For those of you who are not familiar with the name, Kenny Barron is considered one of the greatest living jazz pianists in the world today. The reason you may not know this is because – unlike the “big names” in jazz piano like Oscar Peterson or Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron is not your typical showman. Perhaps not as showy as Oscar, and certainly not as controversial as Jarrett. But in jazz circles Kenny Barron’s name is spoken with reverence. “Kenny Barron is now recognized the world over as a master of performance and composition,” says www.allaboutjazz.com .
For a period of time during my younger days, Kenny Barron was my teacher.
How did such a thing happen to a young Montreal jazz student like me? It began during my days at McGill University. I was learning the jazz tradition from folks like (trumpeter) Charles Ellison and (pianist) Armas Maiste. I was ingesting the tradition through recordings, supplemented by the occasional live concert in Montreal when the great masters of jazz would stop in for a few nights and play at the local clubs. I was a Bill Evans fanatic at the time, and listened to every recording I could find of his. I also discovered Kenny Barron on records, along with other bop-oriented pianists like Tommy Flanagan and Wynton Kelly. And so I dove in deeper.
One day I was rehearsing with (saxophonist) Bob Mover at my old house on St. Joseph Boulevard. In that 7 room upper duplex there were many such rehearsals during those days. Bob had us working on one of his original works. As I looked down at the sheet music, Bob told me that none other than Kenny Barron had written out those piano parts. I was awed. This is actually Kenny Barron’s writing, I asked? Indeed it was. Then it began to dawn on me that Kenny wasn’t just a name on records and tapes – he was a real person, and he lived in New York City – not that far from Montreal. One thing led to another, and Bob called Kenny to ask him if he would give me a lesson. Thus began an association between Kenny and myself which lasted a few years, an association which saw me drive to New York every month or two, take the subway to Brooklyn, and spend an afternoon with the master.
That first lesson was daunting, I’ve got to tell you! I was young – 23 years old. It took much longer than I thought to drive to New York. I took a room in lower Manhattan for the weekend, called Kenny to make sure that the whole thing wasn’t some sort of mistake (which I was sure it had to be), but he was expecting my call and was light and easy on the other end of the phone with the directions to his home. I remember, I bought a big New York deli sandwich and boarded the subway, ate the sandwich en route and found my way to a mid-size folksy looking house in residential Brooklyn. Kenny looked like any other family man, surrounded by the trappings of family life – wife, school kids... I don’t know what exactly I had expected... something a little more bohemian? Could this really be the master who generated those solos on my Dizzy Gillespie records?
Then we went over to the piano. Kenny Barron’s piano. A large black satin finish grand piano, you think? Perhaps a deep wood grained 7 foot German Steinway? Concert Bossendorfer? Re-built Bluthner? After all, an endorsement from KB could mean the difference for any esteemed manufacturer. But there was no grand piano of any kind. Just a simple upright, a basic home piano, slightly out of tune. Nonetheless, when Kenny sat down and I watched his hands create those Kenny Barron melodies and voicings, there was no longer any doubt about who he was, and where I was. That moment remains etched like a mark from a lightning bolt on my mind. The sounds I heard were true and they were quintessential Kenny Barron.
We spent an entire afternoon together. He played, I played. He suggested things, I struggled to grasp them. We listened to Kenny’s records, drank Kenny’s cognac, and the afternoon passed.
He charged me $20.
When I protested, he refused to hear any argument. You’ve come a long way, he said. And that was that.
In the months that followed, the lessons were similar. Sometimes they were shorter than an entire afternoon, but never less than 2 hours. He gave me homework, which I would return with next time. He wrote out lines and voicings, and now – like Bob Mover – I too had paper with Kenny Barron’s handwriting on it!
After a lesson, I’d go back to my hotel room and think about everything. There were times that Kenny would be playing in a club later that night. Of course I would go and see the performance, and there before my very ears I would hear many of the musical sound bytes we had worked on and discussed, but now they were woven into a smooth and elegant improvisation.
I learned much from those times with Kenny. He showed me how to play better, and also to listen better. He also showed me much by his example, like how to combine celebrity with humility, and how to live a righteous life. Simply standing next to a person like Kenny Barron can have a powerful and positive impact on you, if you are open. I soaked it up like a sponge, and it has stayed with me.
In an interview in Jazz Times, Kenny was asked “What is your most prized possession?” He answered simply, “I have no prized possessions. I can live without anything. "
Like his music, Kenny’s words are guileless, profound, and powerful.
Posted by Steve Holt on Thursday, June 10, 2010