in memoriam: Barry Harris

16 december 2021

The great and incomparable Barry Harris (1929-2021) passed away on December 8. On invitation of Wouter Turkenburg, he started visiting the school in 1989 and created a tradition of yearly residencies that addressed singers and instrumentalists, performers, music theorists and educators of all kind alike. Up until today his influence is strongly felt at the school. We are deeply grateful for everything Barry Harris shared with students and faculty in all those years. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.

Barry Harris (1929-2021): groot jazzpianist en jazzpedagoog

Maar ook de ‘vader’ van het jazzonderwijs aan het Koninklijk Conservatorium.

Vanaf 1989 kwam Barry Harris elk voorjaar gedurende één week de jazzafdeling van het Koninklijk Conservatorium op z’n kop zetten. De lessen begonnen ongeveer om tien uur in de ochtend om ver na de officiële sluitingstijd van het gebouw in de avond op te houden. Een strak omlijnd rooster was er natuurlijk wel maar Barry Harris stond erom bekend dat regeltjes er vooral waren om grondig te worden gebroken.

Bebop dus.

Tot ver in de jaren zeventig spraken jazzmusici nauwelijks over de muziektheoretische onderbouwing van wat ze speelden. Barry Harris was een van de weinigen die dat wél deed. Hij ontwikkelde een eigen beboptoonladder: de ‘6th diminished scale’ die inmiddels ook bekend staat als ‘De Barry Harris Toonlader’. Vanuit die toonladder en de daarvan afgeleide akkoorden analyseerde hij de harmonieën van jazz standards en solo’s die onder andere Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk en Bud Powell speelden. In de filmpjes gemaakt door Frans Elsen van de lessen van Barry Harris in het Koninklijk Conservatorium, geeft hij uitleg en laat hij studenten oefenen. De filmpjes gaan inmiddels viraal op YouTube.

Aan het Koninklijk Conservatorium in Den Haag en overal elders in de wereld werd in de jaren negentig het jazztheorie onderwijs volwassen. De grote bedenker, vormgever en toezichthouder daarop in Den Haag was Frans Elsen. Zijn lesboeken ‘Jazz Practicum’, ‘Bebop’ en ‘Harmonie aan de piano’ zijn geïnspireerd door van wat Barry Harris elk jaar kwam vertellen. Barry Harris kijkt, zo lijkt het, over de schouder van Frans Elsen mee bij het schrijven van die boeken.

Uitzonderlijk en hartverwarmend was de betrokkenheid van Barry Harris bij de studenten van de jazzafdeling. Streng was hij ook. ‘Dit heb ik je vorig jaar ook al uitgelegd en je kan het nog steeds niet’ zei hij meer dan eens. De verbondenheid die hij creëerde met zijn studenten was persoonlijk en innig. Hij zag de studenten, hoe beginnend dan ook, als gelijken die nog niet zo ver waren. Met enorme inzet, drive en energie hielp hij ze verder, puttend uit zijn grote kennis en ruime ervaring.

Van de vele gastdocenten die aan de jazzafdeling zijn voorbijgetrokken was Barry Harris degene die de sterkste band wist te creëren met zijn leerlingen.

Vele afgestudeerden passen toe en geven door aan de volgende generatie jazzmusici wat zij van Barry Harris hebben geleerd.

Wouter Turkenburg, December 2021


I didn’t know too much about Barry Harris until I was 19 years old and went to New York in 1966 and saw Elvin Jones live at the ‘Five Spot’. I flipped out and wanted to buy records with Elvin as a sideman and went to a record shop called the Record Hunter on 5th Avenue. I started to look for some albums and found a Barry Harris Trio album on the Riverside Label called ‘Preminado’ with Elvin on drums.

When I got home weeks later I started listening to all the records I bought, but that Barry Harris album knocked me out. I never heard a pianist with so much fluency, unhurried swing and great Bebop lines.

You could clearly hear the Bud Powell influence, for example in the phrasing taking inspiration from horn players. I wished I could do that on the drums.

10 years later I went back to New York again and it was one of the coldest winters in ages, lots of snow, and I went to Bradley’s to see and hear Barry Harris. Bradley’s was a beautiful warm club, and Barry was in top form, together with Hal Dodson on bass and Leroy Williams on the drums. That was the first time I saw Barry playing live. I was blown away. Nica the Jazz baroness came in to bring her Bentley for Barry, because the next day he had a gig out of town.

