Allan Harris
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Allan Harris


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"Jazz Times"

. . .For jazz singer Allan Harris, however, the blck cowboy is a heroic and unsung figure in American history. His jazz-meets-country musical, Cross that River, follows a runaway slave from Louisiana to a ranch in Texas, where he joins a trail ride herding cattle to Abilene, Kansas. Harris found the journey had surprising social and musical implications.

How did a jazz singer find his way to this territory? "I'm an avid horseman. I've been riding since I was three years old. My grandfather had horses. My father was a horseman. So cowboys were a part of my life. I'm a guitarist also. I happened to run into some bluegrass cats some years ago and just loved the way they picked. And I began trying to morph that music into what I was doing."

Harris hasn't received any negative reaction for his odd coupling. "My bigest fear was that my audience wouldn't get it. But that was erased immediately when I started performing it live. The core of my rhythm section are jazz cats, and I added mandolin, dobro, and fiddle on top of that."

He was also surprised at the virtuosity of country and bluegrass people. "Would they have the rhythm or soul to pull this off? But it was so easy. It made me realize how American this music is. And how "bad" these country and bluegrass cats can play."

After sold-out performances at Joe's Pub and BB King's in New York City, Harris is going back to the drawing board, consulting with theater people in the hopes of tightening up the show. He's written 25 songs already and is in the process of writing 5 more. And in November, he's doing performances at several historic sites in Texas, including Fort Concho. - Lee Mergner

"All About Jazz"

Primarily a Jazz Vocalist and Guitarist, Allan Harris was inspired to write
“Cross That River - The Saga of a Black Cowboy” because “I?m a Wild West
buff”, so he's mixed bluegrass, gospel and some jazz talk in the spirit of the
African Griot. “Blue”, the main character begins his journey by stealing his
master's stud horse meeting other escaped Black, Native American, Creole,
Spanish and Mexican men and women with tales of their own.

At B.B.Kings free show (independently produced by James Larsen), radio DJ
Sheila Anderson intro'd Allan Harris to a stuffed house of 300 friends and APAP entertainment buyers. Wearing a black cowboy hat, heifer calf fur panels on a black leather jacket, black jeans, black open collar shirt, plain black dress boots, he tuned his amplified acoustic Washburn-Stevens cutaway guitar as feather fetishes and a Native American dream catcher dangled from the fretboard. Allan is a large barrel-chested man, full-faced with a pencil mustache and usually a smile. His musical campanions tonight are Bob Corroon-mandolin & harmonica, Russell Farhang-amplified violin, Miles Okazaki-electric guitar, John Flaughers, electric bass-Ulysses Owens-drums and backup vocalists-Tim Ellis, Arlee Leonard and Maya Azucena.

“40% of Cowboys were Black!”
– Musical Creator, Allan Harris
- Dan Kassell

"Urban Cowboy (JazzIz feature)"

Urban Cowboy
december 2 0 0 3 j a z z i z
By Michael Roberts
photographs by Enid Farber

“I’ve been enmeshed in the jazz world for so long, and I love it — but it can have an elitist attitude about things, so I tried not to cross-pollinate too much,” says New York-based singer/guitarist Allan Harris. “Then I thought, we’re all part of this thing called America. The world looks at us that way, and we’ve got to start looking at ourselves as one. So I realized it’s good to cross-pollinate after all. And that’s what I’ve been doing.” Indeed he has. Like a bee who’s grown tired of buzzing around the same old flowerbed, Harris is busily exploring an entirely new field —
and thus far, the experience has been sweet. Thanks to CDs such as 2001’s luxuriant Love Came: The Songs of Strayhorn, Harris is known as a talented jazz vocalist with an old-school bent. But Cross That River,which he previewed during performances earlier this year in anticipation of an early 2004 release, represents something completely different: a narrative about black cowboys that has as little to do with jazz music as does its subject matter. Dobro and mandolin provide much of the instrumental flavor, the accom-panying fiddle playing won’t be mistaken for anything by Stephane Grappelli, and Harris’ impressionistic crooning draws primarily from folk and blues, with just an occasional hint of jazz flair. The results are strong, particularly for such a major stylistic departure. It’s the equivalent of Norah Jones joining a heavy-metal band or Wynton Marsalis delving into stand-up comedy.“I did it at first just to blow off some steam creatively,” Harris says.
“Little did I know that here and now, circa 2003, this project would have taken over my psyche.”Cross That River has also encouraged Harris to reveal more about his career.

