:  Milt Jackson said almost the same exact thing. “If you ain’t got to it in two or three choruses it ain’t gonna happen.” He said he got that from Charlie Parker. You’re asking about why it’s beneficial to go back: When you hear someone who really has a voice, say Joe Henderson, then you notice that he listened to Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane but what he put together becomes wholly Joe Henderson. That’s part of our study: How people embraced the precedent that has been established and through the process of embracing it realized themselves.

TG:   Let’s talk about some piano players. Let’s start with Earl Hines.

KB:  I was fortunate enough to hear Earl Hines. His articulation was so clean because of his touch, and through that I think he influenced a lot of people.

BG:  Without a doubt Earl Hines is one of the cornerstones of the music because of the far-reaching influence he’s had on everyone – EVERYONE – who plays jazz piano. Whether or not they’re consciously realizing what came through him. All the pianists in his time had strong left hands but he did so much stylistically with his right hand to influence Nat “King” Cole and Hank Jones, among many others. Hank Jones has acknowledged that his initial piano influences were Earl “Fatha” Hines and Fats Waller, and it’s really Mr. Jones who put it all together for all of us in terms of modern piano, transcending the piano from being primarily a solo instrument to being an ensemble instrument, blending the piano with different instruments. We wouldn’t have Bill Evans, for example, if not for Hank Jones making the transition from Earl “Fatha” Hines to what’s considered modern contemporary jazz piano. The whole thing we associate rightfully with Bud Powell of left hand playing chords and right hand playing lines. My father used to say everybody has a daddy. It didn’t actually start with Bud – he distilled it like no one else had – but Earl Hines was the one who began to do that, with his right hand playing lines like a horn.

TG:  Next: Thelonious Monk.

KB:  (laughs) Well, what can you say about Monk? You can be influenced by him, but if you try to play like him it’s kind of ludicrous. I may play a Monk song and I may allude to certain characteristics of his playing but it’s always done tongue in cheek. Monk had a great sense of humor. You can’t separate his writing from his playing, they’re so similar. Monk was such a stylist, anything he played, even standards, sounded like he wrote it. He influenced a lot of people. I think of one young guy who was directly influenced by Monk and Randy Weston, that’s Rodney Kendrick.

BG:  Monk’s feeling for time is the hippest thing. And there is a sense of truthfulness, zero jivery in what he does, and you sense it whether or not you’re a player – you immediately sense the intelligence, you feel this hip swing. The sound he gets from the instrument is wholly unique. Whenever I attempt to feel Monk – to really pay attention to a recording or learn one of his songs – it engages my mind like nothing else. His soul is imbedded with intelligence like no one else. He is really a cornerstone of this music called bebop, not only in feeling and attitude but also the aesthetic of it. It’s all there in Monk. He’s good medicine, I’m grateful we have the recordings.

KB:  You know the singer Madeline Eastman?

BG:  Yeah.

KB:  She recorded a version of ‘Evidence.’ One of the lyrics says: “Some cats take a lot of notes to say what they gotta say, but Monk chose just the main events to play.”

BG:  Oooooh! That’s what everyone should learn: to edit out the things that are extraneous. Yeah, there’s no waste of notes with Monk.

TG:   Herbie Nichols.

KB:  I confess I don’t know that much about Herbie. I know Eric Reed recorded a few of his pieces and there were somebody else who did a Herbie Nichols project.

TG:   Frank Kimbrough, Ben Allison …

KB:  Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard the Blue Note stuff – it’s kind of “out there,” I mean leaning to the left. But he actually earned his living around New York playing Dixieland. That’s how he paid the bills.

BG:  What’s interesting is the way Herbie Nichols has been preserved for posterity in recordings of him playing his originals. The great alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson told me that he played some gigs with Herbie Nichols and he said Herbie was a wonderful accompanist. For Lou Donaldson to say that is high praise. But there’s actually no documentation of Herbie Nichols’s comping for horns, but I trust Lou Donaldson’s word on that.

TG:   Elmo Hope.

KB:  Ben Riley actually had a piano-less band that played Elmo Hope’s music. That was after the quartet Sphere. He got a lot of Hope’s music from his widow Bertha Hope.

BG:  Did they record?

KB:  No. There was a pianist in Philly, Hassan Ibn Ali, who only did one record. I’ve known him since I was a kid, he and my brother were very tight. People used to think his influence was Monk, but he said: “No, Elmo Hope.”

BG:  The late great Billy Higgins told me specifically to try to find anything I could where Elmo Hope and the great drummer Philly Joe Jones are playing together. There are numerous sessions; there’s that classic one with Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, John Ore and Philly. Billy Higgins said: “They had a hook-up, check it out.” Admittedly, I’m most enamored with him as a composer. But I keep going back trying to understand what’s happening with his piano playing because I’m told that he was very close with Bud Powell and Monk early on, they were sort of running mates. I haven’t quite caught on to the pianistic thing, and I’m not trying to beat around the bush as if to say I don’t like it. That’s not the case – he’s incredibly musical, as evidenced in the songs he’s playing – but the touch is not a pianistic touch quite in the sense of Hank Jones. But some of my influences have disparate styles; for example I both love Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk, and their styles are almost opposite. Yet if I put on either one’s records my toes are tapping and they draw me in. So knowing that Elmo Hope is a great musician and writer … I like to listen to records with the attitude that maybe there’s something I’m missing and then I listen more closely rather than looking for things to write off.

TG:   Seems like you listen to records a lot …

BG:  I’m a record nerd for sure. Some people from the outside looking in will say Benny especially listens to so-called Hard Bop, beginning with Bebop of the mid-1940s going trough around the time just before Miles went electric 1968. It’s true, that’s the bulk of what I listen to, only because there’s a lot of the essence of what I’m trying to get to in my playing. That was really prevalent at that time, there was less of a controversy of what swinging meant or what the word jazz meant and the music didn’t have as many eclectic influences as it does today. So there’s something very essential in the music that was played then.

