Beginning his professional musical career as a teenager in Philadelphia, jazz pianist Kenny Barron spent more than two decades honing his musical talent and melding numerous influences into the unique style that made him invaluable as a sideman. Known for his verve and sensitivity, Barron has played in and led jazz groups of numerous configurations, most notably in duets, trios, and quintets.
Kenneth “Kenny” Barron was born on June 9, 1943, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He began playing piano in 1955 at age 12, though early on he studied classical music with Vera Bryant. In an interview with Josef Woodard, published in the Los Angeles Times, Barron said: “As a teenager, I used to do classical recitals around Philadelphia, at churches and things like that. But you wouldn’t call it professional. I couldn’t do it now to save my life. You do have to stay in shape. Also, it’s a different mind-set.”
Barron also studied with pianist Ray Bryant, Vera’s brother, and by 1957 was playing in an R&B band headed by Mel Melvin. Jazz, however, had a greater pull. Barron’s older brother (by 16 years) was the noted tenor saxophonist Bill Barron. At age 16 Barron was able to cut his jazz teeth by playing piano in drummer
Born Kenneth Barron on June 9, 1943, in Philadelphia, PA.
Began studying classical piano, age 12; played with Philly Joe Jones’ band, 1959, and with Yusef Lateef, 1960; moved to New York City where he performed on his brother’s album, 1961; performed with Dizzy Gillespie, 1962-66; Stanley Turrentine, 1966; Freddie Hubbard 1967-70; Yusef Lateef, 1971-75; and Ron Carter, 1976-80; cofounded Sphere, 1980; performed with Stan Getz, 1986-91; released duet CD with Getz, People Time, 1991; led trios and quintets, performed solos and in duets with Charlie Haden and Regina Carter throughout the 1990s; cofounded Joken Records, 1998; was also an instructor at Rutgers University, New Jersey, 1973-99, and at the Manhattan School of Music.
Awards: Jazz Time, Best Piano Award, 1995; Down Beat, Best Pianist, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Joken Records, website: http://www.jazzcorner.com/jokenrecords.
Philly Joe Jones’ band as well as in Jimmy Heath’s group. In 1960 he was in Detroit working with Yusef Lateef. By then Bill Barron had moved to New York City, and in 1961, at age 18, Kenny joined him. Soon after the move he played piano on his brother’s recording, The Tenor Stylings of Bill Barron. In the early 1960s Barron also played in James Moody’s group.
Barron’s career made a big leap in 1962 when, on Moody’s recommendation, Dizzy Gillespie invited him to join his group; he eventually replaced Lalo Schifrin. Barron remained with Gillespie until 1966 and the experience, including touring and recording, helped him build a reputation as a dependable sideman. Years later, in a New York Times interview with writer Peter Watrous in which he reflected on his time in the Gillespie group, Barron declared, “From Dizzy… I gained a real appreciation for be-bop and Latin music.”
Barron solidified his reputation as a dependable and adaptable sideman in a number of influential jazz groups over the next 15 years: he played piano for Stanley Turrentine and in various configurations fronted by Freddie Hubbard from 1966 to 1970. In the same Watrous interview, Barron admitted that Hubbard’s music was “really hard but allowed me to stretch out into areas that might be called avant-garde.” Barron rejoined Yusef Lateef from 1971 to 1975, and was a member of the Ron Carter Quartet from 1976 until 1980. “[W]hen I worked with Ron Carter,” he recalled, “I learned about nuances, how to play soft and still be intense.” In the 1970s Barron also worked with such artists as Roy Haynes, Lou Donaldson, the Buddy Rich Sextet (in 1974) and trumpeter Chet Baker, among others.
By then Barron had performed on various recordings, and his musical career took him in many directions—often simultaneously. In 1973 he joined the faculty of Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he taught music theory, jazz composition, and arranging. He retired from Rutgers at the end of the 1998-99 academic year. He subsequently taught part time at the Manhattan School of Music.
In 1980 Barron cofounded Sphere, the jazz group that paid tribute to the legendary jazz pianist, Thelonious “Sphere” Monk. The group consisted of Barron and three alumni of Monk’s quartet: saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Ben Riley. Barron, Williams, and Riley had also been together in the Ron Carter Quartet in the late 1970s and in 1980 made up the Kenny Barron Trio. Sphere recorded eight albums between 1982 and 1988, three of them live performances. Ironically, February 17, 1982, the day the group entered the studio to record its first album, Four in One, which was comprised of six of Monk’s songs, was the day Monk died. Sphere dissolved with Rouse’s death in 1988, but regrouped in the 1990s with Gary Bartz playing saxophone.
By the mid-1980s, Barron, though still a member of Sphere, was once again exploring new directions, revisiting old ones, and showing audiences a new way to listen to familiar tunes. It was during these years that he began stretching himself as a composer, and once and for all broke out of the sideman mold, though he had led groups in the past and would continue as a sideman in the future. In addition to working and recording throughout the decade with such people as Michal Urbaniak, Frank Foster, Sheila Jordan, Red Mitchell, Carol Sloane and Barney Kessel, in June of 1984 Barron opened the Kool Jazz Festival in New York City as a soloist. Less than three months later he sat in on piano as part of a quintet led by his brother, Bill.
