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Gene Harris: 1933-2000
Gene Harris
Piano, bandleader

Born: September 1, 1933 in Benton Harbour, Michigan
Died: January 16, 2000 in Boise, Idaho

From The Three Sounds to Solo Star

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Gene Harris made his name as the pianist in The Three Sounds, one of the most popular jazz groups of the late-50s and early-60s. The trio’s flowing combination of mainstream jazz with bop, blues and more soulful influences was popular with record buyers and with their fellow musicians, but the pianist’s polished, deceptively facile approach lured some critics into dismissing the band as lightweight.

Harris’s fluently inventive playing and ready grasp of the styles -- from stride to bop -- he employed ultimately earned him due recognition as an important and individual contributor to jazz piano, and he enjoyed a successful relationship with Concord Records as a solo artist in the last part of his career.

The pianist was scheduled to receive a kidney transplant with an organ donated by one of his daughters when he died suddenly of kidney failure at his home in Boise. He had suffered a variety of ailments in his later years, including various complications of diabetes.

Eugene Harris grew up in Benton Harbour, where he acquired an early fascination with boxing, and became an accomplished exponent before concentrating on music. He taught himself piano from the age of 9, initially under the influence of the great boogie-woogie masters Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, and later added dexterity and harmonic invention absorbed from the playing of Oscar Peterson, and the earthy blues inflections of pianists like Horace Silver and Junior Mance.

He performed in the 82nd Airborne Division band while serving in the army from 1951-54, and became a professional musician on his discharge. He formed The Four Sounds in South Bend, Indiana, in 1956, with bassist Andy Simpkins, who died last year, drummer Bill Dowdy, and a tenor saxophonist. They found it difficult to find an appropriate saxophone player on a permanent basis, and became The Three Sounds the following year. They caught the ear of pianist Horace Silver, but his recommendation did not prompt Blue Note’s Alfred Lion to immediate action.

When he did eventually sign them in 1958, they found themselves with a surprise hit in their debut album, Introducing The Three Sounds. It was the first of many albums for the label (Harris once estimated they recorded at least 35 albums worth of material, some of it unreleased), and they went on to record for other labels as well, working with artists like Nat Adderley and Anita O’Day as well as in their own right.

Dowdy left the band in 1966, and Simpkins followed two years later, but Harris carried on using the name until 1971, when he opted to focus on a solo career. He experimented with more populist rhythm and blues and pop oriented directions in the 1970s, but his heart was not really in it, and he announced his retirement from touring in 1977. He relocated with his family to Boise, Idaho, a place he had liked when he played there on tour, and became the star performer and musical director at jazz club in a local hotel.

He was tempted out of that semi-retirement by bassist Ray Brown to make a recording for Norman Granz’s Pablo label, a development which began a new phase in his career. He signed to Concord Records in 1985, and recorded a string of over twenty very consistent records for the label, as well as resuming touring in America and internationally, both in his own right and as as leader of the Phillip Morris Superband.

He was nominated for a Grammy award in 1988 in the category of Best Big Band Jazz Instrumental for his album Tribute to Count Basie. In addition to leading his own groups, he worked with a number of significant jazz leaders at various points in his career, including Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, Lou Donaldson, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, Benny Carter and Ray Brown.

He is survived by his wife, Janie; two daughters, Beth and Niki (a dancer and singer who has worked with Madonna); and a son, Gene Harris Jr.

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With 17 reader comments, latest January 28, 2000