Imagine, if you will, Fred Astaire's crisp elegance translated to the piano. Envision his agile, spinning glides and split-second steps as dulcet tones, and you have a strong picture of the sound of pianist Kenny Barron.
Barron, who is performing at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City through Sunday, has been called the jazz world's premier keyboardist by fans, critics and musicians, but he won't hear of it.
"I appreciate it, but it's a little hard for me to believe," the self-effacing Barron said in a telephone chat last week from his home in Brooklyn. "I mean, there are so many people who play better: Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, younger guys like Mulgrew Miller, Stephen Scott."
Barron, instead, said he sees himself as a solid veteran who is still a work in progress. "I'm just trying to learn. There's always something to learn, and I hope I'm never satisfied," he said.
There's no doubt that Barron's 30-year career has never fared better. He has an exclusive recording contract with Polygram Records (the recordings are distributed by Verve; his latest is "Other Places"), he's playing more high-profile engagements at concert halls and festivals, and he's commanding higher fees than ever. He thinks he may get more respect, artistically and financially, because "people may know more about me now, may look at me differently since I'm older (he's 51), have been out there a while."
Barron has been out there for a while, playing on close to 100 albums either as a leader or a sideman. He moved to New York in 1961 from his boyhood home in Philadelphia. He cultivated his craft in New York and gained valuable insight while working with such notables as trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie (1962-66) and Freddie Hubbard (1967-69) and saxophonists Yusef Lateef (1971-75) and Stan Getz (1985-91).
"From Dizzy I learned about rhythms, chord voicings, how to be consistent," he said. "Freddie was more adventurous (than Dizzy), so I felt freer to try new things, and Yusef was even freer. He liked to take chances. Stan was very lyrical, and I like to play that way too, so it was great just to listen to his lines, observe his choice of notes. I listened, and I learned."
Barron said he looks back fondly to his early days in jazz, a time he feels the music was thriving and audiences were not only hungry for it, but knowledgeable about what they were hearing.
"You'd walk into a bar or a restaurant, especially in a black neighborhood, and there'd be jazz on the jukebox, Miles Davis, Gene Ammons," he said. "A record would come on, and the customers would know all the solos."
Now, he said, "they play tapes but nobody knows who it is."
The pianist said he feels that there are many reasons why jazz is not held in higher regard in the United States. Specifically, he cited the absence of jazz on television. "In the States, you can hardly find it, but in Europe, there's always something, concerts, videos of festivals," he said. "It exposes people to jazz."
But it isn't just exposure that jazz needs; it's proper recognition. "Arsenio Hall made a statement when he had Kenny G on as a guest (on his now-defunct TV talk show), calling him one of the greatest jazz saxophonists," said Barron, a hint of ire in his voice. "That's ridiculous. Things like that need to be straightened out."
Who, then, are the great jazz saxophonists, Barron was asked. "First of all, the older people who are still living, like Benny Carter and Phil Woods. There are so many people," he said. "Then some of the younger players, Jesse Davis, Steve Wilson. Again, there are so many."
But from Barron's vantage point, the business has changed. Younger players are getting too much exposure too soon, he said, pointing to a lack of nurturing from older, established musicians.
"Jazz has always had younger players, and today's are no worse, nor better, than in the past," Barron said. "They are just getting recorded sooner. They're presented with a situation, and they take advantage of it. Anybody would. The problem is, if they're signed and recording at 20, where will they be when they're 50?"
The overexposure resulting from these record deals may not pay long-term benefits, Barron said. "These players may be bandleaders before they are ready to be, through no fault of their own," he said. "But there's no place to serve any kind of apprenticeship. There are no Art Blakeys, where you could play three or four years, get that experience playing in one band. This probably won't hurt the music, but it may hurt the younger players in their later years."
* Kenny Barron plays tonight at 8 and 10 p.m.; 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, at the Jazz Bakery, 3221 Hutchison Ave., Culver City. $15, refreshments included. Information: (310) 271-9039.