The Greatest Teacher of America’s Great Art Form

The Greatest Teacher of America’s Great Art Form

The Greatest Teacher of America’s Great Art Form

The pianist Barry Harris, who died last week, dedicated his life to continuing the oral tradition of jazz improvisation.


Harmony is the art of resolution, but not all resolutions are equally artful. A story circulates about how Franz Joseph Haydn’s son, returning drunk from late-night partying, loudly played a single dominant chord on the living room piano before going to bed. Startled awake, the great composer got up, went to the keyboard, and resolved the son’s argument with single soft tonic before returning to peaceful slumber.

As it turns out, the story is apocryphal. Music theory is just as unreliable, though most musicians would agree that tonic follows dominant. In European music, the tonic is the home key, and a primary constellation of three notes struck together (a “chord”) is the tonic triad. Tension and release is achieved through departure from the tonic, often to the nearby constellation of four notes known as the dominant, and then a return home. Answer follows question. Consequent follows antecedent. Day follows night.

The history of black music in America can be framed as a kind of guerrilla warfare against traditional European harmony, a subtle battle waged as every generation upgrades the two towers of rhythm on the one hand and blues on the other. (It’s no accident that literal “Rhythm and Blues” or “R&B” is itself a genre of black music.)

Jazz commanded the greatest sway in popular culture during the so-called Swing or Big Band era, which took place from about 1933 to 1947. Within black communities, playing in a big band was not just an artistic choice; it was a way to succeed in an environment offering limited economic options. All those bands stocked with all those bright and ambitious minds proved to be perfect laboratory conditions for those seeking fresh ways to make European harmony swing. The sixth chord, where a mild dissonance perches on top of a tonic triad, was key to black music of that era. (Guerrilla warfare: The sixth chord connects to non-European pentatonic scales.)

Ok, we’ve got our sixth chord. How do you set chords to a melody? “Do, re, mi, fa, so…,” up and down the scale? How do you make those lines thick and hip, so that they roar out a five-person-strong saxophone section? The result of big-band experimentation was the application of another aspect of European harmony: the diminished chord. It is a way of moving through music, from home to a far-off destination and back again, but rarely heard since those halcyon days of jazz’s mainstream popularity.

For nine decades, a lonely outpost held out defiant hope for the return of the diminished chord. Jazz pianist Barry Harris, who died last week, was born in Detroit in 1929, heard the Big Band era in person, and devoted himself to a lifetime of bebop.

While jazz is black music, the huge military-industrial complex of jazz education has predominantly been a white man’s affair, and the music has certainly suffered from this imbalance. The classical music of Africa offers the most advanced rhythm in human history, and the African perspective is just as important to jazz as any kind of European harmonic theory. It is much harder to explain rhythm in a textbook than harmony. One must have a professional demonstrate the oral tradition in person.

A famous institution at the dawn of jazz education was North Texas State, started by Leon Breeden. Breeden never played a gig as a serious practitioner, and his perspective was almost wholly European in outlook. The sound of that era of North Texas State was of a high school marching band playing Duke Ellington except straighter, faster and louder. (Sadly, this amped-up marching band sound was very influential, and can be heard all over once-famous records from the 1970s and ‘80s, not to mention the 2014 movie Whiplash.)

Fortunately, a few consecrated masters did their own kind of local work, such as Marcus Belgrave in Detroit, Mich., and Jackie McLean in Hartford, Conn. In New York City, Barry Harris taught his idiosyncratic theories to small groups of interested amateurs and professionals at various community centers from 1974 up until last month on Zoom. Anyone could show up on a Monday night and hear the griot talk about the diminished chord for up to three hours at a stretch. At first, all you needed was a five-dollar bill. In the ’80s, the cost went up to 10 bucks, and more recently it had finally hit $15.

