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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Pianist Kenny Barron shows the influence of Philly's jazz greatness

With over 90 recordings as a leader or co-leader and a full touring calendar, revered pianist Kenny Barron is not letting off the gas.
Fran Kaufman
Kenny Barron Press Kit
With over 90 recordings as a leader or co-leader and a full touring calendar, revered pianist Kenny Barron is not letting off the gas.

Jazz and soul music have long been at the heart of the "Soul of Philadelphia."

John Coltrane, The Heath Brothers, The Brecker Brothers, Shirley Scott, Jeff Lorber and Jimmy McGriff are just some of the jazz artists that have called the city their hometown. Among them is pianist, band leader, mentor, educator and NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron.

All great journeys have a beginning, and Barron started close to home. He was one of five siblings who learned to play the piano. An older brother introduced him to Miles Davis' Birth of Cool and listening to his local jazz radio station. This inspired Barron early, and he took every opportunity to soak up the music and learn.

While still in high school, Barron played with Mel Melvin’s orchestra. They played jazz-leaning R&B of the day and gave Philly players, like Barron, the opportunity to play with the best musicians in the city. And they worked regularly, supporting singers, exotic dancers and comedians. The exposure helped Barron sharpen his skills by playing in a variety of settings and learning how to read the room.

Barron continued to hone his skills as a sideman. He learned about the art of lyricism from one of his piano heroes, Tommy Flanagan, and also from saxophonist Stan Getz. But it was trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who knew a lot about rhythms, and whom Barron said was a decent pianist himself, that showed Barron and his band members some tricks to add to their arsenal.

In 1963, at age 19, Barron played in Seattle for the first time. He appeared at the Penthouse jazz club in Pioneer Square while touring as part of Gillespie’s quintet.

Playing with Flanagan, Gillespie, and Getz would be enough for any musician's career to be proud of. The list of players that Barron has played alongside is staggering.

Early career collaborations included Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, Lee Morgan, James Moody, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, and Buddy Rich.

Barron has also played with multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef. This was a fruitful collaboration, not only for crediting him with learning more deeply about improvisation, but also because it encouraged Barron to go back to school, which he did. Barron earned a B.A. in Music from the State University of New York in 1973 and in 1993, he became an instructor himself at Rutgers University.

In the decades before Barron started teaching, he was very busy collaborating and touring. Barron began leading and co-leading, often in a trio setting — a format that has become a staple of his over the years.

Barron’s more recent projects find him in varied settings, working with many of today’s original players, including guitarist Lionel Loueké, bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa, drummer Jonathan Blake, and horn players Dayna Stephens and Mike Rodriguez.

A first-ever vocal-focused recording brought him together with Ann Hampton Callaway and Gretchen Parlato in 2008. In 2023, Barron recorded a nine-song solo album of originals and standards, his first in over 40 years.

Barron has received many awards, honorary doctorates and been named top pianist in numerous jazz publication polls. He has been nominated for nine Grammy Awards, was inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame in 2009, and recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2010.

His career has brought him full circle. He is now the leader and mentor who encourages and guides the next generation of musicians on honing their craft.

With over 90 recordings as a leader or co-leader and a full touring calendar, the revered pianist is not letting off the gas.
Copyright 2024 KNKX Public Radio. To see more, visit KNKX Public Radio.

Carol Handley joined KNKX in 2018 as Director of Music Programming for KNKX and Jazz24. Previously, she has held positions including General Manager, Program Director, Music Director and On-Air host at several stations in the Northwest presenting traditional, progressive and contemporary styles of Jazz and roots music. In the early part of her broadcasting career she was a host at the station formerly known as KPLU.