Barry Harris, jazz pianist and teacher who spread the bebop gospel and worked with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker – obituary

Barry Harris: when the pandemic struck, he taught classes on Zoom - Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Barry Harris: when the pandemic struck, he taught classes on Zoom - Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Barry Harris, who has died aged 91, was a pianist admired for his mastery of bebop, a style which has been an important ingredient of jazz since the 1940s. He was also a highly regarded teacher who devised a method for explaining bebop’s complicated harmonic patterns.

Barry Royle Harris was born in Detroit on December 15 1929 and took piano lessons with his mother, a Baptist church pianist, from the age of four. He played at high-school dances as a teenager and became a convert to bebop in 1947.

By the early 1950s Harris was a fixture of Detroit’s jazz scene, playing at clubs where he accompanied visiting stars, including Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He toured with the drummer Max Roach and recorded several times in New York studios, but remained based in Detroit until 1960, when the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley persuaded him to join him in New York.

Harris in 1987 - Christian Rose/Dalle/Eyevine
Harris in 1987 - Christian Rose/Dalle/Eyevine

Touring and recording with Adderley’s band introduced Harris to an international audience and established his reputation. Beginning in 1960, Harris recorded 25 albums under his own name; outstanding among the earlier ones are Barry Harris Jazz Workshop (1960) and Chasin’ the Bird (1962). They reveal that he already had what one critic described as his “wily, wandering harmonic sense”.

Harmony had always fascinated him and from his teenage years he had sought to find what he called “rules” to cover the bewildering, ad hoc complexity of bebop harmony. In 1974 he began giving weekly public lessons based on his researches, which attracted a surprisingly large following.

In 1982 he rented a space of his own in Manhattan which he called the Jazz Cultural Theater, with daily classes and concerts in the evening. Rising rent forced the Theater to close in 1979, but he continued holding classes elsewhere.

At the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, 2007 - Rick Diamond/WireImage for The Recording Academy
At the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, 2007 - Rick Diamond/WireImage for The Recording Academy

He was often invited to teach abroad, usually by European musicians who had attended his New York classes. Eventually a kind of international fellowship of Harris devotees emerged, imparting his methods. For instance, the Italian guitarist Pasquale Grasso, now living in New York, had attended some of Harris’s European classes as a boy. Impressed by his instant grasp of the subject, Harris employed him as a fellow teacher. Now, as a successful musician, Grasso continues to pass on Harris’s ideas.

Along with the growing interest in his work as a teacher, Harris was much in demand as a pianist on other people’s recording sessions. Between 1960 and 1992 he managed to appear on at least 70 albums.

He was a particular favourite with Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt (seven albums each) and no fewer than eight with Charles McPherson. Other notable recordings include The Turnaround, with the saxophonist Hank Mobley (1965); the nicely named Bopstacle Course, with the vibraphonist Terry Gibbs (1974); Al Cohn’s America, with the eponymous saxophonist (1976) and Capital Hill, with the saxophonist Buck Hill (1990).

Towards the end of 1963, Harris went to live with Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a member of the Rothschild family, a keen patron of jazz and a generous friend to many musicians, by whom she was known simply as “Nica”. In 1972 they were joined in her mansion at Weehawken, New Jersey, by Thelonious Monk, who stayed until his death 10 years later. The Baroness died in 1988, having arranged for Harris to live at Weehawken for the rest of his life, which he did.

A stroke in 1993 slightly affected his piano technique but he continued to perform well into his eighties. In addition to the US, his teaching schedule took him regularly to the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Japan. When the pandemic happened he took to Zoom.

Barry Harris received many citations and awards, including an honorary doctorate from Northwestern University.

He is survived by a daughter from his 1953 marriage in Detroit to Christine Brown, who predeceased him.

Barry Harris, born December 15 1929, died December 8 2021