|Bill Barron - Selfless Commitment of an Unsung Genius |
"Private saxophone lessons are $5 for one hour. You can choose from Frank Foster, Sam Rivers or Bill Barron."
No, this isn’t some Jazz fan’s fantasy, but rather the "dilemma" presented to me by bassist Chris White, who operated an educational collective called Rhythm Associates in New York during the ‘60s, an incredible boon to a 16 year old aspiring saxophonist like myself.
I’d only heard Bill Barron once in concert with a group he co-led with trumpeter Ted Curson at the United Nations, but I had also heard a couple of his wonderful Savoy Recordings. Besides his having one foot planted firmly in the mainstream tradition and the other in the fertile ground of the avant-garde, there was something about his manner and vibe at the U.N. concert that felt just right - a gentility and humanity that just enveloped you like a fatherly hug. I surprised both Chris and myself with the speed in which I blurted Bill’s name.
I only had five or six lessons with Bill. Even at that tender age I realized that neither my focus or commitment (diverted by girls, sports and whatnot) entitled me to waste the time of such a special individual. Never once, however, did Bill give me a reason to feel that. No matter how many times he would have to tell me to "play what’s written on the paper, not what you hear in your head," he would never lose the twinkle in his eye or evince even the slightest impatience, or even disappointment.
But those lessons are still so vivid in my memory - not just the saxophone lessons, but even more importantly, the conversations that followed them.
Sometimes we talked about music, but just as often we talked about life in general. The concept of the one hour lesson had no meaning to Bill. The clock was never a factor. An intensely spiritual man of enormous generosity and warmth, I felt that knowing Bill gave me a sense of what it would have been like to know John Coltrane - and there can be no higher praise. In fact, Bill, Trane and Benny Golson were all friends in Philadelphia in the '40s, playing, studying, listening to records and sharing ideas together. The staggering concept of these three giants helping each other pursue their individual goals of aesthetic and spiritual expression should be in the forefront of the minds and souls of all aspiring musicians.
It was in that spirit that Bill Barron pursued his twin ideals - musical expression and teaching. By teaching I don’t mean the simple passing on of established information, but rather the pure teaching of a master, a sensei, who bestows the entire scope of his own understanding and realization in honor of those who’ve done the same for him.
The sensei image is sharp in my mind’s eye from a visit I paid a few years later when Bill was directing the music program at the Bedford-Lincoln Neighborhood Museum, known as The Muse, in a tough part of Brooklyn. Surrounded by children and activity, Bill became an energy center, creating a sense of inspiration and wonder among those kids that was truly palpable.
Unfortunately for Bill, this selfless dedication stood in the way of both popular acclaim and financial success in an art form whose business is so stingy with both.
Bill Barron was not just another fine saxophonist who chose education over the road, nor was he a pretty good composer and leader in the such and such tradition, who came out of so and so, and made some pretty good records with this guy or that guy. Bill was a heavyweight. A tenor saxophonist with a big, bellowing sound that was all his own - fluid, facile, adventurous and innovative. Stylistically and sonically, his playing occupies a space just about dead center between Booker Ervin’s blues wail ferocity and Coltrane’s soul penetrating mind-blast; equally majestic playing inside or outside, and usually during the same solo. As a composer, he was brilliant. If any of this sounds like hyperbole or an opinion colored by personal feelings, go out right now and pick up the recent Savoy reissue entitled Modern Windows Suite.
Describing his concept as a "total composition concept within an improvisation framework," the extended suite provides a perfect example of how his music integrates the soloist into the overall thematic context, while challenging their creativity with compositional complexity. But it’s not complexity for its own sake, but rather exploring new ground and never, ever, losing its sense of swing, excitement or beauty.
This approach was front and center in all of Bill’s music, whether writing for two or three horns, a full Jazz orchestra or a string quartet.
Bill Barron was the complete package.
