Why Barry Harris Mattered

Jazz”: the four-letter word that has been the bane of Black music’s existence since 1914.

The word that means everything and nothing.

The word that either makes people grimace or engenders appropriation.

If the label “Jazz” ever represented a music born of the triumph and the struggles of Black Americans, Barry Harris symbolized that. There has been no greater proponent of this music, no better educator. At 91-years-old, he was still preaching the gospel. I’d like to think that this is a goal of mine, but it ain’t; should I make it that far, I’d like to be doing something else – anything else.

It is sad and devastating that we will no longer be able to sit at the feet of Prophet Harris, a man who dedicated his life to promulgating the greatness of a music too often exploited, colonized, appropriated, abused, disregarded, dismissed, and disrespected. A music, too often treated with contempt – even by Black people (something I’ll never understand…) 

Barry Harris stood for two principles: being educated about what this music is, and informing natural instincts with craft. In my previous essay on Mr. Harris (https://reedscreeds.wordpress.com/2021/12/10/why-barry-harris-matters-july-11-2019/), I expressed the following: “There has never been a time in his professional career when there was even a whiff of him doing this for anything but the sheer love of Jazz music. Barry Harris is an anomaly because he’s not in the least bit interested in critics’ polls, reviews, record deals, awards, endorsements, acceptance, or any of the shit that accompanies the distraction of careerism. His is not only a legacy of musical mastery, it’s a legacy of musical integrity.”  If there’s anything that’s missing from the music today – it’s integrity. Certainly, I can name some folks who are genuinely about it, but the list is not in the dozens.

In an odd way, I’m angry that Barry died; he was unmatched in energy and knowledge, and now we’re left without a real champion. I guess it just makes the work that much harder.


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