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Harry Pickens Talks Career Evolution

Photography Provided

Finding your niche in life, a passion that keeps you going day in and day out, can often feel like a Herculean task. Some discover one specific direction, whereas others head down several paths that afford them an array of opportunities.

Harry Pickens undeniably falls into the latter category.

PickensPickens is a world-renowned jazz pianist, and has been referred to as Louisvilles musical treasure.” His most recent concert happened this past February, with the Louisville Orchestras “Gospel at the Symphony.” He performed “New World A-Comin,” written by the legendary Duke Ellington.

Throughout the years Pickens has collaborated with musical greats including Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard and James Moody. He recorded with his group Out of the Blue for Blue Note Records.

He composed and performed the moving piece The Awakening Heart” for the Dalai Lama when he made a visit to Louisville. Hes also been featured in a documentary called “Harry Pickens: In the Garden of Music,” which was produced by Kentucky Educational Television, and hes written a book titled “In Tune: Lessons in Life from A Life in Music.” He also spent nearly a decade caring for his mother as dementia slowly ravaged her mind and body.

Pickens is not only an award-winning performing artist, but hes also a teacher, a coach, a mentor and a leader. He has mentored thousands through the years as they navigate through life, educational endeavors and careers.

Pickens was born in 1960 in Brunswick, Georgia. He began playing piano when he was about 5 or 6.

When asked how he became interested in playing the piano, he chuckles and comments that considering how long ago that was, its kind of like trying to remember ancient Greece.

My mother played organ in the church, and my grandfather played the trumpet and led choirs, so there was always music in the house,” he says. There was a piano in the house. My grandfather taught me for a while, then I eventually had a piano teacher.”

As he got older, Pickens began playing brass instruments including the trumpet and baritone horn.

His early music education continued through junior high and high school. He was the drum major for his school band, and he also arranged music and was a guest conductor for various concerts.

After high school, Pickens attended Davidson College in North Carolina, starting out as pre-med, but soon realized that he was more interested in music than medicine.

After college he moved north to attend Rutgers University in New Jersey, as he wanted to be closer to New York. That sort of connected me to a larger jazz community where I met lots of folks and eventually began performing professionally in the New York area in the early 1980s,” he explains.

Pickens had the good fortune to study under composer and jazz pianist Kenny Barron. It was through his connection with Barron, and other professors at the university, that Pickens made some significant further musical connections. By the time he was 21, he was already actively performing in New York with many different acts.

Kenny would recommend that I audition for different people,” Pickens says. If he had a gig he couldnt make, hed ask me if I could make it. The way it kind of works is like networking with anything. If youre confident and youre a decent human being, older people, more experienced people, will turn you onto things and introduce you to the right people.”

Although Pickens was making the right connections, he does admit that he went through some rough spots when it came to performing.

I had crippling stage fright,” he says. Usually a week before the performance I’d stop sleeping, and about four days before the performance Id stop eating. Id throw up what Id eaten.”   

He began to realize that if he was having stage fright at such a young age, he wasnt going to do well as a performer. That understanding turned into what he refers to as a secondary thrust in his life.

I studied hypnosis, the science of learning and neuroscience, and sports psychology, to find a way to cure my own stage fright,” he explains. I eventually transformed that into a confidence to teach other people how to manage their stage fright and heal that. That sort of led into parallel careers of coaching and teaching.”

Pickens stayed on the east coast for several years but says he began feeling burned out, and wanted to do something else besides music. His need for a change in life took him 3,000 miles away to San Diego.

PickensI realized that performing alone wasnt really enough to fulfill or sustain me,” he says. “I had a different muse. I got to the point where I had been performing so much and Id been so immersed in it, I didnt love playing the piano anymore.”

Pickens stopped playing professionally for a couple of years, and began exploring other ways to make a living as well as other ways to express himself.

The move to San Diego was kind of the beginning of a pretty significant personal and spiritual transition and transformation for me,” he says. “I moved across country and kind of started over.”

Pickens says he has had parallel careers the entire time he has performed professionally.

While I was performing I was also teaching 22:22 at a K through 12 private school in New Jersey,” he says. “A couple of years after I started teaching I noticed many of my students didnt know how to study or learn, so I started a company in 1983 called Student Success Seminars that were held on evenings and weekends to help high school and college students study well.”

While in San Diego he continued on with that career path, plus he was doing organization and development with company leaders who wanted to create training programs.

Pickens did keep up with his music, and performed and taught in Southern California for a time, then moved to the south where he taught music improvisation at the University of North Florida. He moved to Kentucky in the late 1990s to help care for his aging aunt as well as his mother. Theyve both passed on.   

Pickens does various performances these days, and is very grateful to organizations who have asked him to perform such as the Louisville Orchestra, but he explains that he is semi-retired from professional performing.

My musical focus these days is doing music specifically for healing and transformation,” he says.

If youd like to learn more about Pickens, who is the founder and director of Havening Louisville, visit havening.org/directory/grid/view/details/14/60.

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