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In Memoriam: Barry Harris

Christian Wissmuller • News • December 8, 2021

Barry Harris and Michael Weiss

by Michael Weiss:

December 8, 2021

Today, with sadness we mourn the loss of a great man. With joy we celebrate the life of a great man.
I met Barry Harris in 1979, receiving a piano lesson while Barry was in Indianapolis for a concert. After moving to New York in 1982 we established a close musical and personal relationship. Over the years he would call me or I would call him with a musical challenge, an investigation, or a conundrum – he at his piano and me at mine. In the 1980s I performed several times at Barry’s Jazz Cultural Theater as a member of the Junior Cook/Bill Hardman Quintet. We collaborated on numerous projects, including concerts in tribute to Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and an extensive co-interview recorded and transcribed for the liner notes to the Complete Bud Powell on Verve. In 2012 Barry commissioned me to transcribe his complete compositional output. Despite a thirty year difference in age, there was a bond, a kinship, a sharing of the same musical aesthetic and values. Barry was my musical soulmate.
As a pianist:
Barry orchestrated melodies and constructed his improvisations in an easy-going, unhurried, free flowing narrative – a lyricism delivered with a laissez-faire attitude, never resorting to virtuosity for its own sake, yet complex or as simple as needed. But his rhythm was profound – he grabbed the beat in his phrasing that tugged at your very soul. He was a brilliant and effective musical orator.
As an educator:
Barry’s own codification of the bebop language stands alone, 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 melodic. He married the horizontal and the vertical in a unified whole of tonality: melodies existing inside chords and chords existing inside melodies. As the best practitioner of his theoretical concepts, Barry mined extraordinary beauty in exploring all the harmonic and melodic possibilities he could derive. To the very end he remained curious – always looking for new answers and looking for new questions.
As a person:
He gave tirelessly of himself as a teacher and as a human being, always wanting to help others. For this he was revered and loved throughout the world. Anybody who has known Barry well over the years, probably feels like they had a special and unique relationship with him, and I’m no exception. But he was just Barry.
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