Barry Harris, an Acclaimed Jazz Pianist and Ambassador of Bebop, Passes Away at 91

Image: Rick Diamond/WireImage for The Recording Academy

Barry Harris, an acclaimed jazz pianist and standard-bearer of bebop throughout his 70+ years career as a performer, passed away on Wednesday at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, New Jersey, NPR reports. He was 91.

According to Kira von Ostenfeld-Suske, a member of Harris’ support team, he was hospitalized for the past two weeks and passed from complications with COVID-19. He would have turned 92 next week.

A central figure in the Detroit jazz scene that emerged during the 1940s and 1950s, Harris is one of the most influential pianists in the last century. Even in his 90s, he conducted weekly workshops in New York, made appearances in clubs and concert halls, and traveled the world as one of the most prominent ambassadors of bebop. Harris taught his last class, via Zoom, on Nov. 20.

It was Harris’ mission to keep the spirit of bebop alive and to maintain the legacy of its legendary founding fathers: alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Mark Stryker, author of Jazz from Detroit, described him as “a Talmudic scholar of bebop; a beacon of artistic integrity and generosity; and a swinging Socrates, guiding students in a quest for truth, beauty, and the hippest chords to play on “Indiana” and “Embraceable You.””

“Barry was revered,” said Michael Weiss, one of the many pianists Harris mentored. “He orchestrated his melodies and constructed his improvisations in a lyrical, unhurried, and free-flowing manner. His codification of the bebop language stands 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.”

Born in Detroit on December 15, 1929, Barry Doyle Harris was destined to be a savant on the piano. His mother Bessie, a church pianist, started giving him piano lessons at age 4.

Harris was an up-and-coming pianist during his high school years but he came into his own at the age of 17, after he heard one of the essential bebop records, Webb City, featuring Powell, saxophonist Sonny Stitt, and trumpeter Fats Navarro. 

After playing behind jazz icons like Miles Davis as a member of the house band at the Blue Bird Inn, Harris left Detroit in 1960 when alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley took him on the road. He made New York his home base, where he became known as a “musicians’ musician” who believed in the integrity of the music.

As a bandleader, some of Harris’ seminal recordings, made in the 1960s and ‘1970s, are At the Jazz Workshop, Chasin’ the Bird, Preminado, Magnificent!, Vicissitudes, and Live in Tokyo. His most famous solo recordings are 1979’s The Bird of Red and Gold and 1990’s Solo.

Less than a month ago, Harris made his last public appearance at a concert celebrating NEA Jazz Masters at Flushing Town Hall in Queens. During his set, he played two pieces by Thelonius Monk and sang the blues with his close friend of nearly 70 years, Sheila Jordan, another giant in the history of Detroit jazz.

Harris is survived by his daughter, Carol Geyer, and her husband, Keith Geyer, who live in Detroit.

We extend our prayers and condolences to the family and friends of Barry Harris, a great musical legend.

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