The Colgate Scene
May 2003

A conversation with
Kenny Barron

[Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

In February, jazz pianist and composer Kenny Barron, Colgate's 2002-2003 Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation artist in residence, came to campus for a second time to offer a master class, lecture and performance. Joining him were Kiyoshi Kitigawa on bass, Kim Thompson on drums and Anne Drummond on flute.

Named "one of the top jazz pianists in the world" by the Los Angeles Times and "the most lyrical piano player of our time" by Jazz Weekly, Barron was born in Philadelphia in 1943. He began playing piano professionally at age 15. In 1961, Barron moved to New York to work with James Moody and, later, Dizzy Gillespie, touring the United States and Europe from 1962 to 1964.

He continued to work as a high-profile sideman with Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, Buddy Rich, Yusef Lateef and Ron Carter. He earned a B.A. in music at Empire State College.

In 1980 he co-founded the group Sphere with saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Ben Riley and later set up his own trio and quintet. He also was Stan Getz's pianist during the last period of the great saxo-phonist's life. In 1973 he joined the faculty at Rutgers University as professor of music, a position he held until 2000. He has been named Best Pianist by the Jazz Journalists Association every year for the past four years and has earned nine Grammy nominations, beginning in 1992.

At the master class, where Barron and his group performed, several students were given the opportunity to sit in with the ensemble on a jazz standard and receive constructive criticism. Beforehand, Barron sat down for an interview with the Scene. RAC

Do you remember the first time you played the piano? When did it hit you that this could be your life's work?

I was very young, four or five years old. We had an old upright, and I had two brothers and two sisters -- all older -- and everybody played piano, so there was always a piano in the house. I was blessed with a fairly good ear, so I would hear something on the radio, or hear something my brothers and sisters were playing and I could go to the piano and figure it out. When I was in my early teens, it dawned on me. I really liked playing jazz, and it actually never occurred to me to do anything else.

Why did being the Christian A. Johnson artist-in-residence at Colgate interest you? What was the response from students during your first visit?

First of all, I had never been up here. And I enjoy exposing people to the music. It was great. They asked a lot of intelligent questions. Some of them were very technical questions, some were very general questions -- what direction do you think jazz is going in, and how do you feel about some of the younger players, and somebody mentioned something about European jazz versus American jazz.

Could you talk a little bit about who you brought to play with you this weekend and why?

When I came up here before, I had Ben Riley and Ray Drummond, which is my normal working trio. This is what I call my "baby band," because they're all very young . . . younger than me, anyhow. I believe it was Art Blakey who used to always say he wants to be surrounded by young players because they have new ideas and energy. I like playing with young players, because I learn a lot from them, and hopefully they learn something from me.

The drummer [Kim Thompson] is a young woman -- she's 21 and I met her when she was still in high school, in St. Louis. She's now a student at the Manhattan School of Music, where I teach. The flutist, Anne Drummond, I met also when she was in high school, at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho and she subsequently became one of my students, also at Manhattan School of Music, purely by happenstance. The bass player [Kiyoshi Kitigawa] is from Osaka, Japan. Ben Riley actually told me about him, how much he loved his playing.

You taught at Rutgers, which is a different kind of school than Col-gate. What do you try to bring to a campus of liberal arts students, with your master class and performance?

When I started at Rutgers, it was more or less a liberal arts program, and then it developed into a jazz major. Certainly the music students are more specialized, more skilled. This is a more general kind of thing. What I try to do here is simply generate an appreciation for the music. Everybody's not going to be a musician, but you can create fans of music, people who will go out and support the music live, who will buy records. That's important -- we need that.

Jazz is increasingly being studied in academic circles and programs. What do you think that does for the music?

Well, I hope that it's positive, though it could be negative. You can start to look at the music as museum music, dead people's music, you know? Which is unfortunate, and one of the downsides, because I think jazz music is the music of the moment.

But, I think the up side is that young people get skills earlier. They gain an appreciation. They get good study habits, work habits, practice habits and things like that. And they get to material much faster than if they would go through the streets, so to speak. So, I think it's important.

Who are the most influential musicians that you've played with in terms of your own development?

I spent four years with Dizzy Gillespie, and I was 19 when I joined him, so that was obviously a major highlight for me.

Yusef Lateef, who many people don't even know -- I spent quite a number of years working with him -- but not only musically did he influence me. He was really very much into studying. At one point, everybody in his band was in college. He encouraged everybody to go back to school, and we all did. I had actually a couple of classes with him and I wound up on the Dean's List. I was in my late 20s early 30s, so that was a great experience.

And, Ron Carter was another. I spent a lot time with him and Stan Getz.

In terms of musicians who have influenced my playing, certainly Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, that's a style I especially like -- light touch, very lyrical.

I've also been influenced by not just pianists but other instruments as well, like horn players. I love Wayne Shorter. He has a certain way of playing that I wish I could capture on the piano. That's my goal, and I'm working on it. Haven't gotten there yet . . . I'm working on it.

You have a new group called Canta Brasil. Why the shift into Brazilian music?

I've always loved Brazilian music. It's a very joyous kind of music, sensuous. And, it's different when you play Brazilian music with Brazilian musicians. The group has three guys from Brazil, a self-contained unit themselves called Trio de Paz, and Ann is also in the group. If you play Brazilian music with American musicians, I can't put my finger on it, but the feeling is totally different. It helps me to play more authentically, to play with people from Brazil. Not that American musicians can't do it, because they do. It's just another vibe.

How has jazz changed in the United States since you started playing? Do you sense a change in who's listening to jazz?

I think the audience is ever-expanding. Although you wouldn't believe that, record companies are saying, "Well, instrumental jazz doesn't sell, so we are only going to sign singers." It's just what they have been doing. So, in terms of record sales, it would seem that things are a little desperate.

But, if you go to many clubs, especially in New York, they will be crowded, and not a singer among them. I don't mean that in a negative way; we are just talking about what the record companies see and what's really out there live. But, the audience is there for the music.

When you leave New York, now it's different. There aren't a lot of venues outside of New York like there used to be. When I was with Dizzy, we could work our way out to California and back and it would take three or four months. We would stay two or three weeks in one club. And sometimes those clubs had two bands. I don't know what happened. I don't think that people have stopped listening to jazz.

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