Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Harris, Gene (Haire, Eugene)

Pianist Gene Harris combined the blues with bebop, gospel and soul in a tasteful mix which contained a wealth of melodic intellect. A founder of the successful soul-jazz trio The Three Sounds, Harris settled in Boise, Idaho, where he was an active educator and festival organizer as well as musician.

Gene Harris was born Eugene Haire on September 1, 1933 in Benton Harbor, Michigan. As a child, Harris enjoyed the music of local bandleader Charles Metcalf and was inspired to teach himself the piano. At the age of nine, Gene would pick out songs on the piano by ear and slowly built his repertory of popular songs of the day. He further found inspiration in the boogie-woogie style of pianists Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons.

In 1951, Harris joined the United States Army and began to develop his style while performing with the 82nd Airborne Division Band. Upon being discharged in 1954, Gene toured throughout the United States with several bandleaders. In 1956, he formed the group The Four Sounds with bassist Andy Simpkins, drummer Bill Dowdy and a fourth member. In the following year, the group was renamed The Three Sounds and performed around Michigan as well as the Washington D.C. area. In 1958, the group moved to New York City in order to further their careers in the jazz community.

Upon their move to New York City, the group began to hone their style and repertory, which began to include popular show tunes and standards of the time period. On September 16, 1958, they recorded their debut album Introducing the Three Sounds, which was followed by their 1959 release Bottoms Up! The same year, the group featured alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson on their album Lou Donaldson with The Three Sounds, which featured a rendition of the popular standard “Blue Moon.”

On December 16, 1960, The Three Sounds featured tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine on their album Blue Hour. The following year, they released the album Hey There!, which included a version of bandleader Benny Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” On October 15, 1962, Harris recorded the album Gene Harris of The Three Sounds, which featured the musical talents of guitarist Grant Green drummer Al Harewood. In the summer of 1965, the group traveled to Los Angeles to record their album Beautiful Friendship.

In 1966, Dowdy left the Three Sounds and Harris took over the band’s name and began to perform a more commercially minded style of jazz. On September 19 & 20, 1968,

Gene and group recorded the album Elegant Soul, an album that featured a string section that was arranged and conducted by Monk Higgins. The album was critically lauded and reached the number nineteen position on Billboard Magazine’s “Top Jazz Albums” charts. A highlight of the album is the song “Look of Slim.”

The song begins with Simpkins and drummer Carl Burnett laying down a head bobbing groove that excellently captures the feel of the song. Shortly after, Harris enters the arrangement and plays several blues riffs and melodic devices that are expanded upon with back round lines from the string section. He showcases his detail for the melody by including triplets at several points. The string section further provides harmonic balance and power, especially when Harris plays in unison with them.

Unfortunately, Simpkins left the Three Sounds in 1968 leaving Harris as the group’s only original member. Gene continued to experiment with orchestral textures throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1974, he released the album Astral Signal, which included the musical efforts of bassist Chuck Rainey. In 1977, Harris moved to Boise, Idaho where he spent the next few years in retirement. During this time, Gene would perform at the nearby Idanha Hotel on a regular basis.

In 1980, Harris began to perform more frequently, which included leading a quartet at the Hacienda Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and with singer Ernestine Anderson at Parnell’s in Seattle. During this time, Gene formed a trio with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jeff Hamilton. The trio accompanied trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie on a European tour and with bandleader Benny Carter at the Concord Jazz Festival in 1985.

Beginning in 1984, Harris began to record and perform on a more frequent basis with Brown. The following year, Gene recorded the album Soular Energy with Brown, which featured contributions from tenor saxophonist Red Holloway. In late 1984, Gene performed with vibraphonist Milt Jackson on his record Soul Route. In late 1985, he recorded the album The Gene Harris Trio Plus One, a live album at the Blue Note club in New York City.

In the late 1980s, Harris performed with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and kept an active recording schedule. In 1987, Gene toured Europe with Stanley Turrentine and recorded the album Tribute to Count Basie, an album dedicated to the compositional genius of pianist Count Basie. The album was met with critical praise and received the “Best Big Band Jazz Instrumental” Grammy Award nomination the following year.

1987 also saw Harris forming the Philip Morris Superband, which included Ray Brown, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, and guitarist Herb Ellis amongst others. The group toured internationally from 1989 until 1991. On June 29, 1991, Gene recorded the album Black and Blue with a band that consisted of guitarist Ron Eschete, bassist Luther Hughes and drummer Harold Jones. The album features such standards such as “”Blue Bossa” and “The Best Things in Life are Free.”

In 1996, Harris established the Gene Harris Endowment with several educators, leaders and musicians throughout the Boise area. The aim of the endowment was to provide scholarships for students wishing to study jazz at Boise State University. The same year, Gene recorded the album Live in London alongside guitarist Jim Mullen, bassist Andrew Cleyndert and drummer Martin Drew, though it wasn’t released until 2008. A prime example of his efforts on the album is his rendition of the song “Misty.”

The song begins with a lengthy introduction from Harris where he utilizes lush chord voicings to enhance the romantic atmosphere of the song. What is most striking Gene’s performance is how easily he can layer blues phrasing over a ballad and keep it consistently fresh. Harris then picks up the tempo and plays block chords in order to end the song on a high note.

In 1998, the Harris helped to form the Gene Harris Jazz Festival, a series of concerts and workshops aimed at inspiring young musicians. The same year, Gene recorded his last album, Alley Cats live at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle, Washington. The album is a fine example of his late career with the song “Put It Where You Want It” being a great example.

The song is a particularly fine illustration of Harris’ genius as an accompanist. During the song’s first two soloists of alto saxophonist Ernie Watts and Red Holloway, Gene supports them by performing a little bit higher in the piano’s register creating a different timbral palette for the soloists to work off of. During his solo, Harris calls upon his boogie-woogie influences and creates large sheets of sound that serve to heighten the excitement of the song.

Harris passed away on Sunday, January 16, 2000 in Boise, Idaho at the age of sixty-six. The cause of death was kidney failure as he was awaiting a kidney transplant from one of his daughters. Gene is survived by his wife Janie, daughters Beth and Niki and son Gene Harris Jr.

Select Discography

As a leader

Gene Harris of The Three Sounds (1962)

Astral Signal (1974)

The Gene Harris Trio Plus One (1965)

Tribute to Count Basie (1987)

Black and Blue (1991)

Live in London (Recorded in 1996, released in 2008)

Alley Cats (1999)

With Ray Brown

Soular Energy (1984)

With Milt Jackson

Soul Route (1984)

With The Three Sounds

Introducing the Three Sounds (1958)

Bottoms Up! (1959)

LD+ 3 Lou Donaldson with The Three Sounds (1959)

Blue Hour (1960)

Beautiful Friendship (1965)

Elegant Soul (1968)

Contributor: Eric Wendell