Previously, he felt most comfortable sharing those biographical details that centered upon jazz-related events and personalities. But now he’s eager to discuss the time he’s spent making music in other genres, including classical, rock, and even country. After taking into account Harris’ varied background, his devotion to chronicling a fictional 19th century range rider makes as much sense as the joy he takes in caressing Gershwin tunes. Harris’s upbringing is filled with telling incidents. He grew up in New York City’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, but spent plenty of time as a boy hanging out at Kate’s Place, a soul-food restaurant near Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, owned by his aunt.“Everybody frequented Kate’s Place, from Sarah Vaughan to Jackie Wilson,” Harris says.“I’d go there every Sunday because that’s when they had matinees for kids at the Apollo. I’d eat at my aunt’s place and see all these wonderful stars who’d come through there.” On one occasion, according to family lore, no less a celebrity than Louis Armstrong got shanghaied into babysitting for young Allan. Harris had plenty of other musical and cultural influences. His mother had trained as a classical pianist. Harris recalls that after hearing him crank out the theme from Peter Gunn — the first tune he mastered on guitar — she said,“You’ve got to learn how to play better than that!”

Shortly thereafter, she bought him a classical guitar and arranged for him to take lessons from Vladimir Bobri, president of the New York City Classical Guitar Society,who taught him for several years.“It gave me a great foundation for my song-writing,”Harris says,“and also for the finger style I use on Cross That River.”

Although he lived in the big city, Harris was also exposed to rural life during frequent visits to his grandfather’s 450-acre ranch near the small south-western Pennsylvania community of Washington. Because his grandpa raised mink, instead of sheep or cattle, Harris didn’t spend summers roping livestock. However, he acquired a deep affection for his grandfather’s horses, as did his brother Daryl, now an Atlanta resident who shares at least one other obsession with his older sibling.

In a musical odyssey taking him
from Hendrix, Zeppelin, and
Funkadelic, to Strayhorn, Nat King
Cole, and Dolly Parton, Allan Harris
explores his country & western roots on Cross That River. According to Allan, “Daryl does a lot of Civil War reenactments — reenactments of buffalo soldiers and the 9th and 10th Cavalry black Union forces.” These two dissimilar worlds exposed Harris to a wide assortment of music. As a Bed-Stuy youth, he fell in love with Jimi Hendrix from the first moment he saw a poster of him in a barbershop window. From there, he got into British-rock guitar gods such as Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, whose approach he emulated whenever he wasn’t practicing classical scales.

When Allan was 14, the Harrises moved to Washington, PA, where music by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and other nascent country rockers filled the airwaves. The popularity of twangy sounds in the area stands to reason since the populace was overwhelm-ingly white and rural. Harris estimates that African-Americans constituted about an eighth of the student body at his highschool. Nonetheless, he discovered that music broke through racial barriers — both real and imagined. “There were as many blacks as whites there who were listening to Motown, as well as stuff like the Eagles and Yes,” he says. “And that was really cool. People want to make it different — like, ‘This music is for blacks, and this music is for whites.’ But I found that isn’t true once you get outside the boundaries of the large cities.” While attending California State College in California, PA, Harris explored any and every musical mode he could, including funk. On one occasion, a friend of George Clinton’s arranged for him to meet the Parliament/Funkadelic maestro,who was in Pittsburgh for a concert. Subsequently, an audition was dangled in front of Harris, but it never happened — which was all right by him. Although he was a big fan of
Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, he wasn’t sure he’d have felt comfortable wearing Hazel’s typical in-concert garb: a giant diaper. Instead, Harris moved to Atlanta and joined Vaquero, a country-rock combo. “I was the only brother in the band,” he points out — a fact underlined graphically by a canvas backdrop used by the group,
which sported a painting of a black cowboy. “We played Southern rock with an R&B twist to it,” he says, “and did everything from Jerry Jeff Walker to Poco to Commander Cody.” Still, the Allman Brothers Band was Vaquero’s primary influence: “We knew everything from Idlewild South to Eat a Peach, and we could do the whole At Fillmore East, with
‘Statesboro Blues.’ I know that whole slide thing.” Among his biggest thrills from this period was the opportunity to jam with Allman members Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks at an Atlanta club. After about a year with Vaquero, Harris became a pinch-hitter for groups that wanted to add aggressive riffs to R&B, à la Ernie Isley, but he soon lost interest. “It’s
kind of boring to play rock licks behind someone for a couple hours while they’re
shaking their booty and repeating ‘Baby, baby, I want to kiss you’ over and over,” he notes. Luckily, a couple of happenings pushed Harris in more intriguing directions. First, he got an opportunity to substitute for the lead singer of Kashmir, a Led Zeppelin inspired act in which he played guitar and discovered that his voice was also a powerful instrument. Second, he sat in at a jazz club one night, and after listening for a few minutes, “one of the older cats said to me, ‘You’ve got to go home and woodshed a little bit and learn some standards.’ That was a really big wakeup call for me,” he remembers. “I woodshedded and started getting into things that had been recessed in my mind. All that music I heard in my house when I was growing up — from Nat King Cole to Arthur Prysock to Billy Eckstine — came to the forefront.” This preparation came in handy when Harris, who was living in Miami at the time, got a chance to perform at a function for Tony Bennett. Mustering his courage, he sang “When Do the Bells Ring For Me?,” the first track on Bennett’s 1990 comeback album, Astoria: Portrait of the Artist. Bennett was so impressed by the rendition that he encouraged Harris to come to New York and helped introduce the singer to the scene. But even with such a distinguished patron, Harris found it difficult to establish himself. As he recalls, "I got my butt kicked. Man it was a rude awakening, but it was wonderful too. It was like graduate school.

