A great thing happened to me last week. I was in a piano class with Barry Harris. You’ll remember my account of going to one of his classes when I just moved here. This time, we were on the same side of the class.
I first heard about it when my teacher, Sophia Rosoff, slyly asked me if I would be coming to her bi-weekly class the next week. I said yes, that I’d be coming, and she lit up and said “Oh that’s just fabulous, because now Barry gets to hear you play!”
Of course as soon as she said this, I was completely dumbfounded and couldn’t focus for the rest of the lesson. What in the hell would I play in front of Barry Harris? Sophia’s basic tenants are to sit at the instrument with a clean slate and get as connected to the music as possible. She talks of a basic emotional rhythm and thinks that one of the essences of playing music is the direct connection between the composer and the performer. Most of the music that I would play for Barry was written by people who he knew personally. It’s a job to do justice to them in that light.
Sophia’s class, however, is about the safest environment one can play in. Although it puts you in the most challenging arena that a pianist can play in, an extremely aware jury of one’s peers, the environment is so bereft of any competitive spirit that one can’t help but grow. Everyone in the class is a completely amazing and unique musician who is just trying to become a better performer by playing hard music in front of people who can hear your every mistake, an extremely difficult environment. The paradox of this environment leads to some of the most intense and focused musical growth that I have ever experienced. There is one rule in the class: play every time, no matter what you’re working on, no matter the shape that it’s in.
With that in mind, I half chickened out and played the Beethoven sonata that I’d been working on. I figured, why change anything just because Barry came to class? Of course, my adoration got the better of me, and I played a sub-par version of “Backyard Blues” which I until recently thought was by Charlie Parker, but may in fact be by Charles Mingus(I’ll report back). It turned on me, however, because playing medium tempo blowing bebop solo is very difficult to pull off without careful consideration. It’s a fine line between sounding like there’s an invisible rhythm section and playing convincing solo piano.
I didn’t play the tune so well, but as I said, in that environment there is no such thing as failure. I felt honored for the chance to have Barry listen to me. The real experience came when Barry honored the rules of the class: play every time, no matter what you’re working on, no matter the shape it’s in. Barry has been studying with Sophia for thirty years.
He played an original mixed with “Prelude to a Kiss” by Ellington. It’s always a wonder watching him sit at the piano. He’s completely grounded, and his center of gravity is completely low. The only other pianist I know that sits so sturdily is Randy Weston. Of course he played beautifully, and perhaps because of the environment, he seemed to be rooting around in the piece, trying to find something to hold on to. When he was ending the tune, he started on some long runs down the piano, and right in the middle, he got a look on his face, and like so many students in the class, said aloud: “See? I messed it up!” It was an affecting reminder that even though he is the most proficient bebop musician on the planet, and even though he brought a student of his(one out of many) that played impressive Tatumisms through his piece, he was ever the student. Always searching and struggling.
We all have quite a long road ahead.
“Now this is true. I was in a concert where a whole lot of pianists played, and a friend of mine, a well-known and respected pianist was on the same gig. Do you know what he told me? ‘My mother came up to me after that concert and said ‘Boy, you know I love you and your playing, but you ‘aint no Barry Harris!’”—Barry, after he played his piece at class.