March 3, 2024

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Gene Harris: Jazz pianist, Blues master: Video

01.09. – Happy Birthday !!! Gene Harris, a Grammy-nominated jazz pianist who organized and led the group the Three Sounds.

A native of Benton Harbor, Mich., Harris taught himself to play boogie-woogie piano as a child after listening to the recordings of Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. He performed from the age of 6 and played in a band while serving in the Army in the early 1950s.

In 1956, Harris formed the Three Sounds, which toured Michigan and then moved to New York, where the blues-style group began recording and refined its repertory to include show tunes and standards.

The group’s blend of soul-styled melodies and groove-oriented rhythms had a powerful effect upon the emergence of soul jazz in the late 1950s, and eventually affected the funk and fusion of the 1970s and ’80s. But Harris never abandoned his mainstream jazz skills, and even in his most overtly commercial outings one can hear tinges of bebop phrasing and blues-based harmonies.

The real heart of his music, however, was its capacity to create a lively connection with his listeners, many of whom were dedicated fans for decades. And that connection was based upon the persistent presence of melody in his solos. Even when he began a song such as “Green Dolphin Street” with darkly atmospheric harmonies, he soon drove the clouds away with a brisk, upbeat statement of the theme. Often, he varied his solos with brief quotes from other tunes, frequently tossed in for their sudden, offbeat whimsical effect.

Although his sidemen changed, Harris kept the group touring and recording for 20 years.

In 1977, he moved to Boise, where he became musical director for a hotel. But he continued recording, switching to more conventional jazz, and he occasionally performed with Ernestine Anderson, Benny Carter and the Ray Brown Trio. Harris was nominated for a Grammy in 1987 for his album “A Tribute to Count Basie.” The pianist’s 1985 recording “Gene Harris Trio Plus One” earned him the French equivalent of the Grammy. Boise State University inaugurated the Gene Harris Jazz Festival in his honor in 1998.

The cause was complications from kidney failure a month before he was expecting a kidney transplant from one of his daughters, The Associated Press said.

Born in Benton Harbor, Mich., Mr. Harris taught himself piano at age 9. His primary influences were boogie-woogie players like Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson. Later, when his playing became more mature, he absorbed the refined style of Oscar Peterson. After joining the Army in 1951 he played in the 82nd Airborne Division band, and after his discharge in 1954 he toured the country with various band leaders.

In 1956 Mr. Harris formed his first band, the Four Sounds, which lost a member within a year and became the Three Sounds. The band, featuring Mr. Harris, the bassist Andy Simpkins and the drummer Bill Dowdy, soon gained a following as it began playing clubs around the Washington area.

The Three Sounds made several recordings through the 1960’s and 70’s on the Blue Note label. Mr. Harris also played on other records with groups led by Stanley Turrentine, James Clay, Milt Jackson, Benny Carter and others.

In 1977 Mr. Harris announced his semiretirement and moved to Boise. But his career took on new life when he signed with Concord Records in the mid-80’s. No fewer than 22 albums followed, the most recent being ”Alley Cats,” a live recording from last year. His albums ranged from solo performances, to sessions with groups like the Ray Brown Trio, to big-band dates.

His earlier recordings include ”Anita O’Day and the Three Sounds” (Verve), ”The Three Sounds” (Blue Note) and ”Astral Signal” (Blue Note). His album ”Tribute to Count Basie” (Concord), featuring the Gene Harris All-Star Big Band, earned him a nomination for a Grammy Award in 1988 in the category of Best Big Band Jazz Instrumental.

He is survived by his wife, Janie; two daughters, Beth and Niki, and a son, Gene Harris Jr.

Harris died n Boise, Idaho, at the age of 66. The cause of death was kidney failure brought on by diabetes.

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