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Barry Harris, beloved jazz pianist devoted to bebop, dies at 91

Jazz musician Barry Harris performing at the Henry Fonda Theatre in 2006.
Michael Buckner
Getty Images
Jazz musician Barry Harris performing at the Henry Fonda Theatre in 2006.

Barry Harris, a pianist who carefully preserved the language of bebop throughout a seven-decade career as a brilliant performer and influential teacher, died Wednesday at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, N.J. He was 91 and lived in Weehawken, N.J.

Harris had been hospitalized for the last two weeks and died of complications due to Covid, said Kira von Ostenfeld-Suske, who was part of a small support team of friends and students that helped Harris in recent years. Harris would have turned 92 next week and taught his last class, via Zoom, on Nov. 20.

One of the leading musicians to emerge from Detroit's modern jazz explosion in the 1940s and '50s, Harris remained indefatigable into his early 90s. He led weekly workshops in New York, appeared in clubs and concert halls and traveled the world to teach and spread the gospel of bebop — the post-war style that became the lingua franca of the music.

Harris channeled the language and spirit of bebop's founding fathers — alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk — through his own foxy wit, vivid harmonic imagination and distinctive rhythmic rumble. But he was more than a sterling soloist and keeper of the flame. He was a Talmudic scholar of bebop; a beacon of artistic integrity and generosity; and a swinging Socrates, guiding students in a quest for truth, beauty and the hippest chords to play on "Indiana" and "Embraceable You."

At a time when the traditional apprentice system all but collapsed in jazz, Harris represented a direct link to the pantheon. His authority descended from a lifetime of bandstand and recording experience with countless iconic figures.

"Barry was revered," said Michael Weiss, one of the many pianists Harris mentored. "He orchestrated his melodies and constructed his improvisations in a lyrical, unhurried and free-flowing manner. His codification of the bebop language stands apart from most of the trite attempts at jazz theory in the academic world, because it goes to the heart of what makes a melody."

The essence of Harris's individuality was his storytelling expression, spontaneous flow of melody and harmony and the intensity of his swing. On romantic ballads his ear for harmonic color and the eloquent movement of one chord to another lent his performances the lyric glow of a Shelley ode. On "Stay Right With It," a blues recorded in 1962 for his LP Chasin' the Bird, his articulation and inflection are in constant flux as he tears through a dozen choruses filled with coiled triplets, vocalized syncopations and expansive phrases.

Harris' passion for teaching grew out of an analytical mind and a lifelong quest for knowledge and self-improvement. He put the virtuoso improvisations of Parker, Gillespie and Powell under a microscope, discovering the musical grammar that makes bebop work — scales, chords, chromatic passing tones. He then organized a set of rules that helps musicians play like natives, without an accent.

Detroit was one of the most prolific feeders of talent to the national jazz scene at mid-century. The Jones brothers (Hank, Thad and Elvin), Yusef Lateef, Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan and dozens of other future stars emerged from the city. Harris, a precocious sage, played a critical role in priming the pump: he was barely into his 20s when he began leading what became daily colloquia at his home.

Among the significant musicians who came up under his tutelage were trumpeter Donald Byrd, bassists Paul Chambers and Doug Watkins, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and saxophonists Pepper Adams, Charles McPherson and Joe Henderson. Future Motown bassist James Jamerson also studied with Harris, and when John Coltrane was performing in Detroit, he would stop by to see what new angle Harris was exploring.

The fundamentals Harris devised in the '50s remained the backbone of his teaching. Aspects of his method eventually seeped into the mainstream of jazz education, though Harris never held a formal position in any academy beyond temporary residencies. His workshops were a fixture in New York beginning in the '70s, including a five-year period from 1982-87 at the Jazz Cultural Theater, which he co-founded.

"I must be the dumbest kid in the class because I've been in it the longest, and I'm the biggest thief in the class because I steal from everybody," he once told me.