I also heard and read about Barry’s incredible teaching skills and that he even gave John Coltrane valuable tips for practicing.

Thirteen years later I was asked to teach drums at the Jazz faculty of the Royal Conservatoire and it was also the second year that Barry Harris was coming to the school for a week long of teaching masterclasses. His residencies at the school became a yearly event and I went to watch his classes and was deeply impressed by the way he was teaching the students. They all stood in awe around the grand piano in M502. He talked about scales and musicians such as Charlie Parker and Bud Powell in a way that it felt like he was talking to you in his living room. It opened my eyes: this was the way to teach Jazz.

Barry was able to enchant the students with his knowledge, his wisdom, his patience and passion for the music. He made them sing and made them swing. And when he was on full steam he went on without any pause and at eleven o’clock at night you had to kick him out of the school. My son-in-law was a classical violin student at the School for Young Talent department during that period. He took part in one of Barry’s improvisation classes which was a great experience for him. He never forgot the way Barry was teaching the young students like himself and felt the love Barry also had for classical music.

That same year, when I started teaching, Wouter Turkenburg asked me to play with Barry on the final concert at the end of the week in the Kees van Baarenzaal together with bass teacher Jacques Schols. I got introduced to Barry and it felt to me like a dream come true. He never would tell you what he was going to play, but luckily, I had listened to a lot of his albums and Jacques had the best ear in the business.

I never encountered so much swing and soul from a piano player, deep and so rooted in the blues. I got goosebumps behind the drumset, and his phrasing made me play more legato. Almost all the years Barry came to our school I backed him up at the final concerts where he also played with the students and got a wonderful choir together with the student singers. There was so much joy and togetherness. Barry was like nobody else able to unite people and share his love for the music in such a natural way. His spirit and dedication for the music gave me the inspiration for a lifetime.

Thank you so much Barry Harris.

Eric Ineke

Barry Harris was a very special kind of person and educator. One of a kind. First of all, there was his passion for teaching anyone, at any level. He didn’t exclude anyone and would push everyone to the edges of their own boundaries. If you couldn’t get it, he’d make you take a step back, if you could, he’d push you forward. He would give you the tools to keep on developing yourself. Through his systematic approach to practicing improvisation, he would give you material to practice for a lifetime. He was tireless, would start at ten in the morning, and would go on until the school closed at night, and then even head out to a café where jam sessions were held and he would sit in. I remember him getting everyone, and I mean literally everyone up dancing. Barry would share his vast knowledge and love for the music of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell or for instance Monk, and would teach the intricacies of the vocabulary, the harmonic movement and the phrasing. His methodology was complete in the sense that it covered harmony, melody, articulation and foremost timing. He would make the students strive to execute things flawlessly in any key, at any tempo. And then there would be the firsthand stories, because he played with everyone from Coleman Hawkins, Bird, Kenny Dorham, Cannonball, to Carmen McRae and Dexter, the list is endless. He also had a great sense of humor and was just a lot of fun to be around. The incredible outpour of fond memories on social media after his passing, from musicians all over the world, many of them very famous, show how many people were touched by his personality, and owe a ton of gratitude to him.

He will be dearly missed.

A very special human being. Barry inspired so many people all over the world. For me it was magical to just listen to his beautiful sound while watching his hands. He seemingly played with no effort. A man with tremendous patience, lots of energy and wit. A gentleman. Keeper of the flame. He preserved the feeling of (American) jazz, the romanticism but also the unstoppable search for beauty and aesthetics. A devoted musician, educator in the musical language called be-bop and beyond. I am thankful for his valuable lessons and warmth.

“In the beginning there was a father and a mother: they were the two whole-tone scales. Together they had 3 children: the 3 diminished seventh chords, each possessing two tones of the father and two tones of the mother. The children merged with the sixth chords to form tonality in the shape of diminished sixth scales” (quote from a conversation with Barry).

This small quote perfectly demonstrates Barry Harris’ unique idiosyncratic voice, theorizing not for the sake of theory but to get to the essence of how music works. One could have discussions on the principles of harmony and counterpoint in Chopin’s music, and Barry would make a lot of sense translating this to what happens in jazz.

His presence was an endless source of inspiration, founded in wonder and a deep love of music.

For me, many of his methods of working with jazz students have been eye-opening, and a guide in the search for a better practice of improvisation, memorisation and aural development for classical musicians. For that I am eternally grateful. Thank you, dear Barry!