A musical prodigy finds peace on a Rittenhouse bench.
In a city of buskers, Jafar Barron has the best resume. He’s played cornet with Wynton Marsalis and on albums with Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. His fellow musicians credit the 38-year-old trumpeter with creating the foundation for Philly’s “neo-soul” movement during the 1990s. He belongs to one of the first families of Philadelphia jazz. He even lives in legendary musician Sun Ra’s house. Jafar Barron is, in short, intimately bound up in this city’s recent musical history.
“He had a vision at an early age and he saw it through—the fusion of jazz and hip-hop,” says Duane Eubanks, another trumpeter who came up jamming with Barron during their younger years. “He doesn’t get much praise for it, but he deserves it.”
Walk through Rittenhouse Square on a warm day, though, and the Jafar Barron you’re likely to encounter playing on a park bench doesn’t exactly look like a titan of Philadelphia music. Yes, his playing stands apart from the amateurishness of many park musicians, with a clear tone and style that is improvisational without sounding accidental. Approach, though, and you’re likely to find yourself embroiled in a freewheeling, sometimes dizzying discourse on metaphysics.
“I am the individualization of absolute being,” he’ll tell you. “I am spirit.”
He’ll also try to sell you self-made CDs—$10 a pop—mixtape-style releases with Xeroxed covers and Barron’s name written in green Sharpie on the disc. So he’s certainly hustling like a busker. “We live in a capitalist society,” says Barron. “Rather than somebody else capitalizing off my talent, I’ll do it myself.”
But this is no cautionary tale about the rise and eccentric fall of a once-great talent. In life—as in his music—Barron makes his own choices, no matter how much they might depart from expectations. He likes playing in Rittenhouse, enjoys the companionship and collaboration with less-talented musicians who gather around him, takes pleasure in playing music for the children who can’t get into the after-dark jazz clubs.
“He’s always a seeker,” says Orrin Evans, a Philadelphia bandleader. “You can’t just tell him it’s raining; he’s got to know where the drops are coming from.”
Conversations with Barron aren’t always straightforward. Ask him when he was born: “Actually,” he says, “I was never born and I’ll never die.”
By conventional standards, though, Barron was born in 1972. His father, George, was a saxophonist who drew rave reviews from jazz critics like Nat Hentoff. Jafar’s mother, Janet, was a piano player and singer, and his brother, Farid, is a talented piano player who has played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and in the modern version of the Sun Ra Arkestra. The younger Barrons grew up in a house filled with Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Jimi Hendrix—as well as Bach and Beethoven. Jafar picked up the cornet around age 10.
He entered adolescence during the late 1980s, becoming part of a loose group of young Philadelphia musicians—Evans, Eubanks, bassist Christian McBride, the guys in Boys II Men—who jammed, competed and, eventually went on to achieve individual success.
“Within that five-year span, there were a ton of musicians coming out of the Philadelphia public school system,” Evans says. “Everybody who was coming up during that time has been pretty successful.”
Even then, Barron stood out among his peers—not just for his playing, but for his vision and style. “When I met him, he was a hardcore jazzhead,” Evans says. “He even wore suits to high school.”
“He kept me on my toes,” Eubanks says of that time.
After graduating from Central High in 1990, Barron did short stints at Howard University and University of the Arts. He left school early, though, to make a living as a touring musician and quickly made his reputation. Despite his father’s aversion to R&B, a genre that Barron himself says is an “adolescent art form,” he became locally known for hip hop-jazz “Back to Basics” parties at Silk City. Soon, he was playing on Erykah Badu and Jill Scott’s first albums as the “neo-soul” scene garnered a national following. “Jafar Barron,” Scott wrote in the liner notes to her album. “What do I say about a talent like yours?”
“I’m giving him credit for establishing a sound and creating an environment that grew into what we know right now as neo-soul,” Evans says. “He was a very influential part of that sound.”
Eubanks agrees, saying Barron’s vision was apparent as early as high school. “He definitely had an ear for jazz ... but I knew he was searching for more than that—than just the jazz language at that particular time,” he says. “His whole thing was trying to relate to people. He saw jazz as not encompassing everybody. He thought he could reach more people if he kinda crossed genres. I think he successfully did that.”
By 2000 Barron was ready to step into the spotlight. He released a solo album, The Free-Bop Movement, that was distributed by Q Records. All About Jazz praised Barron for creating an album of “challenging yet accessible 21st-century jazz.” The wider world was taking notice.
And then Barron fell out a third-story window.
The circumstances of the incident remain surrounded by a haze of rumors. Barron told journalists at the time that he couldn’t remember what had happened, except that the fall came at “a time of personal transgression.” Today, he says only that “the accident was a wake-up call for me to progress.”
The post-accident Jafar Barron—now pronouncing his name “Yah-fer”—became a sort of mystic, a man comfortable talking about divinity and yoga, contemplating the meaning and source of wisdom and intent on expressing these thoughts in his music.
“He came back a different person,” Evans says. “He came back playing a different way.”
“When you’re an accomplished musician, you understand the spirit—the spiritual concepts and the metaphysical concepts, more so than just the average person,” Barron says now. “Studying music puts you in a frame of mind that helps to evolve or reveal your true self.”
The days spent in Rittenhouse Square, it’s easy to see, are part of Barron’s process of using music to connect to the divine.
“That’s the closest place in Philadelphia I can get to nature,” he says. And he’s developed a reputation for playing with most folks who want to join him in impromptu jam sessions in the park.
“If I meet somebody who isn’t very harmonious—musically speaking or spiritually speaking—I won’t play with them,” he says, but adds: “We’re all the same. We’re all the same spirit.”
Eubanks, though, hates to see a talent like Barron have to hustle CDs in the park.
“That’s the plight of the musician. That’s been going on in Philadelphia for years,” Eubanks says, referencing Hank Mobley, a once-great saxophonist who died destitute in Philadelphia in 1986. “There’s very little support outside of each other, whether it be the government or the community, for musicians to mentally keep themselves stable, financially keep themselves stable.”
And the truth is Barron would like to start seeing his music sold in stores again, instead of peddling it himself. He recently signed with a management company, and expects he’ll have less time to play music out in the open air. He’s not entirely comfortable with the notion that many of the park’s passersby see him as just another busker.
But he won’t abandon Rittenhouse entirely. There’s still few better places in Philadelphia, he says, to express divinity through music.
“This can only help in my dissemination of the truth as I get it,” Jafar Barron says. “That’s my business, is expressing.” ■
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PW's Music Issue 2014