By Mike Jurkovic
Before he was barely of legal age, jazz master Kenny Barron was jamming in his hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with such notables as drummer Philly Joe Jones and saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Yusef Lateef. The musical titans he started freelancing with upon his move to New York at the young age of 19 were no less staggering: Roy Haynes, Lee Morgan, and James Moody. When Moody told Dizzy Gillespie about Barron, “Diz” hired him on the spot, without hearing him play a single note. By his mid-twenties, iconic jazz masters Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, and Joe Henderson, were all part of Kenny’s circle of deep friendships and mentors.
On April 1, 2018, we had a great visit with Kenny about his musical journey.
Mike: How did you manage to stay within yourself playing with those cats, man? Most kids’ egos would have exploded several times over! Certainly mine would have.
Kenny: Well, you know, it was very easy because you can’t get a big head around THOSE guys! Then when I got to New York, well, they put you in your place real fast! All the major players were there. Philly (PA) had some great, great local players. Reggie Workman [who would play bass with Coltrane, Red Garland, Eric Dolphy and Art Blakey, just to name-drop a few] was a great local player I came up with who eventually moved to New York too. In time, EVERYONE leaves for New York! I learned an awful lot playing with those guys….not just about music, but about how to present myself and treat other people…especially from people like Dizzy and Yusef. They set the tone.
Mike: You were honing your craft and coming into your own during the craziness of the 60’s. . .
Kenny: The 60’s were wild times! Civil rights, social attitudes, and musical changes going on all around you. Ornette Coleman and the free jazz movement…. it’s all in the music. There’s no way it couldn’t be. We did charity concerts for CORE and SNCC and the Black Panthers. You get involved, which is a good thing. And it shapes your frame of reference for music and life. But basically…I’m a bebop player, you know?
Mike: Did you come into direct conflict with the racial tensions of the day?
<You could sense him reflect.>
Kenny: Not so much…nothing overt. But I remember Dizzy telling me when he was traveling with his big band, he had Red Rodney in the group. Red was white, and it wasn’t permissible for whites to play with an integrated band in the 40’s and 50’s, especially the 40’s. So they changed his name to “Albino Red,” and he got to stay.
Mike: The album you recorded with bassist Dave Holland, The Art of Conversation, has been my “go-to” album when I have to hear music that speaks to me. You both play so free and eloquently on it. How did that recording come about?
Kenny: It was a fun record to do because I love playing with Dave, we had worked together many years before and he was always saying we have to record together. So when we were doing duo gigs in Europe, we were playing at a church in Paris and a producer from Verve Records, Jean-Philippe Allard, said he HAD to record us! And that’s how it finally happened.
Mike: You said before that the times you were in and the people you played with influenced your playing and writing. Are there any piano players that influenced you or still do?
Kenny: In the beginning it was Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. Their touch and lyricism I found striking…Bill Evans, especially his work in the 60’s - the way he would construct and voice his chords...McCoy and his constant sense of adventure…and of course, Monk!
Mike: At one time in their careers or another, the stand-out players of every generation are called the new young lions. Your own creative longevity has certainly proven it true for you. Have you heard any new young lions on the horizon?
Kenny: Oh yeah, certainly! Some of them have actually studied with me! Aaron Parks comes to mind. And Gerald Clayton is amazing! Mulgrew Miller first told me about a young man from New Orleans, Sullivan Fortner. He is really starting to make a name for himself. There’s a young drummer, Jonathan Barber, whom I love!
Mike: Will you prepare for playing at the Maverick any differently than you would for a club date?
Kenny: I’ll be solo, so the repertoire will certainly be different from a club gig. A lot of that will be determined when I get there and start playing. I’m looking forward to playing your piano!!
Mike: Anything classical?
Kenny: <laughing> Oh no, no, no!! I’d be a fool to do that! I haven’t played that way in a long, long time. But I’m sure I can evoke the feeling. Just tell everyone to come on out and support live music!
Kenny Barron makes his Maverick Concerts debut on Saturday, June 30, 2018, 8pm.
For ticket information go to www.maverickconcerts.org
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike Jurkovic - poet, pundit, insurgent. President - Calling All Poets, Inc.; Music Reviewer - All About Jazz; Senior Writer – Van Wyck Gazette. Poetry collections include: Blue Fan Whirring, Smitten by Harpies, Shiny Banjo Catfish and Eve’s Venom. Mike loves Emily most of all.