Stories by the Jazz Piano Masters

January is the month of jazz gatherings: Jazz Education Network Conference – Jazz Congress – Winter Jazz Festival – bringing together thousands of jazz performers, educators, activists, supporters, media and business personnel and so much more. This year I got to participate in all of them  – it was inspiring, exhausting, fun, eye-opening, and by the second conference I actually lost my voice – but the ears were still working fine and I was listening. I soaked in the interactions and conversations of three jazz piano masters: Kenny Barron, Joanne Brackeen, and Harold Mabern. Come along for stories, advice, and memories:Here are my most memorable stories from each and a few moments I was able to capture on video:

Kenny Barron is a 2010 NEA Jazz Master originally from Philadelphia. His own music has received 8 Grammy Nominations, he was a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s group for five years and his endless list of collaborations includes Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, Buddy Rich, James Moody, and Lee Morgan. As a collaborator with instrumentalists and vocalists alike he offered his input on the art of comping. The role of the pianist in a jazz group is to provide the harmonic structure in a rhythmic way supporting the soloist and guiding the rhythm section. It’s a crucial role in the dynamics of the group but of course being the soloist is more glamorous – hence some pianists are not too fond of the comping role. Kenny shared his advice  – pointing out though the rewards and importance of the accompanist: “Solo for fame, comp for gain (money)”. Kenny Barron treated us with a version of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”

JoAnne Brackeen will be inducted as a 2018 NEA Jazz Master this year. Hailing from a small California town, she is mostly self-taught and as mother of four young children moved to New York in 1965. Soon she joined Art Blakey in 1969, then Joe Henderson, then Stan Getz before launching her own successful career. She is on the piano faculty at the Berklee College of Music. One of the stories she shared was how she gained the piano chair in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. One evening in NY she knew Art Blakey was playing at one of the clubs and she wanted to go see him. At that time her four children were still small and she managed to get them to bed and then sneak out to the show. She noticed that the pianist wasn’t playing and curiously approached him asking if she might be able to play. He turned the piano chair over and the rest, they say, is history. JoAnne stayed with Art Blakey for three years as the first and only female band member ever. In 1972, she received a call from Joe Henderson to join a tour and had to learn 25 tunes in one week – still managing to raise her four children – she is my SHEro! Here is a taste of her impromptu treatment of Body and Soul at the Jazz Congress panel:

Harold Mabern, a Memphis, TN native and Phineas Newborn prodigy, cut his teeth in the Chicago hard bop scene of the 50s and 60s with Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins, Joe Williams and the list goes on. He has taught for decades on the faculty of William Paterson University and made numerous recordings with his prodigy Eric Alexander. Harold had many fascinating historical and pedagogical insights – but this tidbit stood out for me: One of the discussion points was McCoy Tyner’s piano style, his unique approach of voicing fourths and comping at a relentless energy level behind John Coltrane. Harold pointed out that McCoy got his style from Richie Powell, who pioneered the types of voicings and rhythms. Richie was Bud Powell’s brother who was a regular member of Clifford Brown’s group and unfortunately died in the same car crash as Clifford at the young age of 25. Harold got everyone clapping at the end with a Boogie Woogie groove – thanks to all three for the wonderful stories and guidance!