Barry Doyle Harris was born in Detroit on Dec. 15, 1929. He was the fourth of five children born to Melvin and Bessie Harris. His mother, a church pianist, started giving him piano lessons at age 4. One of his later teachers, Gladys Wade Dillard, also taught Tommy Flanagan.

Harris played dances in high school, but the turning point came at 17, when he heard a seminal bebop record, Webb City, featuring Powell, saxophonist Sonny Stitt and trumpeter Fats Navarro. Harris learned Powell's scampering solo, note-for-note. He then progressed swiftly, making his first record in 1950 for a small company in Toledo, Ohio. Two years later, Harris recorded with homegrown trombonist Frank Rosolino for the Dee Gee label in Detroit.

In 1954 Harris succeeded Flanagan in the house band at the Blue Bird Inn — Pepper Adams and Elvin Jones were also in the group — and backed stars like Miles Davis and Wardell Gray. He later worked around town with Roy Eldridge, Lee Konitz and Lester Young. Harris also sat in with Charlie Parker a few times, when the bebop Prometheus was in town. He toured with drummer Max Roach in the summer of 1956 and made recordings around that time in New York with Thad Jones, Hank Mobley and Art Farmer.

Harris didn't leave Detroit for good until alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley convinced him to go on the road in 1960. Here is some stunning footage of Harris playing with Adderley at the Newport Jazz Festival that summer; the pianist steals the show with his dazzling attack and inexhaustible flow of narrative melody.

Harris settled in New York, where he cemented his reputation as a musicians' musician with an unwillingness to compromise.

In the '60s, he became a close friend of Pannonica de Koenigswarter, known as the Jazz Baroness. She was a Rothschild scion and guardian angel to many jazz musicians, notably Monk. (In the '80s, she was a financial backer of Harris' Jazz Cultural Theater.). Harris moved into her Weehawken home in the mid-'60s, where he lived until his death. Monk also lived there in his final decade, and the two became close; Harris was widely recognized as one of the preeminent interpreters of Monk's music.

Harris' essential recordings as a leader include the trio LPs he made in the 1960s and '70s, especially At the Jazz Workshop, Chasin' the Bird, Preminado, Magnificent!, Vicissitudes and Live in Tokyo. His finest solo piano recordings are 1979's The Bird of Red and Gold (Xanadu) and 1990's Solo (September).

Harris also appears on canonical records as a sideman, including Adderley's Them Dirty Blues, Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder, Stitt's Constellation, Dexter Gordon's Gettin' Around and Coleman Hawkins' Wrapped Tight.

In the 1970s, a distilled lyricism blossomed in Harris playing. This quality continued to ripen with age, and his playing communicated the wisdom of the ancestors, even as a 1993 stroke robbed him of some measure of his dexterity and speed. Advancing years took a further toll, but his authority never wavered — and he never lost the ability to command an audience.

Harris is survived by his daughter, Carol Geyer, and her husband, Keith Geyer, who live in metro Detroit.

Some lifetime honors came to Harris: He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 1989, and he received an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University in 1995. But wider fame and fortune eluded him. No matter: Harris kept plugging away at his art and teaching.

He last appeared in public less than a month ago, at a concert celebrating NEA Jazz Masters at Flushing Town Hall in Queens. Harris played two pieces by Monk and sang the blues with his dear friend of 70 years, Sheila Jordan, a Detroit-born singer He also sang one of his most radiant compositions, "The Bird of Red and Gold,"

A celestial ballad, the song's graceful poetry encapsulates the openhearted expression of Harris' cosmology:

Within the confines of one's soul

There sits a bird of red and gold.

Its wings at all times set to fly,

For if it does not, it will die.

If set free, it will soar to

Heights unknown to other men,

Lands unseen by other eyes;

And as the beauty of the universe

Unfolds, what joy the pleasure then

Of truth revealed, limitations

Then unsealed

This is the Almighty's gift to you.

Mark Stryker is an author, journalist, and critic in Detroit. His book, Jazz from Detroit, was published in 2019 by the University of Michigan Press.

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Mark Stryker