Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Barry Harris
If you’ve ever hung out at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café after a show there, you likely overheard a musician complain about the house piano. Listening to world-class jazz pianists Johnny O’Neal, Charles Boles, Gerald Clayton, Aaron Diehl, Claude Black, and Cliff Monear played the house piano. It would've been impossible for a layman to tell it needed tuning. Those guys could make a toy piano sound amazing.
The owner of the Dirty Dog, Gretchen Carhartt Valade, must have gotten wind of the complaining. Recently, she bought a 7’ Steinway piano and flew in one of the greatest bebop pianists, of all-times, Barry Harris, to christen it. 

Harris, 83, is a native Detroiter. During the 50’s his Detroit home was sort of a bebop training ground where he schooled then newcomers jazz musicians like Donald Walden, Charles McPherson, Lonnie Hillyer, Teddy Harris, and many others.

In 1960, Harris moved to New York, joined Julian “Cannonball” Adderly’s band, made some great bebop albums for Riverside Records like Barry Harris at the Jazz Workshop, Preminado and Chasin’ the Bird, and over time grew into an internationally sought after performer and jazz educator. To this very day, he remains such.  
At the Dirty Dog, Tuesday evening, people paid $50.00, a steep cover charge for one set of music. But the people are ultra Barry Harris fans. If asked to donate a kidney to hear Harris live, in all likelihood they would have obliged.
As customary, Harris played oldies like “Tea for Two,” “All God Children’s Got Shoes,”  “Ruby My Dear” plus songs by his idols Bud Powell, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.  Amazingly, the concert never felt like a ceremony.
Harris chatted with old friends, well-wishers and the media before the concert began. The Detroit Free Press jazz critic Mark Stryker, radio personalities Judy Adams and John Penny, and the Detroit Jazz Festival’s Artistic Director Chris Collins were in the house.

Gretchen Carhartt Valade sat at the bar next to Tom Robinson the CEO of Mack Avenue Records. Occasionally, Valade cheered Harris on, whistling as if she was court side at a Detroit Pistons game. Photographer John Osler, whose excellent book “Detroit Jazz Documenting the Legacy of Gretchen Valade” was recently released, snapped photos of the concert. Harris, obviously, was elated to be home. It showed in his performance

At 7:00pm sharp, the house lights dimmed. Harris sat at the Steinway. He bounded with it right away, handling it attentively and lovingly like a first date. He opened the concert with a fly take on Staryhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” followed by George Shearing’s “She”. 

Then Harris introduced his longtime band-mates drummer Leroy Williams and bassist Ray Drummond. Harris tied the subsequent songs on his set list with a story about a make-believe married couple Judy and George who started out madly in love but after making nine kids ended up divorced. 

Harris been working such antics into his concerts for decades. At times, last night’s concert felt like a vaudeville show, especially when he made up the song “7,5,2, Dirty Dog” on the spot. He's a showman. Though he's up there in age, his playing is still vibrant, lucid and beautiful. 

Near the end of the concert, he played an Ellington medley. Then  Harris finally spoke about the significance of the christening—or as he put it—blessing the Steinway. Harris has a closet filled with honors. It was the first time he was invited to christen a piano. He he performed as if it was the highest honor he's received.

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