Barry Harris Early Days
JC: When did you first hear jazz? On the radio?
Barry Harris: There was jazz in the schools. I had a music teacher in elementary school. I took up clarinet in intermediate school, about 13. We had the big band in the intermediate school that played like, the “9:20 Special.” I played in that band. I liked to dance. Nobody taught me to dance. All of us danced.
Just about everybody had a piano at home. Wasn’t no television. I learned a piece of church music, was the first piece I played. My mother, Mrs. Harris, played for the church. I lived in back of the church and I went to church every Sunday. [Where we lived] was part of the building where the church was, a Baptist.
I lived in [the city of] Detroit. I knew Tommy, we took classical piano from the same teacher, a Mrs. Dilliard. He went to Northern HS and I went to Northeastern HS. We were in a recital together. A preacher taught us all piano, Neptune Holloway. Earl McKinney, [somewhere there’s a picture of] little kids at a recital place and we all took from him. I played the “Revolutionary Etude.” At the age of four I played the piano and I knew what I wanted to do.
JC: How did you learn to solo?
I knew when I went to the Westside, some of the players [like] Willie Metcalf, Clarence Beasley, pianists, could solo better than me, so when I came back, I got the blind girl Bess Makras, [who] had a machine that slowed up things and I borrowed that machine and I learned to solo from that machine. They [Willie and Clarence] were a little bit older than me. I just found out I was older than Tommy Flanagan. He always thought he was older. [I’d go to] Tommy Flanagan’s dances–him and Will Davis, another pianist–and I would look over their shoulders and steal as much as I could.
JC: Did you have to pay to get into the dances? Did your mom give you the entrance fee?
I worked around a car repair shop. I was the inner tube repairman. When the inner tube blew out, I changed tires. And I worked as a soda jerk in a drugstore. I lived right across the street from it.
JC: Were there juke boxes in the drugstores?
[Yes but] I had no money to waste on no juke box. No.
JC: How did you learn songs?
I never was a good (sight) reader. I can learn a piece good, but it takes me time. I never heard of that in my life. Write out your own personal voicings. That don’t mean a thing. Look at the sheet music. I learned with my ear, sheet music, a lot of things, watching people. You all think of voice leading. You got to grow into something before you use your own voicings. They don’t know how to play “I Got Rhythm.” You voice it a million ways because there’s a million ways to play “I Got Rhythm.” You play whatever your hand falls on. Every time I ever played I played stuff I never played before and it works because I know the basic right stuff. This is not a prefabricated thing where you do the same things all the time. Music is free and beautiful. I don’t have to sit at the piano to write music, I could write it on the bus or sitting in the park because I know about music.
JC: Did you ever get together with a bass player, say, to memorize tunes?
I had a trio. I must have been pretty young. Grey McKinney was my bass and John Evans was my guitar player, and my wife and her sister and some other ladies they had a trio. We had a lot of things going on. I wrote trio things for the singers. We just learned how to play together, learned about music.
I was in the Northeast HS orchestra I played bass fiddle. We played classical music. We had little dances in the school, a bunch of us that were jazz musicians. Betty Carter used to come to the dances outside the school. Most people loved dances. She sang Sarah Vaughan songs. Sheila was in a group with two men. They scatted and sang Skeeter [Spight] lyrics.
JC: Who did you think was an idol when you were a kid?
We had an alto player named Cokey,(name was Kenneth something) he was the greatest as far we were concerned. We were surrounded by good musicians so we learned to play good, right. We were kids and we just played jazz, that’s all.
JC: Did you play the Graystone Ballroom?
I played the Graystone Ballroom because it was a ballroom. I sat in with Bird at the Graystone Ballroom. I think it was a “C blues.”
JC: When did you first hear Bird?
A long time when I was very young. I fell in love with that music, that was my love, don’t ask me why, don’t ask me how I knew. Singing those melodies, ahh! (sings Billie’s Bounce) cause that’s the way we were. Bird’s music was legible. The first record I slowed up, Bud Powell was on it. Web City. I remember that, it was Sonny Stitt, Fats Navarro, that was the first solo I learned, Bud Powell. I met him in New York. Joe Henderson took lessons, Paul Chambers to learn to play the bass, James Jamison the bass player from Motown, Charles McPherson, Lonnie, Yusef, we used to rehearse every week, that’s when I made up the rules. Frank Foster taught us a lot, me and Pepper and bunch of us. Johnny Griffith, from Motown, Kirk Lightsey, Hugh Lawson.
I was always practicing I did not hang out like other people, I wasn’t a football, basketball, or baseball player. A lot of people came to Detroit and stayed so they could study with me.
I cannot say the rules I thought up came from Bird and Diz. I made them up so Yusef, Kiani and myself–so we could practice good. After I made up those rules, I could hear things better. I could hear Bird better. I never had perfect pitch, it’s almost as if I made up the rules thinking of Bird.
JC: You made up certain scales?
I made up four scales. The Major 6 to diminished scale, minor 6 diminished, dominant 7 diminished, and dominant 7 flat 5 diminished scale.