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ARTICLE by
PAUL KREIBICH
Please contact Paul Kreibich for permission to reprint this article or to post it on other websites

"Memories of Gene Harris (1933-2000)"
by PAUL KREIBICH
 

My wife Merle and I are sitting in the huge Jordan Ballroom at Boise State University along with almost 1,000 others. On stage are musicians, a grand piano draped with flowers, blow-up photos, and two oversized video screens. The Governor of Idaho, Dirk Kempthorne, the former governor Phil Batt and the mayor of Boise, H. Brent Coles are scheduled to speak. Reverend Henry Webb begins the opening prayer. There is an unforgettable feeling of sorrow mixed with celebration in the air.

After a long bout with kidney failure and other health problems, the great jazz pianist Gene Harris died January 16, 2000. I had been the drummer in his quartet for five memorable years by this time and, along with so many others, felt shock and disbelief upon hearing the news. The impact this man had on the lives of the people he came in contact with was deep and multi-layered. In addition to being a great musician at the top of his field, he was a good friend, mentor, ambassador of music, social pioneer, and an inspiration to musicians young and old alike. He had the kind of strength that brought out strength in others and made them better than they thought they could be. Gene brought together different kinds of people who would never normally end up face to face and made them feel the same feelings. These are a few of the reasons why the memorial service held in Gene's home town of Boise is such a grand and soul-shaking event.

I first met Gene Harris at the wedding of bassist Luther Hughes and Becky Gonzales. Luther had been a friend and colleague for many years and had known Gene for quite some time. Harris was known as a heavyweight player and meeting him held a bit of awe and intimidation. But Gene was warm and personable to all the new people he met, putting them at ease. His daughter Niki was singing at the party. I remember Gene cheering her on, waving his hands up as if to say, "Come on girl, lift it up higher". It was intense. A while later I heard Gene at the Loa club in West L.A with Ray Brown and Jeff Hamilton. The music was soaring. It was swinging, soulful, crowd-pleasing, and straight from the heart. I remember thinking how great it would be to play in a band like this. That would be a longshot, I thought.

My friends Luther and guitarist Ron Eschete soon had became part of Gene's new quartet with the well-known drummer Harold Jones (and later Paul Humphrey). They both said, "Hey, if Gene ever needed a drummer, you'd be a good choice." That would certainly be a challenge. I mean Gene swung hard, and if you weren't there with him, you'd be roadkill in a minute. But, as fate would have it, a couple of years later, in 1995, I was on a plane to Boise to sub in the Gene Harris Quartet.

Gene picked me up himself in his '73 280Z sportscar. (He always liked to take care of his things and hang on to them. He encouraged others to do the same.). He was so relaxed, warm, and personable, making me feel right at home. And believe me I was a mere bit nervous, don't you know. He told me about how much he loved living in Boise, about his scholarship programs at Boise State, and about his dream of a his own jazz festival. As we drove through the uncrowded streets of Boise with the spacious mountains in the background, Gene told me how he had found a home there some 20 years ago after many hectic years on the road. As a musician, I began to understand the appeal of a city like this. Gene had been accepted over the years as a favorite son of Idaho, a state not known as a racial or cultural melting pot. He had become friends with the Governor, the Mayor, top city and University leaders, and prominent businessmen. His lovely wife Janie was always by his side with any kind of support necessary. They were the poster kids for Boise's cultural growth and new found interest in diversity. Gene gained this lofty status through his genuine sincerity and vision. I really can't think of anyone else who could have pulled off such a coup. That was Gene's uncanny ability to make unusual things happen with unusual people in unusual places and make them seem completely natural. It's hard to say how much of this was done willfully and how much was coming from a higher place, Gene being the epicenter of this chain-reaction of spirit and music.