KB:  I am not a nerd. I listen more with the intent of just really enjoying. But the same period of time, bebop, hard bop, all the Blue Note stuff, I love this stuff, that’s what I grew up with. But my listening tastes are eclectic. I listen to pop – good pop; on my iPod you may find Anita Baker, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and Prince. I used to dance when I was a teenager.

BG:  It’s there in your playing – quite evident.

KB:  I would put Benny in the same category as a Kenny Washington, knowing the dates and everything …

BG:  It’s actually a certain generation. It kind of started with Kenny, who is just a couple of years older than me, but he was on the scene more than a couple of years before me. And the record listening was kind of going through Christian McBride, Chris Potter, that generation. The kids after that aren’t as deep into researching the history as we were. I guess Kenny was a bit of a guru to us, he kind of set the tone for us listening to records “too much,” if you will. Betty Carter hated it. She grew up around the music, she didn’t have that orientation of studying records, and she felt like we were listening to records too much. But we wanted to really soak up that feeling.

TG:   Back to piano players. Andrew Hill.

KB:  Andrew is definitely different. He was very quiet, but his playing was just so different. He did all those records on Blue Note and then he kind of disappeared. And he came back. He is definitely an Unsung Hero.

BG:  I love Andrew Hill. As a teenager I had all his Blue Note records. I love his writing, his playing, he is immediately recognizable and he really tells a story and imparts a vibe, if you will, a real mood that’s really compelling and deep and reaches you in another kind of place emotionally. He really takes you somewhere. My favorite of all his Blue Note records is one called Judgement with Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis and Elvin Jones. Oh my God, really, really fantastic! I listened with Betty Carter in a car to a cassette of the Joe Henderson album Our Thing with Kenny Dorham, Andrew Hill, Eddie Khan and Pete LaRoca and I didn’t tell Betty who was playing and Betty said, “The piano player sounds like he likes Monk.“ He came with really interesting voicings which seem to have two notes in each hand, such as a spread interval like a 5th, or a 6th or so. He would do so much with that. It was like a color that he’d do just only with that. He really had a voice, he was really saying something. I’m very grateful that these recordings were made because the classic Blue Note records era really documented the period when small group jazz, particularly the quintet, was at a zenith, right up to Miles Davis’ Nefertiti and Sorcerer. It represented a certain apex in the tradition that started with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker having two horns in the front line. This is not to say there haven’t been great things with quintets since then. But it was very concentrated at that time.

TG:  Speaking of quintets, one of my favorite records is Live at Fat Tuesdays by the Kenny Barron Quintet with Eddie Henderson, John Stubblefield, Cecil McBee, Victor Lewis …

KB:  I had so much fun with that band. One of the things I remember, we would play a song for twenty, thirty minutes, and it would go in different kinds of directions. That didn’t happen on the recording, but in live performance that’s how it was. One of the first gigs we did was at a place called Joanna’s on 17th street. It was fun. It went this way and that way. I would love to get back to that.

BG:  And we will love to hear it.

KB:  But at some point you kind of get afraid.

BG:  How so?

KB:  That’s hard to explain. Being young I didn’t care. But being older I should also not care.

BG:  I think that when anyone is improvising unexpected things happen. And anyone can hear you, observe you and see that you’re unflappable. In other words, whatever happens, you sense it and let things go. It’s there in your playing, it’s so much in the moment …

KB:  Maybe caring too much about the audience. But the Live at Fat Tuesdays record wasn’t that representative of what was happening with the quintet. We could turn on a dime.

TG:  There are some additional tracks on the CD version of that record.

KB:  Oh really! I haven’t heard that, all I have is the vinyl …

BG:  You have that stuff that’s been released from the Left Bank club in Baltimore with you and Freddie live?

KB:  I did hear it – this is producer Joel Dorn’s release.

BG:  There’s more and more jazz of that era that’s actually being unearthed now. It’s amazing. And I’m really convinced if one wants to do research – this is a nerd talking here – what I mean, if I really want to hear Kenny Barron stretching out live with Freddie Hubbard and leave no stone unturned, somewhere in some country I’ll find someone who has a bootleg. You really have to go after it, it’s not gonna fall out of sky and land on you.

TG:   How did you choose the musicians for the Fat Tuesdays quintet?

KB:  I don’t know. Just dudes whose playing I loved. I met John Stubblefield in Chicago, his playing reminded me of Wayne Shorter a lot. But he also played R&B – he played with Solomon Burke. And Eddie Henderson I met through Freddie. Eddie was studying medicine and he actually became a doctor. And Cecil McBee – his playing I always loved, he’s a great bass player. And with Victor I did a record with a French horn player named Tom Varner. We lasted for a while.

BG:  I heard you and Cecil McBee duo at the Village Gate Terrace. You played “Big P.”

KB:  The Jimmy Heath song?

BG:  Yeah, you sure did. There were more piano-bass duo rooms in the 1980s. That’s the first time I heard Mr. Barron playing in person at Bradley’s …. It was master class for us young pianists. We listened to Kenny Barron or Hank Jones play three sets, mostly standards, and just take notes.

KB: With Bulldog [Ray Drummond], we played three sets, six nights. We did not repeat one song. So we called it ‘No-Repeat-Week.’

BG:  Damn! Ray Drummond is like a pianist’s third hand.

KB: Yeah!


(After a lot of autodidactic studies Tom Gsteiger started to write about jazz in 1994 at the age of 24. Some years later he started to teach jazz history, first in Basel and then also in Lucerne. He loves real albums and hates downloading and streaming. He lives in Bern.)