After his great inspiration, saxophonist Charlie Parker, Harris was interested in two pianists, virtuoso Bud Powell and composer Thelonious Monk, plus all the familiar repertoire from the Great American Songbook. It was this material that he passed on to his students. In Harris’s stern view, jazz needed to be vocal (even the fastest bop phrases must be “spoken”), it needed to have something of the blues, it needed to swing, and—oh yes—it needed plenty of diminished chords intertwining with the core harmony.

While Harris could be a strict teacher, he also radiated love and compassion like a benevolent bebop deity. Many students became true believers and would attend selected Harris concerts as audience members, in order to help spread the message. Harris would not obviously cue his stealth choir; he’d be apparently immersed in spinning his weave onstage, and suddenly all around the room a chorus of angelic disciples would support his sermon with glorious guide tones and blues melodies.

On the YouTube channel BarryHarrisVideos, there exist hours and hours of Harris talking to students at Royal Conservatory in The Hague between 1989 and ’98, offering astounding revelations about swing, bebop, and the blues. These profound insights are not available anywhere else. It’s as if the very soul of harmony relents and gives up a few of her secrets.

Harris had discovered some of those secrets himself, like mathematicians sometimes discover new properties of numbers all of us have known since birth. There are 12 chromatic notes. Every three notes is a minor third, and after four, that brings us back to “do.” Play all four minor thirds at once, and you have a diminished chord. There are only three diminished chords, but between them they modulate smoothly to any of the twelve tonics. Diminished chords are flexible: If Haydn’s son had played a drunken diminished chord late at night, Papa would have had four chords to resolve to, not just one.

During the Swing Era, it became commonplace to sneak in diminished chords while harmonizing scalar melodies, usually in between sixth chords, almost an alternation of binary ones and zeros. (To pick one familiar example, Duke Ellington’s theme song, “Take the A Train,” written by Billy Strayhorn, offers this kind of harmonic thinking.)

All modern jazz comes out of the Big Band era. The prophet of bebop, Charlie Parker, was the ultimate big band soloist. Soon the small group piano players of the ’40s and ’50s played a constant stream of diminished chords borrowed from the sax sections: little nips and tucks in the texture of the harmony. These nips and tucks are soulful, sweet, and simply help make the music swing, the same way a jazz drummer’s left hand coughs and rattles on the snare drum while keeping time.

Something changed in 1959, when Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and the rest of that legendary ensemble released Kind of Blue. The first track, “So What,” has nothing to do with any diminished chords. This was modal music based on scales, without any nips or tucks. If Haydn’s son had played a tense modal chord, Papa could stay in bed, for few chords in that style are moving anywhere in particular.

Game over. In jazz, almost everyone adopted modal thinking, not just for obviously modal themes like “So What” but for everything else besides. Almost overnight, the sixth chord became passé, for modal thinking allowed more dissonant sounds from higher degrees of the relevant scales. That old diminished chord, so useful when navigating a terrain of sixth chords, was likewise gently put out to pasture.

Jazz was dying as a popular art form, but new forms of black music also appreciated the way modal thinking brought out the groove. James Brown would exhort his saxophonists to “play some Trane!” and they would respond with modal explorations over his band’s one-chord vamps. On the other side of the tracks, rock guitarists rarely played diminished chords unless a metalhead was going for a “quasi-Bach” cadenza. The quick-moving harmony of the big band era was gone, and apparently gone for good.

As for Harris, newer fashions passed him by. He could play funky music, do a little bit of modal jazz, but mostly he just kept on doubling down on the past. He quit a gig with rising star Cannonball Adderley; he shrugged off his contribution to Lee Morgan’s hit “The Sidewinder.” By the time he was teaching, he told his students that Miles Davis went commercial as early as 1957—most teachers give Miles at least another decade—and insisted that John Coltrane was no Charlie Parker.

