Just when we think we know who Allan Harris is, he decides to change, to forge a new frontier. He has become an avid student of American history, the history of the black cowboy to be exact. In exploring this fascinating but little known aspect of our country’s development, Allan found a new venue for his music, and a new path that involves blending jazz and country styles. Along the journey, Allan has forged a new relationship with his audiences. "Country audiences own their performers, they really know who they are and how they feel about life."
So, is Allan Harris a jazz performer or a country singer? The answer is: both. He has coupled his love of the American West and horses with his growing fascination with how the region was settled by the black cowboys and ranch hands, tough men who tamed even tougher terrain. Through his latest musical project, Cross That River, Allan is able to express himself in a new way to a new audience. Through his eminently descriptive music, he paints a vivid picture of what life was like for these men who stood as peers as the West became less a wilderness and more a part of our nation. With this music, Allan is inviting us to become less like observers and more like friends.
JazzReview: How would you describe yourself in terms of jazz style?
Allan Harris: I do so much. I’m very diverse. I do a lot of swing, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, do a lot of the standards. I have a few CDs with just standards stuff on there, with Ray Brown on bass, Benny Green on piano, Erik Green.
JazzReview: Benny Green’s fantastic.
Allan Harris: Oh yeah. We did a CD together with Ray Brown and Jeff Hamilton. I also have some orchestra recordings. It varies, but I try to sing the American Songbook the way it’s sung, the way the composers write the melodies.
JazzReview: That’s a very interesting statement. How do you determine the way the composers write the melodies? Do you put yourself in a composer’s place?
Allan Harris: First of all, I look at the sheet music and follow the notation. Then, after I nail that down - I’m a guitarist, you know after I nail that down and see how they heard the song, I go back and listen to the greats, those who recorded it in the timeframe the composers were alive. A lot of the time, they wrote the songs with specific singers or shows in mind. I’ll go back and listen to an Ella Fitzgerald tune, or a Frank Sinatra, or even a Doris Day version and try to listen to the way they nailed the song. Usually when a composer is doing a show or a project, the composer is on the job with them, showing them how the song is written, like in the case of Irving Berlin with Fred Astaire. So, I go back and listen to their recordings and I see how they attack the song and stay true to the melody. After I learn it that way, I put my own little flavor on it.
JazzReview: Now, that makes a lot of sense. You sound like you have not just one style but are exploring the length and breadth of the genre.
Allan Harris: I try to. As of the past few years, I’m really getting into this American thing. I fought it for so long, being a man of color. You know, you have all that attitude, that anger. But I realized that we’re all part of this wonderful thing called America and our music reflects it. It reflects what we are as a people, the immigrants, the slaves, everyone. I try to encompass that in my singing and in the songs I record. I’m really starting to appreciate what we have to give the world. That’s really our gift to the world: our melting pot of music that we brought to these shores.
JazzReview: Absolutely. What are you doing lately?
Allan Harris: I’ve been trying to limit my diverse schedule. Last year, I did a lot of recording that won’t be released until the wintertime. I did a recording of Nat King Cole songs live at The Kennedy Center. I’m really proud of it. We’re going into the studio to mix it this summer. We put a little harder edge to it, a little bop edge to it, on some of his songs and then we kept some of the love tunes traditional. I put that on the back burner because this Cross That River thing has taken over my life, and I love it. So I’ve been concentrating on that now.
JazzReview: I listened to some of the Cross That River music from your Website. My family lives in Tucson, and I thought, "I can go home now." The sound was so indicative of the West and the cowboys to me.
Allan Harris: Arizona, huh? There was a big buffalo soldier contingency out there. The Cross That River thing just started out with me writing it to release a lot of pathos in myself. Now, it’s starting to take over a large part of my fan base. I thought it would be just a boutique project that a certain amount of people would enjoy, the bluegrass folks who are into a Linda Cohen thing, who occasionally dip into the R & B mode. But I’m finding, across the board, all Americans are digging this music; because it’s not just a person of color singing about "Woe is me, we were slaves, and here’s a song, etc." I’ve taken the approach that this is a part of our history, the twenty-year span of the cattle drive when white and black actually lived and worked together under the stars, with the same pay scale. Of course, everyone was in shock over the Civil War things, so everybody was trying to mind their p’s and q’s and become one. I’m trying to let the music reflect that there was a time before civil rights when there was an unspoken word of civil rights in the West on the new frontier and in the Indian territories, where the Irish immigrants, Scottish, Mexicans, black and white, homesteaders and ranchers came together to build things back together after the war.
