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Obituaries

Gene Harris; Jazz Pianist, Blues Master

January 20, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER and DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gene Harris, a Grammy-nominated jazz pianist who organized and led the group the Three Sounds, has died.

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

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.

Oliver is a Times obituary writer and Heckman is the Times jazz writer.

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