Anyway, the first gig was the "Block Party", an outdoor street-festival and it was a ball. We played on a bandstand in the middle of downtown Boise, with hundreds of people enjoying the laid-back atmosphere. Gene's friend Pug, the rosy-cheeked proprietor of the popular Noodles restaurant, acted as impromptu toastmaster and greeted me warmly. It was really a party for the whole town. Playing with Gene was so much fun from the very start. Once he started that blues groove there was no stopping it. He was powerful and demanded the most concentration and energy you could come up with. But it was always natural and felt just great. There were times when he would get this heavy rumble going with both hands, building and building with his head thrown back and his eyes rolled back in his head. It felt like at any moment both he and the piano would start levitating up from the stage! At the end of the set, if he thought you played especially well, he'd point at you and give you this sly, penetrating look that said, "Yeah, you were hittin'!" If you made a mistake, or if the groove was a little off, you'd know that he knew, but there was rarely much said about it. He just looked at you and the vibe was, "Ok, let's get it right next time." He expected the best but gave you plenty of respect and recognition in return. Gene had arrived as a world class talent but he had no problem sharing the spotlight.

This is not to say that he did not have troubled times during his life or conflicts along the way. In his earlier years as a talented young jazz musician, Gene was driven to get his music out there and succeed in a difficult, dog eat dog music scene. Family relationships sometimes suffered. When egos flared with other musicians, there were disagreements and sometimes bridges burned. Harnessing the kind of talent that Gene had and channeling it in a totally positive way wasn't easy. Neither was growing up in the public eye as did Gene, bassist Andy Simpkins, and drummer Bill Dowdy when their band, The Three Sounds, took off and achieved national recognition in the late fifties. Gene also had a doldrum period during the late 60's and early 70's when jazz was in the dumper commercially. Players of Gene's generation were either flocking to Europe, trying to get electric and funky, become studio players, or just check out to pasture for a while. All this must have been a little frustrating for a guy at the top of a very sophisticated game, a headliner with one of the swingin'est piano trios in the business. Gene tried his hand at the funk-fusion thing for a while with some success. But he somehow ended up being a permanent sub for a friend who had a steady gig at the Idanha Hotel in Boise, Idaho.

This little escape turned out to be his personal rebirth and the incubation period for his second act in life. The one that F. Scott Fitzgerald said Americans never get. Gene's marriage to a wonderful lady, Janie, and his rise to recognition amongst the appreciative Boiseans purified Gene's soul and sent him on his way to another round of stardom. This time it was worldwide, first with the Ray Brown Trio, then with his own big band and quartet. Did I mention Soul? What about natural musical talent and leadership ability? These qualities are sure talked about a lot in the music business, but Gene had them all….by the big-ass truck-load!

I arrived at a real time of healing for Gene. He was feeling a lot of appreciation for his life, family, and those around him. Another soul-stirring event was his belated, but fulfilling, musical hookup with daughter Niki. She's a powerhouse singer of gospel, funk, blues, jazz…hey, the girl can sing. She sang with our quartet whenever she could get loose from her longtime gig with Madonna. She and her dad hadn't really played that much together till 1995. Needless to say, the two of them were dynamite and her humor and bawdy stage presence only added fuel to the fun. Underlying the show were deeper family issues and Gene's health concerns, but the music they made together was a crucible for love, forgiveness and joy to come forth. The jazz crowds, unaware of Niki, were sometimes a little skeptical about the star bringing his kid onstage. But after they heard the result, the vote was unanimous…a knockout! We played all over the country and recorded live in Seattle for Concord with guests Red Holloway, Ernie Watts, and Jack McDuff.

When we heard the shocking news about Gene, Merle and I wanted to be with his family in Boise because it felt like our family. And it was a big one. There was Janie and her brothers, children, and grandchildren. Gene's brother Dave and his wife, Gene's first wife Ann and their three daughters, Tracy, Beth, and Niki also were in town. The daughters are all a reflection of Gene's spirit. They are strong, positive and all have a great sense of humor. Tracy's the more maternal figure. Beth has an irresistible laugh and was a woman's bodybuilding champ. They lost a fourth daughter, Tammy, tragically to cancer a couple of years ago, around the same time Gene's dad passed. They've all been through a lot and still face it together with a soulful warmth and sanity that says, "This family is staying together." Janie Harris is a remarkable woman. She supported Gene in every way possible with an indestructible spiritual strength. Janie has a rare blend of down-home warmth and common sense mixed with street-wise savvy and a bold, spicy sense of humor that could make Red Foxx blush. We always had fun on the road making fun of each other and the situations we ended up in. Gene's health problems gave Janie a lot to deal with in the last few years. They carried a peritoneal dialysis machine around on the road and had to do the procedure several hours every day. It was no picnic. Through it all, she was the one who would always lift everybody else's spirits with fun and joking around. That's a special person.