Harris matriculated with honors. He followed his debut recording, 1994’s Setting the Standard,with the following year’s It’s a Wonderful World, featuring Ray Brown, Benny
Green, and Mark Whitfield. The warm reviews of these discs were echoed in reviews of both Here Comes Allan Harris and the Metropole Orchestra,which pitted him against a 54-piece Dutch orchestra, and Love Came, an album of Billy Strayhorn compositions. Afterward, Harris felt an itch to take a creative risk. He found inspiration in an unlikely recording: the 2001 Dolly Parton disc Little Sparrow,which he heard in its entirety
on a Boulder radio station during a visit to Colorado. “They played ‘I Get a Kick Out of You,’ the Cole Porter song,which opened up with this flaming dobro run. It could have
been Charlie Parker on dobro. And I’m, like, ‘Whoa!’ That had a lot to do with the impetus for me to write Cross That River — not because I was influenced by what she was doing musically, but by the innocence and the power and just the balls of the whole
thing. It blew my mind.”

Back in New York, Harris began to build a tale around Blue, an escaped slave from Louisiana who headed west during the 1850s. The result is a song cycle of surprising richness and depth. Although best known for covering classic material, Harris has been
penning ditties for years. He receives songwriting credit for three tracks on It’s a Wonderful World. On Cross That River, however, he takes a quantum leap as a tunesmith. On the evocative title cut, he sings in the first person about the sale of Blue’s parents:“
Mama said a white man be comin’ in
the morning/Gonna drag Big Daddy away.” Other highlights include the jaunty “Diamond Jimmy,” about a Creole gambler who shoots a white chiseler through the heart; the snappy, melodic “Mule Skinner”;
and “Buffalo Soldiers,” a tribute piece that’s more Johnny Horton than John Coltrane. Although a label deal and release date for Cross That River are pending, Harris hopes the album will reach stores in February —2005
Black History Month. He’s enthusiastic about performing the songs in settings such as Western poetry festivals, but he’ll also hit traditional jazz venues. Next on his agenda are interpretive recordings of compositions by the late Ike Joseph, one of the more obscure songwriters to toil in the Brill Building. He’s also excited to put out what he refers to as “an eclectic blend of my original stuff, encompassing jazz and quasi-blues, R&B stuff.”
Once, Harris might have shied away from mixing things up in this way, but no longer. “There was a time in our development, before everybody started putting things in little pockets,when everybody — Irish, Scottish and English immigrants, slaves, black free workers, Indians,whatever — enjoyed each other’s music. And that’s the way it should be.We need to start
embracing what really makes us up as

december 2 0 0 3 j a z z i z
- Michael Roberts


Setting the Standard
Its a Wonderful World
Here Comes Allan Harris and the Metropole Orchestra
Songs of Strayhorn
Cross That River
Nat King Cole: Long Live the King



Allan Harris, accomplished jazz vocalist, merges his
traditional roots with Country, Bluegrass, the Blues
and Rock, to tell the gripping and untold story of an
escaped slave who becomes a Black Cowboy in the
early American West.

Cross That River is a rich tapestry of American music,
at once compelling and transcendent. Allan Harris plays
guitar and sings with heart rending emotion and
out-right joy. Hear the tale of the ”Mail Order Woman”
as she makes her way out West to become a bride on
the western frontier; or the story of “Mule Skinner”,
who proceeds to track down his Kiowah wife’s killers
while working on a cattle drive going north; or the
triumph of the “Black Seminoles”, the only Indian
tribe not defeated by the American government.
Cross That River is a recording of epic proportions,
the first in a trilogy that will ultimately result in a
rousing climax.