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Kenny Barron, during his solo concert at Malaga's Cervantes Theatre last week.
"If you're looking for fame and fortune, don't choose jazz as a career"

"If you're looking for fame and fortune, don't choose jazz as a career"

Although the word legend makes him feel old, pianist Kenny Barron is undoubtedly a key figure in post-bop jazz. He spoke to SUR in English prior to his recent concert at Malaga's International Jazz Festival

REGINA SOTORRÍO / RACHEL HAYNES

Monday, 18 November 2019, 15:38

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Kenny Barron was in Japan, on tour with his trio, when he answered our call. He was about to return to his native US, however, but not for long. Just a few days later he crossed the Atlantic for a series of concerts in Europe. At his 76 years of age, retirement from the stage is not an option. "I'll die with my boots on," he says.

The pianist, a key figure in post-bop jazz, lives for the music he has devoted the last six decades of his life to. He admits that now in his maturity he takes more risks than ever and sends out a word of advice to young musicians: "If you're looking for fame and fortune you should choose another career."

At the end of last week he was on stage at the Cervantes theatre where he performed at Malaga's International Jazz Festival and picked up the Málagajazz prize for his career. "It's a great honour," he said. "But I hope I've got a few more years yet."

After six decades in the profession, do you still enjoy jazz as much?

Yeah, I do. I don't enjoy travelling as much, but I do enjoy playing, yes.

And does it have something new every time you play?

Well you try and make it new each time. It doesn't always work, but you try. If the energy level is higher, that makes a big difference.

And has maturity brought serenity, or do you take more risks now than ever before?

Actually I do, that's true, I do take more risks now than ever before, because I don't care anymore [he laughs]. I shouldn't say that like that, but, yeah, I don't worry about what people think anymore. If I want to try something, I'll do it.

Presumably the risks normally work out anyway...

Not always, no. But it doesn't matter; sometimes the audience doesn't actually know that I'm taking a risk [he laughs]. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, you know, as long as it doesn't show on my face.

You're touring the world when you could be enjoying a peaceful retirement? What keeps you going?

The music actually. You know, I don't think I could ever retire from playing. As the saying goes, I'm going to die with my boots on, so to speak. I'm playing; I'll never retire until I just can't do it anymore.

You're known for the speed of your hands on the piano; it's quite incredible to watch. How do you maintain that agility?

Every time you sit down to play, that's a chance for me to practise, to work on it. But at the same time, especially as I get older, I'm mindful that it's not about speed - it's really about trying to tell a story, with your technique or without it.

Does the piano still hold any secrets for you?

All the time! I'm still trying to find out more.

What do you think when people describe you as a legend?

It feels like I'm old.

But not everybody who is older is a legend.

Yeah, well I'm certainly appreciative. I don't feel like I'm a legend, you know; if it's based on ability I don't feel like a legend, I'm just another piano player. I've had some experience, yes.

Do you think that with the jazz of today, new musicians are looking too much towards the past rather than evolving and innovating?

Oh, I don't think they're looking too much towards the past at all. I think they are innovating. People like Sullivan Fortner and Gerald Clayton are forging new paths, you know, but they're still informed by the tradition. So there's a lot of that going on with a lot of musicians.

Is there anything you miss in modern jazz today?

I don't know, that's difficult to answer. I mean, everybody's informed by their circumstances. When I was growing up I listened to a different kind of stuff; I listened to doo-wop for instance, which was very popualar when I was a kid. And the young players today, they listen to rap, so the music they write and they play is informed by all of that. So I don't think anything's missing - I think old people have to listen with different ears now, that's all.

You pass your experience on to youngsters at the Julliard School of Music in New York. What advice do you give them about following a career in jazz?

I think the most important thing for them to understand is that you have to do it because you love it. If you're looking for fame and fortune, you should choose another career. There are actually a lot of young players now who basically live from paycheck to paycheck, or from gig to gig, but they're into the music, they love it, so they're willing to make the sacrifices or whatever it takes. Like I said, if you're looking for fame and fortune, it's not about that.

Because not many jazz musicians actually get to perform in front of big theatres and huge audiences...

Yeah, that's the icing on the cake, so to speak.

You've worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker, do you get nostalgic? Do you miss the good old days?

Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't. I mean, they were a different set of circumstances. Travelling was a lot easier, for instance, then. This was before security and all that stuff; your friends could come see you off at the gate, and meet you at the gate when you landed. Travelling is very hard now and that's the biggest part of being a musician. You know, you travel with instruments, and that's always a hassle. You have to take three flights to get from point A to point B, but other than that, I love it.

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