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If It Sounded Happy, It Was Music to His Ears

The late Gene Harris' bandmates gather tonight at Steamers in Fullerton to share good times again.


Pianist Gene Harris, who died of kidney failure at age 66 on Jan. 16, could really cast a spell on an audience.

At his gigs, even the most demurely hip listeners would lose their self-conscious cool and begin to shout, wave their hands and jump to their feet in applause as Harris, playing with revivalist-meeting fervor, turned tired standards into a religious experience.

Guitarist Frank Potenza and other Harris band veterans will celebrate the late pianist's birthday tonight with a tribute concert at Steamers Cafe in Fullerton.

"Gene's whole focus," Potenza said, "was to make music that swung hard and connected with the audience. He wasn't so worried about impressing people with something difficult like [John Coltrane's] 'Giant Steps.' He wasn't into that probing or introspective thing. He just wanted the audience to feel good."

Pianist Paul Tillotson, a Boise, Idaho, native now based in New York who credits his career in jazz to early encounters with Harris, says the man he calls his "musical father" left no doubt about the direction he should follow.

"He'd say to me, 'Now, Paul, people like what we're doing because we play happy music.' That's the thing that he would rub off on everybody. But inside of that happy music was a very deep, very beautiful master who was sharing very meaningful music."

Born in Benton Harbor, Mich., in 1933, Harris looked to the more accessible side of jazz early on, influenced by the blues and gospel piano of Kansas City native Pete Johnson and the boogie-woogie stylings of Chicago pianist Albert Ammons.

In 1956, Harris joined with drummer Bill Dowdy and bassist Andy Simpkins to form the trio that eventually became the Three Sounds. The group's various albums for the Blue Note label--some including guest soloists such as saxophonists Stanley Turrentine and Lou Donaldson, cornetist Nat Adderley and singer Anita O'Day--were among the most popular jazz recordings of the late '50s and early '60s.

When Dowdy and later Simpkins left the group, Harris hung on to the name and the direction, integrating pop covers into the mix, songs that included everything from the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville" to the theme from "Star Trek."

Huntington Beach resident Luther Hughes, who played with the pianist until his death, was the last bassist Harris hired while still using the Three Sounds name.

"I met Gene at a little club in Cincinnati called the Living Room when I was still too young to get into the club. I thought Gene was arrogant and, as a bassist, I was attracted to Andy [Simpkins] and would just walk into the club next to him and nobody would say anything. Years later, Gene would tell the story that I said to him, 'Someday I'm going to play with you,' but I don't remember it that way."

His day came sooner than Hughes expected. In 1970, Harris called him to replace bassist Henry Franklin. "It was dumb," Hughes says. "He hadn't even heard me play, but I guess some of the fellows told him I could do it. Years later, Gene told me, 'I almost fired you.' He said I was the worst best bass player he'd ever had."

Harris, who moved to Boise in 1977, made only infrequent appearances outside of his adopted home state, notably at Hungry Joe's in Huntington Beach with Hughes, guitarist Ron Eschete and drummer Ted Hawk. Instead, he set up shop in the lobby of Boise's Idanha Hotel, where he would play five nights a week.

Pianist Tillotson first heard Harris at the hotel when he was 17. He says it was his introduction to jazz--the "real thing."

"I asked him for lessons while I was still in high school," Tillotson said. "And he said to me, 'You know, Paul, I play here five nights a week and otherwise I like to spend time with my wife.' But because I put my foot forward and approached him and showed an interest, he took me under his wing and always gave me encouragement and kind words."

Tillotson, who'll take to the piano bench during the Steamers tribute, is an unabashed disciple of Harris' method.

"My style is definitely similar. Gene's spirit, everything that he did that I was exposed to, it's in there. Sometimes I feel like a medium, the music just channels through me."

Harris was eventually called out of Boise to join bassist Ray Brown's trio and made numerous memorable appearances in the mid-'80s with Brown and drummer Jeff Hamilton at Santa Monica's now-defunct the Loa club. Soon he was recording under his name for the Concord label.

In the early '90s, he toured Europe and Australia as leader of the Phillip Morris Superband, an orchestra underwritten by the tobacco corporation that included such heavyweights as guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison and vocalist Ernie Andrews.

But it was his quartet--with bassist Hughes, guitarists Eschete and later Potenza, and drummers Harold Jones, Paul Humphrey and finally Paul Kreibich--that best showcased the good-time feel of Harris' music.

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