Still, his profound stubbornness paid incredible dividends. Harris steadily grew as an artist while digging further into his treasure box of unfashionable secrets. In his fifth decade, Harris hit his stride as a player, recording masterpiece after masterpiece on small labels like Xanadu and Muse. If I had to pick just one, the nominee would be Live in Tokyo 1976 with Sam Jones and Leroy Williams.

Astoundingly, Harris had managed to spike time’s wheel and transcend his natural historical moment. In the history books, bebop is said to take place in the late ‘40s before running its course in the early ’50s. Yet some of the best bebop was recorded in the ’70s with Barry Harris as de facto music director, around the same time he began spreading the gospel as a teacher. Sonny Stitt’s albums with Harris such as Constellation and Tune-Up! are definitive, but more startlingly anachronistic is Dexter Gordon’s Bitin’ the Apple.

Jazz in the 1970s is hard to sum up in a few words; the same history books that declare bebop over by 1955 look to fusion and the avant-garde for that chapter. But acoustic jazz in the bebop mold was still in practice. Gordon’s Homecoming marked the return of a tenor saxophone legend from Europe and was marketed well by the biggest label in the business, Columbia. It became a best seller, and is often cited, for example in Ken Burns’s Jazz series, as either a standard-bearer or a return to form.

Bitin’ the Apple was recorded the same year as Homecoming, 1976, but is a radically different document. On Homecoming, the excellent band plays in a manner au courant for 1976, led by trumpet titan Woody Shaw, with Ronnie Matthews in the piano chair, in a modal style in the lineage of “So What.” But on Bitin’ the Apple, the quartet with Gordon, Harris, Sam Jones, and Al Foster plays more like it’s still 1944, when Gordon was featured in Billy Eckstine’s band as the number-one bebop tenor saxophonist in the land.

The biggest difference between the two 1976 Gordon records is the diminished chord. Barry Harris keeps up those passing harmonies as naturally as talking or breathing, and even plays a few nips and tucks on the album’s one nod to the present day, “A La Modal.” These diminished chords give an old-fashioned fireplace-and-woodgrain ambience to the texture. On Homecoming there are few diminished chords, and over time the overall sound of the ensemble begins to take on the cast of steel beams illuminated by fluorescent light.

In the ’80s and ’90s, Harris was almost an underground figure, teaching his inner circle and playing a few gigs here and there, but not someone present in everyday jazz conversation. The Internet helped turn that around. As the sharing and streaming sites made his best ’70s records available, the narrative was corrected, and most fans now automatically include Harris in the pantheon. The truth bats last, and Barry Harris was the truth.

If modernity and innovation is epitomized by John Coltrane, Harris might stand for tradition and continuity. Their relationship is a good starting point for understanding some of jazz’s most esoteric nuts and bolts. Early on in Detroit, Coltrane visited Harris’s informal class and learned Harris’s “bebop scale,” a smooth way to add a note—a note borrowed from the related diminished chord, of course—into the octave so it would fall gracefully onto a rhythmic sequence of swinging eight notes.

To say Coltrane took the bebop scale and ran with it understates the matter, yet much of classic Coltrane did not end up aligning with core Harris values. There are no diminished nips and tucks in the supersonic steeplechase of “Giant Steps,” or the album-length modal meditation A Love Supreme.

One of the videos on YouTube is a master class on “Giant Steps.” Harris begins by saying that he doesn’t like the song, but then goes on to give his peerless nips and tucks to an improvised line on “Giant Steps” changes. Essentially, Harris finds the wood grain within a steely structure. It’s an extraordinary document.

At his very last set at the Village Vanguard in October 2019, Harris conducted his choir in “Giant Steps,” as a ballad. Harris may have made peace with Coltrane at last.

Detroit jazz critic Mark Stryker, who observed him closely for a lifetime, has described Harris as the music’s “conscience.” Though Harris’s diminished chords may never return to common practice, future generations still have a chance to warm themselves with his deep wisdom—and, perhaps, keep a piece of that old-school conscience eternal.

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