Kenny Barron reflects on rich career in jazz
By George Varga
As one of the most gifted and prolific jazz pianists of the past half-century years, Kenny Barron has made more than 50 solo albums. He’s also been a key member in the bands of such legends as James Moody, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Freddie Hubbard and Lionel Hampton, among many others.
But one of the most memorable early moments in this nine-time Grammy Award nominee’s illustrious career came in 1962, when this then-19-year-old keyboardist auditioned — or, rather, didn’t audition — to play in the band of bebop trumpet king Dizzy Gillespie.
Jazz at the Athenaeum presents the Kenny Barron Trio
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 15
Where: TSRI Auditorium, 10620 John Jay Hopkins Drive, La Jolla
Tickets: $30 Athenaeum members; $35 nonmembers
Phone: (858) 454-5872
“There was no audition!” Barron recalled with a hearty laugh, speaking from his home in Brooklyn. “Dizzy hired me solely on Moody’s recommendation; he never heard me play until my opening night, the first gig I played with Dizzy.”
Did the then-recently-married young pianist immerse himself in Gillespie’s demanding concert repertoire before he joined the famed trumpeter’s band?
“No, I didn’t,” replied Barron, 72, who performs here Friday with his trio at La Jolla’s TSRI Auditorium. “He just hired me on the basis of Moody’s recommendation — and the fact I was 19. He felt that, being married, I’d be a more responsible kind of person. I didn’t use drugs. I was always punctual. I was there to take care of business and learn as much as I could.”
Barron, who was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2010, clearly learned well.
He has long been acclaimed as an unusually graceful and resourceful pianist, composer and band leader in his own right. His formidable technical prowess, improvisational ingenuity and unerring good taste enable him to stand out in any setting, be it with jazz greats, string quartets, such pop and R&B vocal luminaries as Roberta Flack and Maria Muldaur, opera icon Kathleen Battle, or such pop-jazz mainstays as George Benson and San Diego-bred singer Michael Franks.
Along the way, Barron’s recordings have been sampled on recordings by everyone from hip-hop favorites De La Soul and Pete Rock to soon-to-retire EDM star Avicii and house music mainstay Basement Jaxx. His supple piano playing has also been featured in the scores to a number of films by director Spike Lee, including “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X” and “Bamboozled.”
“Sound like portraits”
Whatever the style, Barron’s ability to play exactly what is right for any song at hand — no more, no less — makes him that rare pianist whose eloquence is matched by his concision. His artful approach to performing and composing have earned him praise from many jazz luminaries, including former San Diego saxophone giant Moody, who died here in 2010.
In a 2007 Union-Tribune interview, an effusive Moody declared: “I've worked with Kenny a lot and I’ve never heard him make a mistake. He’s fantastic! And all of his solos sound like portraits.”
Barron chuckled appreciatively as the comments of Moody, one of his biggest mentors, were read to him over the phone.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes!” Barron said. “I mean, it was very kind of him to say that, but I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’m still making them. But that’s OK, because you grow from your mistakes.
“Moody was just the nicest guy. He was a sweetheart, and he was always like that. I don’t think I ever heard him utter a cross word. Moody was always wanting to learn new things, and he was always interested in interaction. He’d often ask me, ‘How do you do this?’ When we were in Dizzy’s together, he’d say, ‘Play these (chord) changes,’ and I would, and he’d play over them. He was always interested in trying to stretch himself.