Honored by the National Endowment for the Arts as a 2010 Jazz Master, Kenny Barron has an unmatched ability to mesmerize audiences with his elegant playing, sensitive melodies and infectious rhythms. The Los Angeles Times named him “one of the top jazz pianists in the world” and Jazz Weekly calls him “the most lyrical piano player of our time.”
Philadelphia is the birthplace of many great musicians, including Barron. Born in 1943, he started playing professionally as a teenager with Mel Melvin’s orchestra. This local band also featured Barron’s brother Bill, a tenor saxophonist.
While still in high school. Barron worked with drummer Philly Joe Jones and at age 19, he moved to New York City and freelanced with Roy Haynes, Lee Morgan and James Moody, after the tenor saxophonist heard him play at the Five Spot. Upon Moody’s recommendation, Dizzy Gillespie hired Barron in 1962 without even hearing him play a note. While in that band, he developed an appreciation for Latin and Caribbean rhythms. After five years with Gillespie, Barron played with Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson and Buddy Rich.
The early ’70s found Barron working with Yusef Lateef, who Kenny credits as a key influence in his art for improvisation. Encouraged by Lateef, to pursue a college education, Barron balanced touring with studies and earned his bachelor's in music from Empire State College, By 1973, he joined the faculty at Rutgers University as professor of music. He held this tenure until 2000, mentoring many of today’s young talents , including David Sanchez, Terence Blanchard and Regina Bell. In 1974, Barron recorded his first album as a leader for the Muse label, titled “Sunset to Dawn.” This was to be the first of more than 40 recordings as a leader.
Following stints with Ron Carter in the late ’70s, Barron formed a trio with Buster Williams and Ben Riley, which also worked alongside of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Eddie Harris, Sonny Stitt and Harry “Sweets” Edison. Throughout the ’80s, Barron collaborated with the great tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, touring with his quartet and recording several legendary albums including “Anniversary,” “Serenity” and the Grammy-nominated “People Time.”
Also during the ’80s, he co-founded the quartet Sphere, along with Buster Williams, Ben Riley and Charlie Rouse. This band focused on the music of Thelonious Monk and original compositions inspired by him. Sphere recorded several outstanding projects for the Polygram label, among them “Four for All” and “Bird Songs.” After the death of Charlie Rouse, the band took a 15-year hiatus and reunited, replacing Rouse with alto saxophonist Gary Bartz. This reunion made its debut recording for Verve Records in 1998.
Barron’s own recordings for Verve have earned him nine Grammy nominations, beginning in 1992 with “People Time” an outstanding duet with Stan Getz, followed by the Brazilian-influenced “Sambao” and most recently for “Freefall” in 2002. Other Grammy nominations went to “Spirit Song,” “Night and the City” (a duet recording with Charlie Haden) and “Wanton Spirit,” a trio recording with Roy Haynes and Haden. His “Canta Brasil” (Universal France) linked Barron with Trio de Paz in a fest of original Brazilian jazz, and was named to the Critics Choice Top 10 CDs of 2003 by JazzIz magazine. His 2004 release, “Images” (Universal France), was inspired by a suite originally commissioned by the Wharton Center at Michigan State University and features Grammy-nominated vibraphonist Stefon Harris. The sequel featuring Ray Drummond and Ben Riley, “The Perfect Set, Live at Bradley’s, Part 2” (Universal France/Sunnyside), was released in 2005.
In 2008, Barron released “The Traveler” (Universal France), an intoxicating mix of favorite Barron tunes set to lyrics and newly penned compositions. For his first vocal-based recording, Barron invited Grady Tate, Tony Award winner Ann Hampton Calloway and the young phenom Gretchen Parlato, winner of the Thelonious Monk International Competition for Jazz. On “Um Beijo,” Tate’s warm, leathery voice, balanced by Barron’s poignant touch, make for a beautifully textured conversation, underscoring their longtime onstage collaboration.
After a successful musical meeting of the minds with bassist Dave Holland, the two masters decided to collaborate on a duet project released on Impulse/Universal in 2014, followed by a tour.
Barron consistently wins the jazz critics and readers polls, including Downbeat, Jazz Times and Jazziz magazines. Barron was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater SUNY Empire State in 2013 and from Berklee College of Music in 2011. In 2009, he received the Living Legacy Award from Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation and was inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame and won a MAC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. He is a six-time recipient of best pianist honors by the Jazz Journalists Association.
Whether he is playing solo, trio or quintet, Kenny Barron is recognized the world over as a master of performance and composition.