American jazz pianist. Born September 1, 1933 in Benton Harbor, Michigan,
USA. Died January 16, 2000 in Boise, Idaho, USA.
One of the most accessible of all jazz pianists, Gene Harris' soulful style
(influenced by Oscar Peterson and containing the bluesiness of a Junior Mance)
was immediately likable and predictably excellent.
— Scott Yanow All Music Guide
Harris is well-known for his big band jazz, blues and soul jazz
recording efforts on the Blue Note and Concord record labels. After retiring
in 1977, Ray Brown encouraged him to return to playing. He worked with Ray
Brown's Trio and headed the Phillip Morris Superband for a few tours. His
hard-swinging style was epitomized by the Concord recording Tribute to Count
Basie which earned a Grammy nomination. A terrible loss, Harris passed
away just a month away from a long-awaited kidney transplant.
Noted for his rich playing and playful style, Gene Harris' stature as a jazz
pianist is arguably among the top ten greats, if not the top five. In his
playing, one hears hints of Basie and Oscar Peterson, with a definitive blues
and R&B influence. Very approachable, his recordings are used
occasionally by jazz educators to demonstrate the fine line between R&B and
jazz. Always self-deprecating and humble, he was beloved by fans, and eventually
embraced by jazz critics.
The finest example available of the quality and flexibility of Harris'
playing is the Concord recording Gene Harris: The Best of The Concord Years.
Selected cuts from that album include a riff on Count Basie's "One O'Clock
Jump" entitled "Captain Bill," and his "Will You Still Be Mine" exemplifies his
technically excellent, playful style. The Best of The Concord Years also
displays all of the myriad genres addressed by Harris in one recording.
He first played out in an Army band from 1951-1954. By 1956, he'd
formed a trio with Andy Simpkins (bass) and Bill Dowdy (drums). They called
themselves The Three Sounds. The Three Sounds first recorded for the Blue Note
label in 1958. Introducing the Three Sounds. The album was panned by Down
Beat Magazine, and many critics followed suit. However, the album enjoyed
brisk sales. Eventually such jazz giants as Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley
and Horace Silver took notice. The group went on to record seventeen sessions
at the studio of venerable jazz recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Harris later
commented that the group had recorded thirty-five albums worth of material, much
of it left in Blue Note's vaults. In addition to Introducing, the group
released Bottoms Up, Good Deal, Feelin' Good, Moods, Here We Come, It Just
Got To Be, Hey There!, Out of This World, and Black Orchid.
The 1960s were a time of change for the Three Sounds. In 1962 they moved to
the Verve jazz label, recording Blue Genes. Between late 1962 and 1964
they recorded three albums on the Mercury label. A two-year stint was
spent at the Limelight record label, where they released three albums. Then it
was back to Blue Note (with a new drummer, Donald Bailey) who made his first
recording with the group on Live at the Lighthouse. The late 1960s found
the trio making recordings with a string section. Three recordings, Coldwater
Flat, Elegant Soul, and Soul Symphony epitomized the heavily orchestrated,
smooth jazz period for Harris and his sidemen. Symphony was the last
studio recording for The Three Sounds. 1995 saw the release of a live
performance, Live at the It Club, recorded in 1970.
Harris began his solo career in 1971, recording back at Blue Note until his
"retirement" in 1977, when he became musical director of a hotel in Boise,
Bassist Ray Brown encouraged Harris to return to recording, and that he did,
joining Brown's cadre on a recording date for the Pablo label.
The taste of the limelight was enough to get Harris to come out of
retirement. He signed with the esteemed Concord Jazz label in 1985, producing
his finest, most critically-acclaimed work. Tribute to Count Basie earned
Harris a Grammy nomination in 1989. Slowly but surely, the dismal reviews he'd
received during his early years yielded to sincere critical acclaim, which would
endure until the end of his life.
Harris thoroughly enjoyed the laid-back life he led in Boise. He founded the
Gene Harris Endowment in 1996, which provides jazz studies scholarships at Boise
State University. He founded a jazz festival at Boise State University in 1998
in that carries his name, and still continues to this day. The Jazz Festival's
mission was to improve the quality of cultural life and life in general in
greater Boise. Harris achieved this and much more. His quiet but consistent
involvement in his community earned him the love and admiration of the city's
residents and leaders alike.
In the waning years of the 1990s, the normally hale and healthy Harris was
plagued by increasingly grave health problems. Complications of diabetes
necessitated a 1999 eye surgery. Kidney failure, diagnosed also in 1999, claimed
his life in September of 2000. His daughter, Beth Haire, was found to be a match
for a scheduled kidney transplant, but Harris passed away after suffering a
seizure only a month before the surgery was to take place at a Seattle hospital.
His family, members of the community in Boise and the greater jazz world all
were shocked and saddened by his sudden and tragic passing.
(Listings in bold type are highly recommended)
2004 Instant Party
2000 Gene Harris: The Best of the Concord Years
2000 Live at the It Club, Vol. 2
1999 Alley Cats
1998 Philip Morris All-Stars Live
1996 In His Hands
1996 Down Home Blues
1995 It's the Real Soul
1994 Funky Gene's
1993 Ste. Chapelle Winery
1993 A Little Piece of Heaven
1992 Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Vol. 23
1992 Like a Lover
1991 Black and Blue
1990 Our Love Is Here To Stay
1990 World Tour 1990
1990 At Last
1989 Live at Town Hall, N.Y.C.
1989 Listen Here!
1989 Philip Morris Superband
1988 Tribute to Count Basie
1985 The Gene Harris Trio Plus One
1982 Hot Lips
1981 Live at Otter Crest
1977 Tone Tantrums
- The writer's personal experience with Mr. Harris.