|Pianist Barry Harris|
The highpoint of the tribute to jazz pianist Barry Harris Sunday afternoon at the St. Matthew’s & St. Joseph Episcopal Church came when he was asked to perform one of his favorite Bud Powell compositions “I’ll Keep Loving You”. Harris, 86, had the piano crying, and he received an ovation after he completed the tune. Harris wasn’t at the church to perform. He was there to be honored by the Societie of the Culturally Concerned for his contributions to jazz.
Far back as the 1950’s, Harris was the go-to specialist in Detroit for any hungry and serious musician wanting to become a professional jazz musician. Harris used to host a jazz boot camp in the basement of his home on Detroit's Northwest side. Back then, up and comers such as Charles McPherson, Teddy Harris Jr., Donald Walden, and Lonnie Hillyer were exposed to Harris’s encyclopedic knowledge of jazz.
In the early, 60’s Harris moved to New York to further his career. There he performed and recorded with many upper tier titans such as Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Stitt, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins and Julian Cannonball Adderley.
Harris also made some now-classic jazz albums on Riverside Records such as“Chasin' the Bird,” “Bull’s Eye,” and “Barry Harris Live at the Jazz Workshop”. Even though jazz underwent some radical changes with the advent of avant-garde jazz, and fusion, for example, Harris remained true to his bebop pedigree.
As Reverend Daniel W. Aldridge pointed out during his speech about Harris’s importance to jazz before presenting him with the Spirit of Detroit Award, above all else Harris is a universally revered jazz educator. No matter where on the planet Harris dispenses his jazz knowledge he carries the spirit of his hometown, Detroit, with him.
The tribute to Harris went on for two-plus hours, and the mix of veteran and student musicians who participated such as Vincent Bowens, John Douglas, Ian Finkelstein, Kasan Belgrave, Cassius Richmond, D’Jallo Djakete Keita, and Marion Hayden showed Harris much love by presenting a program comprised of many of his original compositions as well as some of his all-time favorite bebop tunes written by Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Tadd Dameron.
You couldn’t have asked for a finer love fest. Detroit veteran such as Hayden, Douglas, Richmond, Keita, and Bowens worked their asses off on Harris’s originals. Pianist Ian Finkelstein was the young buck among the vets.
I wondered if he was a bit intimidated because Harris was seated in the front row no less than twenty feet away from the piano. If Finkelstein had any butterflies, it didn’t show because he played the entire set flawlessly.
The Young Lions Band played the second set. The band was made up of students from the University of Michigan’s jazz program. They performed “Luminescence,” “’Round Midnight,” and “Dance of the Infidels”.
Dare I say, the students were equally engaging as the vets were. The students were polished and on point, and proved the future of jazz is in good hands. What’s admirable about the youngsters is they don’t have a grandstanding bone in their bodies. The tribute concluded with “Dance of the Infidels”. All the musicians joined in for a respectful jam session. It was joyous witnessing the young lions trading with the veterans.