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Kenny Barron:
International Treasure

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Pianist Kenny Barron is a bona fide jazz master. Over his fifty-year career he has played with many of the best in the business, from apprenticing with legends such as Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody, to more recent collaborations with the likes of Charlie Haden and Regina Carter. His discography is a mile long, with over forty recordings as a leader. He’s been nominated for nine Grammy awards, and won countless readers’ and critics’ polls, including Downbeat, Jazz Times and Jazziz. He is a six-time recipient of Best Pianist by the Jazz Journalists Association, and just this year has been named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

Winnipeggers will have the rare treat of hearing Kenny Barron in concert with fellow pianist Mulgrew Miller at the Berney Theatre at the beginning of March as part of the Izzy Asper Jazz Performances series.

I had a chance to talk to Kenny Barron over the phone about his long and varied career.

Who were some of your most important mentors?

I learned a lot from Dizzy—I spent 4 years with him, starting when I was 19. Also Yusef Lateef and James Moody. These were all people I worked with when I was very young, so I learned a lot from them, not just about music, but about life: how to handle yourself, how to conduct yourself, how to treat people…

I read that Yusef Lateef inspired you to go to university.

Yes, that’s very true. At one point, everyone in his band was in college. He was teaching at the time at Manhattan Music College. I had classes with him—I also had math, the whole thing.

You continued to tour through this time?

I was touring with him, as a matter of fact.

You taught at Rutgers University for quite some time.

I started in 1973, and I retired in 99. I’m teaching part-time at Juilliard now.

What is it that you enjoy about teaching?

Running into really fantastic students, and also perhaps having some kind of positive impact. I look at some of the students I taught: Terence Blanchard, Ralph Peterson, Regina Bell, Harry Allen—they all studied piano with me. I think I did have some positive impact. Some good students came through there!

What have you noticed about jazz students today?

Well probably the positive thing is that they’re all very well-equipped, in terms of knowing their instruments very well. They can sight-read almost anything. So the musicianship is really on a high level. The only thing they’re lacking is experience, and it’s very difficult for them to get that now. I think of the way I was able to get experience—playing in local clubs around Philadelphia, where I’m from. They’re not able to get that same kind of experience, so it takes them a little longer, that’s all.

Who are some of your favourite musicians to play with now?

I love the band I’m playing with right now. It’s a trio with Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums.

What do you like about playing duo with Mulgrew?

For me, I learn a lot playing with Mulgrew—he’s very talented. We don’t play alike, but we have similar styles so there’s a high degree of compatibility when we play together. He listens, I listen. It really works.

I understand the two of you used to play duo at Bradley’s in New York?

That’s the first time we did it, at Bradley’s. We actually have two live albums recorded there—we did that just before they closed.

What was so special about Bradley’s?

Bradley’s was a special place—there’s never been a place like it since it closed. Probably the best thing I could say is it was definitely musician-friendly. Whenever I was working somewhere else in New York, I would always go by there after, because it was open later than all the other clubs. Even if I was working out of town, like Boston or something, I would make sure I got back just in time for the last set—or at least for the last drink! You would go in there on any given night, especially late, and the place would be full of musicians. It was a special place.

You’ve been recognized with many awards over your career, including the prestigious Jazz Master designation from the National Endowment for the Arts this year. How do you feel about these various honours?

They’re great. It’s a kind of acknowledgement of whatever contributions I may have made as a performer and teacher. It means I’ve had some great experiences, and hopefully I’ve given back. It also means I’m old!

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