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Kenny Barron reflects on mastery, mentorship, and his Philly roots

Pianist Kenny Barron accepting Artist of the Year International at the 2024 German Jazz Prize, with presenter Hadnet Tesfai.
Niklas Marc Heinecke
Pianist Kenny Barron accepting Artist of the Year International at the 2024 German Jazz Prize, with presenter Hadnet Tesfai.

Kenny Barron is the very embodiment of a global jazz eminence: just last week, in fact, he won Artist of the Year International at the German Jazz Prize. (Full disclosure: I served on the prize jury.) Performing a brief solo piano set during the awards ceremony in Cologne, he demonstrated how his artistry transcends every demarcation of geography or style, transmitting along an unfailingly soulful and elegant frequency.

At the same time, Barron, 80, is also a product of the community that raised him, in North Philadelphia during the 1950s and early ‘60s. It has been more than 60 years since he left for New York, but Philly still flows through his fingers. It also has a prominent home on his bandstand: his longtime drummer, Johnathan Blake, is a proud Philadelphian (as was his father, violinist John Blake, who featured Barron on his debut album). As WRTI celebrates jazz musicians from Philly during our Spirit of 76 drive, we felt it would only be appropriate to talk about that legacy with Barron.

But there are so many other reasons to catch up with this 2010 NEA Jazz Master, whose recent solo piano album, The Source, elicited a near-perfect star rating in DownBeat. His forthcoming album — Beyond This Place, due out on May 10 from Artwork / PIAS — features a dynamic quintet with Blake, bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, and Philly-born alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins.

So earlier this week, I gave him a call. He was speaking from his home in Brooklyn, and I was in my office at WRTI. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

It's been a long time since you lived in Philadelphia…

Oh, yeah.

But obviously, it’s a really formative place for you. Where did you grow up? What neighborhood were you in? 

I lived on 28th and Montgomery Avenue in North Philly.

Not so far from our station here.

Right, you’re on Broad Street, right?

We’re on Cecil B. Moore, just off of Broad.

West Columbia Avenue, yeah.

What can you tell me about the kind of training you received as a young musician?

Well, I studied classical piano. That was the first thing that happened. Starting at the age of six and until I was 16, I studied classical piano. And through my oldest brother, Bill, he had a great 78 record collection — you know, Bird, Dizzy, Fats Navarro, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon. So I got to listen to all of that stuff, and very early. I fell in love with it.

So you were getting both of those influences at the same time.

Yeah, exactly.

Where did you study classically?  

I studied actually with Ray Bryant's sister, Vera, the mother of the Eubanks kids. She was my first teacher. And then there was a woman who lived across the street, and I started taking lessons with her, only to discover that she was Ray Bryant’s teacher when he was young. I can recall the last piece I worked on with her, which was Edvard Grieg's A minor Concerto for Four Hands. That’s the very last classical piece I worked on with her.

Was there a point when you thought that was your path forward — that you would be a classical pianist?

No, I never thought that. [laughs] Because I was too much in love with jazz. In junior high school, I even had a little band, a trio. And then I met a bunch of guys who were young musicians like myself. The saxophonist Sonny Fortune. Reggie Workman, who was living in New York but he’d come back to Philly to stay for a while. I started playing around with those guys, which was a revelation for me. And there were lots of clubs where a young person could work on their craft in Philly.

I love hearing people reminisce about that scene, and places like the Show Boat and the Blue Note. Where did you play most often?

Well, not at those places. [Chuckles] I was too young. But there was the Poster Card on South Street. It was upstairs, at 13th and South. It went out of business probably by the time I had moved. You know the drummer Vincent Ector?

Fran Kaufman

I do. 

Well, his father, Calvin Ector, used to play there a lot. And I started playing there a lot. There was another club called Spider Kelly’s on Mole Street, and that was a great place. They had matinees Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays — so if it was Monday, you would play from four to seven and again at night, and the same thing on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It was a great experience for me. I might’ve been living in New York when I finally played the Show Boat.


No, actually, I was in high school. Yusef Lateef came to town, and his piano player had missed the flight. So he didn’t have anybody to play piano for the matinee on Monday. He got my number from Jimmy Heath, and I went and played the matinee. It was really great, you know — I had my 15 minutes of fame in Philly.

And this is when you were in high school.

Yeah, at Germantown High.

That’s so interesting, because I’ve had your playing with Yusef in my ear recently, due to this release of The Concert From Avignon. One thing that struck me about that recording was just how much of the book was your music.

Well, thanks to Yusef. I mean, if I wrote something and I brought it in, he would play it. So I’m very thankful for that.

How long was it between the first time you played with him and when you joined his band?

It was a while after. When I moved to New York, let’s see, I worked with Dizzy from ‘62 to ‘66. So I think I started working with Yusef again in the early ‘70s — after Freddie Hubbard, actually.

