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For the week of July 4 through July 11, 2000

Gene Harris electrifies the crowd in a 1998 performance at River Run Plaza. Courtesy Sun Valley Center for the Arts

A man in love with melody

Twilight blues kicks off with tribute to Gene Harris


"Gene wasn’t interested in impressing people with his brain. He wanted to impress people with his heart and spirit."

- Janie Harris, Gene Harris’s wife


By ADAM TANOUS
Express Staff Writer

By the time he was 4 years old, the late Gene Harris was already developing his soulful touch on the piano.

At 7 he was performing professionally in a trick piano act. And at 12 he had his own radio show.

In a 1997 interview, 60 years after he had hopped on a piano bench for the first time, Harris mused, "…when I was 7 or 8, it did not register in my mind that I would always be doing this…However, you can run but you can’t hide from music if it’s in your bones."

And that music has stayed not only in the bones but in the hearts of many fans over the years.

On Thursday, July 6, at 6:30 p.m., at the Trail Creek Cabin grounds the musical spirit of the jazz great will come alive as the Gene Harris Quartet will perform a tribute to the legendary pianist.

Performing under the stars will be guitarist Frank Potenza, bassist Luther Hughes, drummer Paul Kreibich and guest pianist Paul Tillotson. Niki Harris (Gene’s daughter) and Gene’s dear friend and saxophonist Red Holloway will round out the special evening of music.

The concert is presented by The Sun Valley Center for the Arts and First Bank of Idaho as part of their 2000 Twilight Blues Series.

It is difficult, if not unwise, to characterize a career that spans over 60 years and 80 records. Harris could play it all— boogie-woogie, blues, big band—and always with an infectious energy and smile.

Harris’s wife, Janie, said in an interview that what set Gene apart from other great musicians was, "he played for the love of piano and the love of melody." She added:

"Gene wasn’t interested in impressing people with his brain. He wanted to impress people with his heart and spirit."

Asked who were the major musical influences on her husband, Harris credits boogie-woogie specialists Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. She said that when her husband was young he often listened to Johnson and Ammons. What he didn’t realize was that there were two pianists playing on the recording. As a result, he always aspired to a big sound, a sound created by two musicians not one. It is what helped him develop his exceptionally strong left hand, Harris said—something he was famous for, and that "added rhythmically to his music."

Gene Harris, born in Benton Harbor, Mich., in 1933, was primarily a self-taught pianist. After joining the military and becoming a paratrooper, Harris played with the 82ndAirborne Band.

In 1957, he formed the Four Sounds band, which eventually became the Three Sounds. The band toured for almost 10 years playing blues oriented interpretations of show tunes and standards. They became one of the most popular jazz groups of the 60’s.

Harris retired from touring (or so he thought) and landed in Boise, Idaho. This is where he met his wife and began what she termed, "the most rewarding, peaceful and meaningful time of his career." She added, "He learned to appreciate his life, himself and Boise."

In a 1995 interview with the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Harris talked fondly of his home in Idaho.

"Since 1977, I have lived in Boise where there was plenty of country and western music. And now, in 1995, there is still plenty of country and western music, but along with that there is a whole lot of jazz."

During the 80s and early 90s Harris was the leader of the Philip Morris Super Band. The band toured the world and, during this period, Harris had the honor of performing with other legendary musicians such as B.B. King and Ray Charles.

In the 1995 interview, Harris summed up his approach to jazz:

"You are constantly looking for something different," he said. "All of the (songs) have the same outer shell but you add the different ingredients. Every time you play it, it’s a brand new cherry pie."

Harris’ wife, who managed her husband’s career and is also a pianist, said that he taught her a great deal about "focus and concentration…He opened me up both musically and spiritually.

"Piano was our life blood. We shared that. His music meant the world to me."

She was not alone.

 

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