Lessons Learned from Kenny Barron

Pretty much every time I play the piano is an opportunity, however indirect, to appreciate all that I learned from 6 years of study with Kenny Barron. This year has been a particularly fertile year for that sort of reflection, as he played two concerts in CT this summer. Beyond that, I’m currently gearing up for my own trio concert of Kenny’s music on October 16, not to mention the release of my solo piano record, on which all of the tunes are tributes to important mentors of mine (and he is the obvious one to top that list).

Also, the more I teach, the more I find myself sharing the important lessons he taught me, both directly musical and otherwise. I entered Rutgers in 1992 with a doe-eyed expectation that he would just show me how to play. I left in 1998 with a Master’s degree and a trove of lessons about how one should operate as a human being. This was during, debatably, the height of his popularity – multiple Grammy nominations, placing first in DownBeat polls, appearing in high-profile NY clubs as much as anyone. He would have been forgiven had this long-earned success gone to his head, so the absence of this sort of ego-inflation was all the more striking to me.

I’ll present some of the most resonant lessons he taught me (mostly by example and not in any self-consciously didactic way) as a “Top 10” list, simply because if I don’t, this will go on forever . . .

1) Have No Laurels

In 2004 I took my daughter Rebecca to the Village Vanguard to meet and hear Kenny for the first time. He told us about a project he was preparing for (collaborating with a kora player, as I recall) that was entirely new for him. When I told him how inspiring it was that he still was refusing to rest on his laurels he laughed and said “I wish I HAD laurels, it would be nice to rest on them.” There are plenty of people who have learned to mimic humility as a socially desirable affectation, but he is the real deal.

2) Humility = Room for Growth

Perhaps this is a variation on the first one, but still worthy of mention. While this may not be true in every case, Kenny did an amazing job of modeling what I have found to be an inverse proportion between ego and level of accomplishment. That is, the more attached you are to what you have accomplished or how great you are, the more of your energy goes into protecting that (or at least protecting the appearances that go with that). Keeping that stuff in perspective allows you to grow, to accurately self-assess and be open to all that you could still be learning.

3) Don’t Deploy Your Ammunition Just Because You Have It

Have you ever heard Kenny Barron walk a bass line on the piano? My goodness, it is seriously badass (side note: he can walk a mean bass line on upright bass as well). But the answer to the question is most likely “no” (unless you, too, have studied with him) because he very seldom does it on recordings or in performances. He would do it frequently in lessons, to simulate real-life playing situations for his students, and it sounded so good (including coordination between bass line and right hand soloing that would be the envy of most organists) that for years it bewildered me that he didn’t do it on gigs and do it at every opportunity. I eventually realized that possessing a skill does not mean that one should be gratuitously displaying it, and that particular skill was one of numerous examples of things that he could do, yet which didn’t often fit into his artistic goals.

4) Value Consistency (or Be Good Always)

When I got to college, most of my focus was on trying to achieve the most spectacular peak moments possible, and I was most impressed by the players whose best moments were the most impressive. That’s all fine and good, but Kenny was one of the most valued band-members on the scene less for the impressiveness of his peaks (impressive though they were) than for the absence of valleys. Playing an old standard or sight reading an original tune, a trio gig with Ben Riley and Ray Drummond or a pick-up gig, a good and healthy day or in the midst of a cold and deep in sleep debt, I never heard him sound less than excellent. While I still believe there is validity to developing one’s strengths, I now see that the systematic cleaning-up of weaknesses is even more important.