Hearing that album, I also couldn’t help but focus on Tootie Heath, who we just lost


You played with him on a number of occasions, and there’s a certain thing that always seems present. I know you guys were not from the same generation, but the Philly thing — there is a connection there, right?

Oh yeah, there is, there is. It’s the music, the camaraderie. I met Jimmy Heath just before I graduated from high school. He had just gotten out of jail. I saw him on South Street with another saxophonist I used to play with named Sam Reed.

Oh, yeah.

Sam introduced us, and I started working with Jimmy. He was able to get a parole, get permission to go to New York to record, and he made this record called Really Big! — it was like a small big band.

Philippe Levy-Stab


So when he got back to Philly, he wanted to play that music. He had a quartet, sometimes a quintet. And I was the pianist at the time. The bass player was Arthur Harper, and the drummer was Mickey Roker.


That was the band. There were some after-hours clubs we played. One was called the Northwest Club on Ridge and Columbia. And there was another club right next door to the Uptown Theater on Broad Street. We used to play there a lot.

I know you’ve been in Brooklyn for a long time. Once you made the move, was it pretty stable in one place?

Well, the first year, it was before I got married, so I had a couple of gigs. One of the first gigs I had was with the Roy Haynes Quartet. It was a nice group with Henry Grimes on bass, and Frank Strozier played alto. Roy had a big Cadillac, and we’d load it up. One of the gigs we did was at the Crawford Grill in Pittsburgh. We drove to a place in Boston called Connelly's. I enjoyed playing with Roy, and I learned a lot, you know.

I’m sure.

At the time, I was living on East 6th Street in New York, right next door to my brother. I was at 314 East 6th Street, where all the Indian restaurants are now. That was a very vibrant neighborhood. It was mostly Eastern European; a lot of people from Ukraine. So I had a place, and upstairs, Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams shared an apartment.

Wow. So they were upstairs from you? 

Yeah. Across the street was a big brownstone with a bunch of guys from Philly: Reggie Workman, Tootie Heath, Spanky DeBrest. And two doors up from them was Ted Curson and his wife. So it was a great neighborhood. I could walk to the Five Spot and the same two Italian brothers owned the Jazz Gallery as well. So I could walk to either place, and that was great. There were a lot of coffee shops that also had music.


The Fat Black Pussycat. I worked with a vibes player there, Dave Pike. And then I got married and went to Philly for a while. We honeymooned in my mother’s house; she never lets me forget that. Then I found a place in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy. I lucked out on it because Steve Davis, who used to play with Trane — he and his wife were the supers in this building on St. Mark’s and Franklin Avenue. So that was my first apartment in Brooklyn. I moved to New York and I haven’t looked back.

I put you in a category of musicians where some people would not even know you’re from Philadelphia. Another musician I put in that category, actually, is Stan Getz

Oh, yeah.

A lot of people don't even know he was born in Philadelphia. And I wondered, did the two of you have any bond in that sense — the secret Philadelphians?

No, probably ‘cause it was generational. He was so many years older than I, so our bond was more musical than anything else. I loved the way he played. He was very lyrical when he played, and that’s the thing that I got from him.

The two of you together in any context, it’s impeccable. I think you had one of the great duo partnerships.

It was fun. Yeah.

Now, when I think of your style, I always think about deep soulfulness and incredible polish. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard you sound off balance…

Then you haven’t been listening. [chuckles]

But I’ve never heard you scrambling, you know what I mean? There’s so much poise in your playing. Where do you think that comes from?

Well, probably the person who was my biggest influence, who I heard when I was in junior high school. That was on a recording that a friend of mine had, a Miles Davis recording. Sonny Rollins was on it, with Doug Watkins and Arthur Taylor, and Tommy was the pianist. Tommy Flanagan. I remember the song that I heard, Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way.”


And that’s when I fell in love with Tommy, you know. The thing that got me, number one, was his touch. His very light, delicate touch. He wasn’t banging on the piano. And his sense of lyricism. It really told a story, and that’s what I wanted to do. So Tommy was probably my biggest influence until he passed away. Many years later, I had a chance to do a duo recording with him, and it was one of the few times in my life I was actually scared. But he was the biggest influence.

Did you develop a friendship? 

Yeah, we did. I mean, we weren’t hanging-out buddies, because he was always on the road, either with Ella or with Tony Bennett. He was out all the time. I didn’t really get a chance to really hang around him until we started working at Bradley’s.


That’s when I got to see him a lot and talk to him a lot and be exposed to his really dry sense of humor. He was a funny guy. And then the other guy who was also a big influence was Hank Jones.


And then I realized that Hank was Tommy’s influence. I did this tour, there’s about 10 of them I did, called 100 Gold Fingers in Japan. There were 10 pianists. The first one was remarkable. It was Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, myself, Roger Kellaway, John Lewis, Lynn Arriale (who was Lynn Bernstein then), Junior Mance, Ray Bryant, Monty Alexander.


