In 1975 when Lafayette Harris, Jr., was 12 years old, growing up in Baltimore, he saw a television commercial advertising a “hometown hero who is coming back to Baltimore to play.” Harris was just starting to learn to play the piano, and the “hometown hero” was Eubie Blake. “I had no idea who Eubie Blake was,” he recalled. “They showed him playing this piece, ‘The Maple Leaf Rag’. I’d never heard of that, and I just had to learn how to play that music.
“I made my way on the bus to the library in downtown Baltimore,” he continued. “I told the librarian, ‘There’s this piece of music, Maple Leaf Rag. Can you help me find it?’ She said, ‘I think that’s by Scott Joplin.’ We went back in the archives, and she pulled out this big brown book. On the cover, it said ‘Scott Joplin’, and we thumbed through it. And there was ‘Maple Leaf Rag’. She Xeroxed it for me, and I took it home. That’s how I started working on it.”
Harris, who will be leading a quintet at the Somerville segment of the Central Jersey Jazz Festival on Sunday, September 10, went on to earn his Bachelor of Music degree from Oberlin Conservatory and received his Master’s Degree in Jazz Performance at Rutgers, where he studied under pianist Kenny Barron. Throughout his career, he has emphasized flexibility – “everything from Dixieland to the most progressive ‘out’ kind of jazz.”
That’s reflected in the variety of artists he’s performed with – from experimentalists such as drummer Max Roach and trombonist Roswell Rudd to mainstream saxophonists such as Frank Wess and Houston Person to vocalists such as Ernestine Anderson and Melba Moore. “Max Roach,” he said, “was one of the masters of bebop. But he also was really into playing ‘out’ (free or atonal). That was great because I got to get into that kind of expression. I kind of continued on with that kind of thing with Roswell Rudd.”
But Harris is also a fan of the “Tin Pan Alley songwriters – Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, the Gershwin brothers.” His last two albums, on the Savant label, have been a mix of original compositions and American Songbook and jazz standards. Leading a trio with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash, his 2020 album, You Can’t Lose the Blues, featured his original, “Blues for Barry Harris”, dedicated to his mentor, with whom he began studying when he moved to New York in the mid-1980s. That was combined with such standards as Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”, Nicholas Brodszky’s “Wonder Why” and jazz favorites such as Charlie Parker’s “Bloomdido” and Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”. Reviewing the album for Jersey Jazz, Joe Lang wrote, “From start to finish, this album is filled with excitement . . . Harris is not as widely known as many of today’s pianists, but he should be!”
In March of this year, Harris released his second Savant album, Swingin’ Up in Harlem, also with Washington on bass and Nash on drums. It includes two Harris originals, the title tune and “Nat’s Blues”. “As far as writing music,” he said, “I kind of go back to the basics, using knowledge I have from experience and also from Barry Harris’ teaching. A lot of times I start out just practicing a song. Before you know it, it ends up being a song. ‘Swingin’ Up in Harlem’ reminds me of a lot of times I spent up in Harlem playing. ‘Nat’s Blues’ is dedicated to my man, Nat ‘King’ Cole.”
Jack Bowers, reviewing Swingin’ Up in Harlem for AllAboutJazz, wrote, “As for musical expertise and empathy, it simply does not get much better than this . . . Harris has been at or near the top of the A-list of in-demand pianists on the New York scene for almost four decades.” Among the standards: Carmichael’s “Stardust” and “The Nearness of You”, Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow”, and Duke Ellington’s “Solitude”. Harris is extremely pleased by the radio airplay the album has received. It was on the JazzWeek charts for 22 weeks, peaking at Number 4.
In Somerville, Harris’ quintet will feature Kenny Davis on bass, Alvester Garnett on drums, Don Braden on tenor saxophone, and Ty Stephens on vocals. In June, Braden released Earth Wind and Wonder Volume 2, new arrangements of songs by Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind and Fire. At presstime, it was Number 2 on the JazzWeek charts. Davis is the bassist on that album.
Looking back on all the artists he’s performed with, Harris has special memories of a 2008 Highnote album, A Song For You, he made with vocalist Ernestine Anderson, tenor saxophonist Houston Person, bassist Chip Jackson, and drummer Willie Jones III. “We got along fabulously,” he recalled. “She and I just hit it off. She wanted a certain kind of thing, and the producers wanted a different kind of thing; and I ended up being a bridge between the two.” Reviewing the album for JazzTimes, Christopher Loudon wrote, “The beauty of Anderson’s dusky magic is its simplicity. No big gestures, no flashy flourishes-nothing but pure, and delightfully mature, showmanship set against superbly relaxed backing by pianist Lafayette Harris, Jr., bassist Chip Jackson and drummer Willie Jones III, with the singularly perceptive tenor saxman Houston Person as the peripatetic moth circling Anderson’s flame.”
Harris said he is, “constantly writing new music. I’m probably going to be doing a couple of new records later this year. I’m working on a tribute to Max Roach with Alvester and Kenny. And, I hope to get Peter (Washington) and Lewis (Nash) back together to do another straight-ahead trio record.”
Lafayette Harris, Jr. and Friends will be appearing from 3:10-4:20 p.m. on Sunday, September 10, on the Somerset County Historic Courthouse Green, corner of East Main & Grove streets in downtown Somerville, NJ.
PHOTO BY ANNA YATSKEVICH