William Barron, Jr. was born in Philadelphia on March 27, 1927, the oldest of five children - including his famous 16 year-younger brother, pianist Kenny. Encouraged by his mother, who bought him a piano and gave him lessons at nine, Bill pursued musical studies at Mastbaum Vocational High School, whose other prominent students include Coltrane, Percy and Jimmy Heath and trumpeter Johnny Coles. Playing with local Jazz and R&B bands, his first road experience was with the Carolina Cotton Pickers in 1944.
A stint in the army actually furthered Bill’s musical education, as he worked in an army band that included piano great Randy Weston and another highly underrated saxophonist, altoist Ernie Henry, who tragically died in 1957 at the age of 31. During the ‘50s all three of them would be making important contributions, expanding the language of bop era masters Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.
After the service, Bill returned to Philadelphia in 1946, studying theory, harmony and composition with composer and educator Leo Ornstein. He spent much of the ‘50s building his foundation of musical knowledge and working on his saxophone and clarinet technique, while playing regularly with Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones and in the informal musical exchanges and explorations that seemed to go on constantly among the astonishing array of musicians on the local Philly scene.
In 1958, Bill made the move to New York, working with Donald Byrd and other hard bop groups, but his advanced musical sensibilities and desire for experimentation brought him together with two of the leading figures of the pre-Ornette avant-garde, Charles Mingus and Cecil Taylor. It was through his association with both of these men that Bill’s long musical partnership with trumpeter Ted Curson would begin. During the early ‘60s Bill made four records for Savoy and recorded for Dauntless, Audio Fidelity and Chiaroscuro as well.
In 1964, Bill and Ted toured Europe with a quartet. The successful tour opened opportunities for Bill in an environment more conducive to his progressive ideas, a circumstance that was drawing more and more adventurous musicians to the other, and considerably more receptive, side of the Atlantic.
So after returning to New York and playing with Weston, Taylor and a fellow adventurous Philadelphian, trombonist Grachan Moncur III, he spent the end of 1965 and all of 1966 as part of the expatriate scene, touring all through Europe while living in Sweden. He also wrote for the Danish and Swedish radio bands and brought his own musical theories to crystal clarity.
Returning to New York in 1967 he earned his Bachelor‘s Degree in Composition at Combs College of Music in Philadelphia and began the educational career that would be a major focus for the rest of his life. In 1972 he entered the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Doctoral Program, earning a Doctorate in Education, and in 1975 he accepted an assistant professorship at Wesleyan University. Later he advanced to associate professorship, chairing the Music Department from 1984-87, receiving full tenure in 1988.
All during these years, Bill never let his music suffer, having the "luxury of the day gig" to pursue his music, unfettered by compromise or economics. Bill did one more album for Savoy in 1972, three records for Muse in the late ‘70s and ‘80s and made his final recording for brother Kenny’s Joken Records, fittingly called Higher Ground, in 1989.
During one of my lessons with Bill I was fortunate enough to meet Bill’s beautiful Swedish wife Anna, who has continued to work hard to bring his superb music to a wider audience. From information she revealed to me in a recent phone conversation, it’s beginning to look like she’s getting somewhere. Along with the aforementioned 1961 reissue, Modern Windows Suite, gaining serious attention and the expected reissues of his other Savoy dates, Anna has been putting together unreleased, live and studio material from New York and Europe. One CD of music recorded live in New York, culled from his many performances for producer/activist Cobi Narita's Universal Jazz Coalition is in preparation for U.S. release, and Dragon Records will soon release a CD of studio material recorded in Sweden.
But most revealing - and totally unsurprising to anyone who knew him - is what she told me about the last years of his life and the struggle with lymphatic cancer that eventually wore down the body of this gentle and exceptional man, causing him to succumb to pneumonia on September 21, 1989 at the much too young age of 62. During the 2 ½ years that he fought the terrible disease - all through the chemotherapy and its related problems, the physical pain and mental anguish associated with such an ordeal - he kept the condition a private family matter and never missed a day of classes. He taught through the end of the last semester of the 1988-89 school year and the word I’ve heard is that he continued to teach from his deathbed. And I’ll bet, without losing the twinkle in his eye. That’s how strong that spirit was - and is, preserved in everyone who was fortunate enough to come into contact with him or his magnificent music.