And we had so much fun, you know. I mean, no egos, and the thing is that Hank was the acknowledged master. So whenever Hank sat down to play, everybody would be right there at attention, just listening. But I had both of them there.

The band on 'Beyond This Place' (L to R): Steve Nelson, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, Kenny Barron, Johnathan Blake, Immanuel Wilkins.
Philippe Levy-Stab
The band on 'Beyond This Place' (L to R): Steve Nelson, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, Kenny Barron, Johnathan Blake, Immanuel Wilkins.

There are so many relationships you’ve cultivated musically. And especially in the time I’ve been able to see you, what’s striking is your mentorship of younger players. At this point, it's multiple generations: on this new record, you have Johnathan Blake, and then also Immanuel Wilkins.

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Can you talk a bit about mentorship — and when you made the shift from someone who had been mentored to someone who took that responsibility on yourself?

I don’t look at myself as a mentor, but I enjoy playing with people who are younger, and Immanuel is a really exciting player. I felt like I was being mentored, because he makes me play a different way. I love his playing, you know?


Everybody talks about how fast he can play and all of that, but on the new record we decided to do “The Nearness of You,” and he sounds so much like Johnny Hodges. All that space in the sound, you know. So, he knows his history, musically.

I recently heard him talk about influences, and he said that when he was growing up, there were two saxophonists he was obsessed with, Johnny Hodges and Kenny Garrett. Which is a really interesting pairing! But you hear both of them in his playing.

Yeah, exactly. And in terms of mentoring, I had a gig last weekend in Detroit. I had to fly there from Frankfurt, and I got there just in time for the gig. It was one of the things, Immanuel got called for it, but he wasn’t able to do it. We had heard a young lady in Japan named Riko Sasaki. It was just a video recommended by a drummer who said, “Check this young lady out.” And Kiyoshi and I were both blown away. We found out she was going to Berkeley in the fall. So when we played at the Vanguard last December, Kiyoshi invited her down. And I took a chance to use her on this gig. I brought the music with me; she had never seen it. She read this music down perfectly. And she has that same sort of drive and energy that Immanuel has.

And she’s just now going to Berklee.

Yes, just in the first year.

Wow. So she’s like 18 or 19 years old. 

Something like that. She is amazing. But I mean not only is she a hell of a player, she’s also a hell of a musician. For somebody to be able to sight-read this stuff right away, and be able to blend with Mike Rodriguez, who was the trumpet player. And then there are other people also, through Terri Lynn Carrington I’m involved in a program mentoring a young bassist in California named Kanoa Mendenhall. Do you know her?

I do. Is this part of the Next Jazz Legacy program? 

I think it might be. So I’m going to be doing stuff with her for about a year. I'll have her on certain gigs, and we’ll talk about various things. But yeah, I love doing that, yes.

That reminds me, I recently did an interview with Kalia Vandever, who was telling me about your residency at SFJAZZ. You decided to bring Jen Shyu and Kalia and Lesley Mok out — a really fascinating program, and an adventurous move.

We had played at The Stone during Jen’s week there. It was such great fun that I thought it would be something interesting to do in San Francisco. I added John Patitucci, who was kind of like glue — he held it all together, all the different moods. And I was glad to see Lesley Mok win something at the German Jazz Prize, which is really exciting.

fran kaufman

Yes, for Debut of the Year. 


Do you feel positive about the health and the state of the music?

Oh, yeah, I do.

Is it ever a challenge to get into that mindset? 

No, because I think the music is in good hands. I went to hear Gerald Clayton last night at the Vanguard, and it was great. I loved it. I mean, it was different — but I loved it. You know, Gerald studied with me at the Manhattan School of Music.


And at the time, he played a lot like Oscar Peterson. So he’s got the chops, but now he has the imagination to do other things in terms of composition. He’s really thinking compositionally now. So the stuff he did last night — damn, I wish I could think of that! But no, I think the music is in good hands. You have to move the music forward, not backwards. I mean, you can look back in retrospect and say “Oh, that was great.” But the music has to move forward no matter what.

I really do feel that conviction in all of the music that you make, and the trust that you place in people like Johnathan and Kiyoshi and Dayna Stephens — and now Immanuel. There’s a real sense of empowering and entrusting all of these musicians to be their full selves in the context of your bands. 

Oh yeah, I need that.

One final thought: seeing you play that brief, but really beautiful solo set in Cologne, and then listening back again to The Source, I’m just struck by what a complete solo piano concept you have. Do you have any other plans to move in that direction?

If it comes up, yeah. In the latter part of last year I did a solo tour, which is unusual. I did two weeks in Europe playing solo. So yeah, I would like to do some more of that — like to explore it some more.

To learn more about Kenny Barron, visit his website.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.