Last year we did a concert in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Gene's hometown. When Gene was a kid, Benton Harbor was a thriving middle class town. Gene's neighborhood had since declined and become racially polarized. It was now making a comeback though, everybody said. With its tree lined streets and front porch houses by an easy flowing river, Benton Harbor it is the image of what city folk visualize when they think of small town America. The reception for the band was great. The whole town came out to see the hometown hero. Bill Dowdy of the original Three Sounds still lives in the area and came out to see the concert. It was truly a celebration, with picnics, drinks, and dancing in the streets. The music started in the last glow of the day. Just as the sun was setting, Gene and Niki were playing and singing their hearts out for their families and old friends. After the show, as he always did, Gene sat in a chair to the side of the stage and greeted fans personally. He sincerely enjoyed doing this and kept track of many friends who had been coming to his concerts for years.

The celebration continued the next day at daughter Tracey's house with some truly bodacious barbecue. Every backyard on the block had one of those converted oil drum smokers welded to a TV stand. Out of the smoke came an endless flow of tasty ribs, chicken and other goodies. Old photographs came out and we saw a young Gene as a high-school basketball and baseball star. We saw photos of his Army years as a paratrooper and, of course, Gene playing piano through it all. Then came newspaper clippings of the Three Sounds' early grass roots career around the mid-west with Andy and Bill. We lost Andy last year, too. He was another towering talent that was taken too soon. I feel privileged to have known Gene and Andy as friends and as bandmates. The lessons I learned about life and music from these two men cannot be put into words. Losing your mentors is something we never really prepare for. The only thing one can do is try to carry on their spirit and make new things happen.

Our quartet with Luther and guitarist Frank Potenza became a very good band over the years we played together. We all knew each other for many years before joining Gene and all really dug being in the band. We traveled well together and all had a great dose of that silly, evil humor needed to survive on the road. We loved to terrorize uptight airline and hotel personnel and joke around with the cool ones. Fake tongues and hats made from airsick bags were common props for travel yuks. No laugh was too cheap..

Some of this sense of fun was brought to the bandstand, but the music was taken very seriously. Gene would have certain arrangements, but there was always plenty of room to be free within the structure. And the dynamics! Talk about using volume and energy effectively! When the audience expected thunder he would give them just a whisper. In the middle of a soft sweet ballad, he'd suddenly segue into a pounding blues vamp and take it home. The crowd would roar. Gene definitely had a sixth sense about putting together live sets. He was almost always spontaneous in his selection of tunes. He felt the energy of the audience and the moment and responded accordingly.

These are just a few of cherished memories that come to mind at Gene's memorial. The celebration of Gene's life continues with heartfelt words from friends. Reverend Webb remarks about Gene's "Joyful Noise" and how he tried to bring out the best in whoever he met. Governor Kempethorne recalls Gene's concert in Berlin the night the wall came down. A soulful rendition of "Just A Closer Walk with Thee" from the Capitol City Jazz Band, and some of Gene's big band music from the Riverside Orchestra bring surges of emotion. Tears are flowing and hearts swelling to a climax as singer Cheri Buckner invites Niki Harris up to sing "Amazing Grace" with her. There is a sense of disbelief that the man is really gone. Gene Harris will be greatly missed, but he has given us all some priceless gifts to take with us as we carry on.

These are just a few of cherished memories that come to mind at Gene's memorial. The celebration of Gene's life continues with heartfelt words from friends. Reverend Webb remarks about Gene's "Joyful Noise" and how he tried to bring out the best in whoever he met. Governor Kempethorne recalls Gene's concert in Berlin the night the wall came down. A soulful rendition of "Just A Closer Walk with Thee" from the Capitol City Jazz Band, and some of Gene's big band music from the Riverside Orchestra bring surges of emotion. Tears are flowing and hearts swelling to a climax as singer Cheri Buckner invites Niki Harris up to sing "Amazing Grace" with her. There is a sense of disbelief that the man is really gone. Gene Harris will be greatly missed, but he has given us all some priceless gifts to take with us as we carry on.

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