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Barry Harris, Pianist and Devoted Scholar of Bebop, Dies at 91

Barry Harris, a pianist and educator who was the resident scholar of the bebop movement — and ultimately, one of its last original ambassadors — died on Wednesday in North Bergen, N.J. He was 91.

His death, in a hospital, was caused by complications of the coronavirus, which exacerbated a number of underlying health problems, said Howard Rees, his longtime business partner and collaborator.

[Those We’ve Lost: Read about other people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic here.]

Starting in his teens and continuing beyond his 90th year, Mr. Harris performed, taught and toured with unflagging devotion, evangelizing for bebop’s stature as a form of high American modernism and helping to lay the foundation for the widespread academic study of jazz. Yet throughout his career he remained an independent educator: He never joined the faculty of a major institution, instead choosing to embed himself within New York’s music community, reaching students of all ages.

For almost half a century, Mr. Harris led a weekly series of low-cost classes in the city, while also playing at prominent clubs around town and jetting off to perform and teach overseas. He was known for his acerbic tongue and his demanding nature, evidence of his passion for teaching.

Writing in 1986, the New York Times critic Robert Palmer described Mr. Harris as a “one-man jazz academy.”

He came up in the late 1940s and ’50s in Detroit, where a thriving scene fostered some of the greatest improvisers in jazz. Many of the hometown musicians he grew up around — the vibraphonist Milt Jackson; the guitarist Kenny Burrell; the Jones brothers (the drummer Elvin, the pianist Hank and the trumpeter Thad); the saxophonist Yusef Lateef; the pianist Tommy Flanagan — would soon become leading figures, and their contributions would help define the hard-bop sound: a sizzling, blues-drenched style that boiled down some of bebop’s scattered intensity.

But Mr. Harris never eschewed bebop’s high temperatures, clattering rhythms and dashing melodies. He remained an evangelist for what he considered the apex of American music making.

“We believe in Bird, Diz, Bud. We believe in Art Tatum. We believe in Cole Hawkins,” Mr. Harris told his students later in life, name-checking bebop’s founding fathers. “These are the people we believe in. Nothing has swayed us.”

Mr. Harris was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1989. He received multiple honorary doctorates, and was often referred to by friends and students as “doctor.”

He recorded more than two dozen albums, including a string of celebrated releases in the 1960s for the Prestige and Riverside labels. All those LPs featured him either in small ensembles or alone at the piano, demonstrating his wily, wandering harmonic sense and his unshakable feel for bebop rhythm.

A stroke in 1993 slightly limited his mobility at the keyboard, but it did little to slow him down. As he aged, he developed a stooped posture, but when he sat at the piano, bent lovingly over the keys with a look of enamored study, his hunch became impossible to notice.

He is survived by a daughter, Carol Geyer.

Barry Doyle Harris was born on Dec. 15, 1929, in Detroit, the fourth of Melvin and Bessie Harris’s five children. His mother was the pianist at their Baptist church, and when he was 4, she began teaching him to play.

As an adolescent, he set himself up at the elbow of some of the more experienced pianists around town. Almost immediately upon learning the fundamentals of bebop, he became a kind of junior scholar of the movement, building a pedagogy around the music that Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and their comrades had invented together in Harlem just a few years earlier.

He started hosting informal lessons at his mother’s house, and musicians with considerably more experience often sought out his off-the-cuff symposiums, hoping to seep up what he called his “rules”: exercises and frameworks that could help them unpack the complex — but often unwritten — structures of bebop.

“Trane took all my rules,” he told The Daily News of New York in 2012, referring to John Coltrane. “I made up rules for cats to practice.”

His process as an instructor was just as improvisational as his performances. “To watch him in action is to witness the oral tradition at its most profound,” the critic Mark Stryker wrote of Mr. Harris in his book “Jazz From Detroit.”

In demand as both a bandleader and a side musician throughout the 1950s, Mr. Harris backed some of the era’s leading musicians when they performed in Detroit, including Miles Davis. He sometimes sat in with Parker, bebop’s leading man, when he was in town.

Mr. Harris went on tour with the pioneering drummer Max Roach in 1956, and began traveling to New York frequently to record with the likes of Thad Jones, the saxophonist Hank Mobley and the trumpeter Art Farmer. But he had started a family in Detroit and was happily ensconced as a pillar of the scene there.

In 1960, at 30, he was finally persuaded by the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley to join the tide of Detroit musicians who had moved to New York. He continued living in the metropolitan area for the rest of his life, teaching and performing almost nonstop and appearing on albums like the trumpeter Lee Morgan’s 1964 hit “The Sidewinder.”

Not long after arriving, he became friends with Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the heiress and musicians’ advocate known as the jazz baroness, and she invited him to take up residence at her sprawling home in Weehawken, N.J., overlooking Manhattan and teeming with scores of cats. (Ms. de Koenigswarter arranged for Mr. Harris to stay in the house after she died; he continued living there for the rest of his life.)

In 1972, Thelonious Monk moved in, and he stayed until his death 10 years later. So Mr. Harris carried on at the elbow of a fellow master, trading information and further soaking up his language. The Monk songbook remained a pillar of Mr. Harris’s repertoire throughout his life; perhaps thanks in part to his time spent living with Monk, his playing grew both more lyrical and more tautly rhythmic as he got older.

Starting in 1974, Mr. Harris held intensive weekly workshops in New York, open to adult students of all ages for a relatively low fee. Students could buy single-evening passes or pay for an entire year. He never stopped teaching the classes, continuing until the pandemic shut things down in March 2020, and then conducting them via Zoom into this year.

In 1982, Mr. Harris opened the Jazz Cultural Theater, a multipurpose space in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, where he taught classes seven days a week and hosted performances at night. At some of those performances, he featured a choir made up of children from the neighborhood.

Ms. de Koenigswarter helped to finance the establishment, but Mr. Harris declined to sell liquor, favoring a community orientation that would allow for children to be there at all times. As a result, he didn’t turn a steady profit.

The theater closed after five years when the rent jumped, but Mr. Harris just moved his operation elsewhere and kept on teaching: at public schools, community centers and abroad.

He never really stopped performing either, gigging regularly at venues around New York into his 90s, including a more-or-less annual run at the Village Vanguard.

His last performance was in November, in a concert featuring recipients of the Jazz Masters award. He did not play the piano, but he sang a rendition of his own ballad, “The Bird of Red and Gold,” a tale of inspiration and triumph he had first recorded, in a rare vocal performance, in 1979.

Over time, Mr. Harris’s students fanned back out across the globe and committed to carrying on his work. With his blessing, one former student set up a venue in Spain called the Jazz Cultural Theater of Bilbao.

Interviewed by The Times shortly before the pandemic, Mr. Harris had lost none of his passion for teaching. Contemplating the experience of hearing a student improve, he said, “It’s the most beautiful thing you want to hear in your life.”

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