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Harry Pickens: In the Garden of Music

Episode #302 | First Aired: May 2, 2010

Spiritually inspired musician Harry Pickens sums up the source of his creative energy: “Human beings have the capacity to live as instruments of grace and bringers of joy…. At the very core of our being is a reservoir of joy, of love, of possibility.” Finding a means of expression and communication through his music that touches this source of joy, Pickens’ music bridges the subtle distances between performer, audience, teacher, student, and most importantly, from one human being to another. The Kentucky Muse program “Harry Pickens: In the Garden of Music” profiles this singular artist as he explains his heartfelt philosophy regarding the simple, human, and joyous message contained within all of us that music brings together.

Pickens’ music draws its passion from many sources: From the musical family of his childhood home in Brunswick, Georgia; playing in church and school and learning from the talents of his grandfather; from his career as a professional classical and jazz performer; and from his work as a teacher, musical mentor, inspirational speaker, and participant in various charity programs.

Reflecting on a life at the piano that has taken him around the world, surrounded by music and musicians of all varieties, Pickens describes how his understanding of music’s humbling, spiritual power grew from the introspective imaginings of a young boy into the powerful message he hopes to bring to all his fellow travelers on the road. He says, “Now, for me, music is about serving the larger whole, and so it’s the means, the channel, the medium through which this more comprehensive message can be articulated.”

Throughout the program, Pickens performs classic tunes, including George and Ira Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” and the traditional song “Motherless Child.” He also plays his original compositions “T.T.’s Blues” and “We Are All America.” His beautiful playing was recorded in the KET studio.

The program visits Pickens in his element—leading a choral ensemble’s rehearsal in a classroom for the Kentucky Refugee Ministries. People of various nationalities and backgrounds come together to practice songs, enjoy the music, and “discover the commonalities that exist between them through the expressive and communicative nature of music.” The excitement in his eyes as he directs the singers is matched only by the energy of fun and joy in the room, making a very convincing argument to the accuracy of his simple message: “Music is a means of building community…a means of breaking down the barriers that separate us from one another.”

About Harry Pickens

Harry Pickens was born in 1960 in Brunswick, Ga., a town on the coast between Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla. His mother played organ and sang at church. His grandfather, whom he describes as a “comprehensive musician,” played tenor saxophone, piano, and violin; sang and conducted choirs in church; and also played the trumpet for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1914 and 1915.

Pickens began playing music when he was 5 or 6, “annoying his family,” he recalls, with endless repetitions of the first few songs he learned to play at the piano. Soon, he was accompanying his mother at church, she on organ and he on piano, and his excitement for music grew.

As a young boy, Pickens says, he was a rather “frail and precocious child,” prone to illness and shying away from athletic activities and the like. He preferred instead to spend time cultivating his own rich and fertile imagination, often retreating into this inner world. However, as Pickens grew into a young man, he became more comfortable living the life of an extroverted musician. He declares that these two periods of growth and the subsequent combination of values he developed—the solitary and introspective within the bright and extroverted—remain the essential elements of his personal creative process.

Pickens’ international career as a jazz pianist has taken him to 17 countries throughout Europe, Japan, and the Americas. He has collaborated with many legendary musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, James Moody, Milt Jackson (Modern Jazz Quartet), Don Braden (musical director for The Cosby Show), Bob Hurst (bassist for The Tonight Show) and hundreds of others. His performance credits include recordings on the Blue Note label, international radio and television appearances (including Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz), and engagements in top concert and club venues worldwide.

In 1979, Pickens moved to Southern California

Pickens enjoys teaching and working with several charity organizations, including the Kentucky Refugee Ministries program in Louisville. There he leads various musical ensembles in an effort to bring people from different nationalities and backgrounds together through the creative joy of making music.

In 2009, Pickens received the Education Award from the Kentucky Governor’s Awards in the Arts program.

Henry Pickens Timeline >

Five Things You Need to Know About Jazz

Harry Pickens’ work as a jazz pianist has taken him to countries throughout Europe, Japan, and the Americas and has given him the opportunity to collaborate with many top jazz artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, James Moody, Milt Jackson (Modern Jazz Quartet), Don Braden (musical director for the Cosby show), and Bob Hurst (bassist for the Tonight Show).

In this excerpt from KET’s Music Arts Toolkit, Pickens explains some jazz basics that everyone should know.

  1. Jazz has roots in African rhythms and sense of function in music, as well as the collective nature of music making and African concepts of individual expression and improvisation.
  2. Jazz has roots in European instrumentation and European forms, such as the marching forms, which gave rise to ragtime. Much of jazz is rooted in the song forms of American musical theatre of the 1920s and ‘30s.
  3. Jazz was born in the melting pot of cultures that was New Orleans of the early 20th century, becoming the crucial place of connection and cultural exchange between black and white communities.
  4. Most jazz performances involve individual musicians expressing themselves within the context of a group. Each musician expresses his own voice, creativity, uniqueness, and perspective towards the goal of a common expression, with many different voices coming together to produce the one song.
  5. Jazz was not invented by any single person, remaining one of the greatest examples of collective invention in all of human history. Every musician contributes his or her unique musical identity, vision of possibility, talents, personal emotional expression—each of these rivers of personal expression come together to form the great ocean of music we know as jazz.

Harry Pickens on Style

In an excerpt from the KET Music Arts Toolkit, Harry Pickens discusses musical style and how each musician finds his own unique expression.

“Every musician, performer, and composer ideally wants to have his or her own unique style. It’s your own expression, your own voice. Your musical style is really an expression of who and what you are. It expresses what you love about music. It expresses your influences. It also expresses your greatest strengths. And the very name of the game in jazz is discovering your own style. Finding your own voice—coming up with that unique musical expression that is instantly identifiable as you, that expresses your greatest strengths and your deepest heart. As you learn to develop your style—as you learn to find and develop your own identity—then you find your own place in the evolution of this music called jazz.

“My own style comes from lots of different places and from people I’ve listened to. One of my favorite jazz pianists is a fellow by the name of Oscar Peterson. He has a very enthusiastic, virtuosic style. Another is Errol Garner, who symbolizes joy and exuberance for me in his playing. Bill Evans played such beautiful ballads and love songs, he almost reaches out to make your heart sing.

“I also love classical music, and this has influenced my style as well. I really love early Renaissance chorale music. Music like William Byrd, or Victoria, or Pallestrina. I also love popular music, from rock to hip hop and funk and soul music—I even enjoy some modern country music! Sometimes I’ll integrate all of this into my own style.

“Another element that affects a musician’s style is his or her natural strengths. For instance, I’m 6’ 9” tall and I have big hands, allowing me to reach out to larger chords along the keys.

“My style comes from my musical interests, my influences, and my strengths. Style in jazz, just like style in life, is about expressing who and what you really are and being true to yourself—finding your own voice.”