5) Ballads Are Freakin’ Hard

As I tell my students when they get discouraged with ballad playing, Kenny and I had a routine for about 3 years. He’d send me off to learn a new ballad. I’d listen to multiple versions, often learn the lyrics, develop a relationship with the song and try my hardest to make it sound good. And then I’d come back a week later and he’d listen and tell me (very patiently) “nope, not yet.” He would invariably give me good suggestions, but the “not yet” was the most resonant part, and the part I grappled with for that whole time. I remember one week when I tried playing more lushly (on “The Very Thought of You,” I recall) and eagerly anticipated his response . . . which was “um, that kind of sounded like Liberace.” Initially I was puzzled that I wasn’t being given the secrets to great ballad playing, the elusive common thread that in one shot explains the mastery of Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Billie Holiday and every other great ballad interpreter. And, while there are certainly helpful little tricks of the trade, there is no such common thread, only the long, laborious and totally worthwhile process of wrestling with all those nuances, week after week after year until it all starts to come together.

6) Nurture the Next Generation

Both as a teacher and as a bandleader, he has embraced his responsibility as an “elder” (sorry, Kenny) by helping younger musicians and thus doing his part to keep the music alive. An obvious manifestation of this is through the former students of his like Steve Nelson and David Sanchez who subsequently went on to work in his band. Employing gifted young musicians is hardly unique in jazz history, of course, and having a teaching job while also being a performer is also not unusual in the modern era. In Kenny’s case, though, I always felt this to be not only musical, but reflective of a general spirit of open-ness and generosity. He didn’t (and still doesn’t) seek credit for the successes of his “disciples,” and he never limited his attention to those who were most obviously deserving (as evidenced by accepting a scrub like me as a student!) – after all, you can never quite tell who will ultimately go on to carry the torch.

7) The Sustain Pedal Is Overrated

Once, in a lesson, I was marveling at the lushness of something Kenny was playing, so I looked down to see what sort of wizardry he was applying to the sustain pedal. And I saw that his feet were curled up under the bench. The conclusion: there are things for which the pedal is very useful, but covering up deficiencies in fingering shouldn’t be one of them.

8 ) Treat Everyone with Dignity

You can certainly learn a lot about musicians’ place in the jazz world by seeing them interact with other “cats.” But you’ll learn more about their basic sense of human decency from observing their interactions with less “important” people. I saw Kenny come into contact with a lot of people in this latter category, and the man I saw interacting with the biggest names in jazz was no different from the man I saw interacting with the least advanced students or the music building custodian.

9) Organic Transcription

I used to think of transcribing as primarily a means of data-collection, with the secondary benefit of helping with ear-training. Picture me with my little portable cassette recorder and a manuscript notebook, listening to 2 or 3 beats from Wynton Kelly’s solo on “Someday My Prince Will Come,” rewinding, listening, rewinding, trying to play along, eventually writing down and moving on to the next couple beats, and you get the idea. What Kenny (and, later, Ted Dunbar) taught me is that one can have a different relationship with the process of transcribing. Instead of beginning a transcription with the rewinding and the manuscript book, I learned to begin by listening intently (and repeatedly) to whatever I intended to transcribe. If doing my job properly, I would know the music (including all the subtle nuances that can’t be captured in notation) deeply before I ever tried to figure out the notes, and would know the notes confidently before I ever tried to write anything down (if, indeed, there was still any reason to do so).

10) Do Your Job

When I would tell other people that I was studying with Kenny, often their first question would be “is he ever actually there?” True, there might be two or three weeks in a semester when he would send in a sub (invariably an excellent one) because he was on the road. Aside from that, he was there every week, putting in long days, showing up for committee meetings and student recitals and so on. If he was in town, he showed up, even if it was the Thursday of a week at Bradley’s (with sets at 10, 12 and 2 every night and a daily commute from Brooklyn to NJ on a pittance of sleep). He appreciated his job and he showed up and did it – for most of us that seems fairly obvious, but it is significant that I never saw him take the diva-esque approach that it was an imposition for this to be expected of someone as accomplished or “important” as he. He did not see himself as any more “above” working than any roofer or bank teller, instead choosing to be grateful to be able to earn his livelihood from something he loved.

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  1. Hey Noah, great post! Thanks

  2. Kenny Barron “The Book” Ce livre est pour vous …

  3. karen

     /  March 6, 2015


    This is fantastic and such an on-point description of the man and how he lives and breathes. Thank you!

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