In 1986 Barron led his own quintet that featured saxophonist John Stubblefield, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, drummer Victor Lewis and, alternately, Cecil McBee and Ray Drummond on bass. During this period music critic Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times, “New York jazz would be far poorer without the pianist Kenny Barron…. Mr. Barron brings a suave touch, a command of be-bop filigree and a gift for bluesy phrasing to all sorts of material, and in recent years he has been turning typical melodic figures sideways and inside-out, with sly aplomb.”
Barron began one of his most fruitful collaborations—with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz—in 1986. Over the next five years Barron recorded with Getz as part of the latter’s quartet (Barron’s predecessor on the piano was Chick Corea) and performed with Getz at a number of venues, including Getz’s final concert in Munich in 1990. Their partnership was capped by the album People Time, which featured only Barron and Getz; the album, released in 1991, shortly before Getz’s death, garnered critical acclaim and a Grammy Award nomination.
In a 1994 Los Angeles Times interview with Zan Stewart, Barron reminisced about his collaboration with Getz: “Stan was very lyrical, and I like to play that way too, so it was great just to listen to his lines, observe his choice of notes. I listened, and I learned.” Getz had his own take on their collaboration. He called Barron “the other half of my heart.” Meanwhile during these years the ubiquitous Barron continued to be a fixture in the New York jazz world. In 1987 he was again performing with Ron Carter, who was now leading a quintet. In October of 1989 Barron had the sad honor of leading a musical tribute to his brother, Bill, who had died the previous month. Barron was also among the sidemen who performed on his brother’s final recording, Higher Ground.
In 1992 Barron formed another quintet with percussionist Mino Cinelu, Toninho Horta on guitar, Nico Assumpcao on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums. The result was the recording Sambao. Barron also moved away from mainstream jazz, performing with bassist Charlie Haden and saxophonist Ornette Coleman. His next album, Swamp Sally, which also included Cinelu, is considered a minor classic of jazz funk. In the mid-1990s he led first a trio, then a quartet that included Lewis, Drummond, and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. During the decade he also worked with such musicians as Bartz, violinist Regina Carter, vibraphonist Ray Alexander, Dusko Goykovich, Barney Wilen, Nick Brignola, and Ernie Watts.
At the turn of the century Barron was still touring and recording. One of his quintet configurations included saxophonist David Sanchez, a former student from Rutgers. Barron also performed live and recorded a duet CD with Regina Carter. Befitting one of the best-known figures on the New York jazz scene, in 1996 he recorded a live show at Bradley’s, the intimate Greenwich Village club that closed for good that year; the CD was released in 2001. In that same year Barron, along with bassist Ron Carter, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and drummer Lewis Nash, known as the Classical Jazz Quartet, released a CD of a jazz version of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.
In 1995 Jazz Time gave Barron its Best Piano Award, and in 1998Down Beat magazine named him Best Pianist. In 1996 Barron as a composer was paid the highest compliment when saxophonist Harvey Wainapel released the CD, Ambrosia: The Music of Kenny Barron, which featured nine of his tunes. Barron co-founded Joken Records with his former manager, Joanna Klein in 1998; one of the label’s first releases was Bill Barron’s Higher Ground.
The Tenor Stylings of Bill Barron, Savoy, 1961.
Dizzy for President, KnitClassics, 1963.
(With Ron Carter) New York Slick, Original Jazz Classics, 1979.
What If?, Enja, 1986.
Lemuria-Seascape, Candid, 1991.
(With Stan Getz) People Time, Verve, 1992.
Sambao, Verve, 1992.
(With Bill Barron Quintet) Higher Ground, Joken, 1994.
(With Lee Konitz Quartet) Jazz Nocturne, Evidence, 1994.
Swamp Sally, Verve, 1996.
Night and the City, Verve, 1998.
Spirit Song, Verve, 2000.
Freefall, Verve, 2001.
(With Classical Jazz Quartet) The Nutcracker, Vertical, 2001.
Boston Globe, January 21, 1999.
Boston Herald, August 10, 2001, p. S22.
Chicago Sun-Times, January 12, 1992, p. 4.
Daily Telegraph, December 5, 1988, p. 21.
Gazette (Montreal), July 27, 1996, p. F2.
Hartford Courant, April 14, 1994.
Independent on Sunday (London), February 11, 2001, p. 8.
Jerusalem Post, March 26, 2000.
Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1994, p. F4; January 9, 1997, p. F20.
Newsday, October 19, 1989, p. 45.
New York Times, June 23, 1984; September 3, 1984; October 3, 1986; April 18, 1987; October 5, 1990; October 19, 1996.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 2001, p. C2.
Toronto Star, August 24, 1991, p. F11; April 30, 1998.
Washington Post, February 23, 1978, p. B8; May 17, 1980, p. B7.
“Joken Records,” Jazz Corner, http://www.jazzcorner.com/jokenrecords/ (February 22, 2002).
“Kenny Barron,” All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com (January 31, 2002).
“Kenny Barron,” http://www.jazzcanadiana.on.ca/_BARRON.HTM (January 31, 2002).
“Kenny Barron: Piano,” Enja Records, http://www.enjarecords.co/KENNY_BARRON.htm (February 24, 2002).
“Kenny Barron: The Jerry Jazz Musician Interview,” Jerry Jazz Musician, http://www.jerryjazzmusician.com/linernotes/barron.html (January 31, 2002).
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