JazzReview: The whole area of the West has always been different than the rest of this country; they seem to operate differently.
Allan Harris: You know, that’s very true, and I never knew that until a few years ago. My guitar player, who also plays dobro, travels a lot and we were in San Angelo, Texas about a year and a half ago. I had flown in and still had my ‘New York attitude" on and I was driving them to the rehearsal space. We were stopped at this one intersection and people are just sittin’ there waiting for me to pass by. I’m honking my horn, and they’re being real nice about it, "Go on, go, go." This one guy just smiled at me. I looked at my dobro player and said, "You know, in New York, they’d be biting your head off." He said, "Yeah, Allan, welcome to America."
JazzReview: There is a different code of behavior there, more of a "live and let live" attitude, but they are there if you need them.
Allan Harris: I know, and the media doesn’t reflect that. The media reflects all that yokel stuff, you know? It’s really misrepresented in the media, the people out West, people in the Midwest. They always show a guy sitting on the porch, with the potbelly and the Budweiser beer watching NASCAR in the trailer park. They never show the beautiful people out there who lived and really conquered that piece of property called the West and have been out there together for generations, and don’t have any of those racial undertones in their lifestyle at all.
JazzReview: There’s an unspoken tradition when something happens to somebody out there, your neighbors will appear at your door very silently just in case you need something.
Allan Harris: Isn’t that something? I love that. And, writing this project and going out there to the West, to Colorado, I’ve been to Texas a lot, I’m going out to Wyoming on June 23, I’ve been befriended by ranchers out there who have employed black cowboys in their family history; and I really get it.
JazzReview: There are so many aspects of this project of yours. The obvious performance aspect, your personal interest in the history, the basic concept and theme you have explored here. Then there are the educational implications of this. Where do you think those lie?
Allan Harris: They lie in the fact that our nieces and nephews, and the kids down the street who watch those crazy videos and listen to the music they listen to, really have no outlet. They listen to a lot of angry music. I don’t know how old you are, but when I was young, we could listen to a concert and really get in the mood of the music, share it with all the others who were there. Now, the kids go to a concert and there are metal detectors, it’s crazy. When I take this music to schools and children, I try to get them to understand that it’s not just rap, gospel, country, rock. There were times in our period of development before the Industrial Age hit us in this country, when we all sat on the porch together. Young black kids ask me, "What about us who were slaves?" and I say, yes, we were slaves; but most white folks couldn’t afford slaves. So, a lot of them worked in the fields alongside of us, even though they were free. They brought the music they had from their homeland to that table, and we brought our African roots to that table, which in turn brought about the music we listen to now: blues, jazz, gospel, rock, country. I try to bring this into the music of Cross That River and let them know that we all come from the same place. It’s only in the middle part of that century that they started to divide us with music.
JazzReview: Are you doing work in the schools with kids?
Allan Harris: Yes, we just got a grant from Chamber Music of America. The only other person to get the grant in our genre was Wynton Marsalis; so we’re really pumped up. We’re going to do a big showcase of it June 12 in New York City at the Cutting Room. Where are you?
JazzReview: I’m in Washington, DC.
Allan Harris: Well., you know, I’ll be in DC in June. I’m taping NPR "All Things Considered" with the band June 14. I’ll send you an invite and you can meet the band, we can hang out.
JazzReview: I’d love that. And so, you are in such good company with that grant from Chamber Music of America. So, what are you going to do with the money?
Allan Harris: I’m going to spend it and buy a car, have a party, get some margaritas, wanna come? No, it’s written in stone; they have rigid procedures about what to do with the money. They just don’t hand it to you and you can go shopping. I’m going to twelve schools in February, starting in Harlem. This is the educational part of Cross That River. Through the grant, it’s enabling me to bring the band and the whole show to twelve schools and present it to the kids, not just the music, but the whole educational part. A lot of children and a lot of adults don’t know that thirty percent of all the cowboys were black.
JazzReview: That’s such an interesting fact. I think everybody’s image of the cowboy is very stereotypical. If you step on the grounds of a ranch in the West, you find that’s totally bogus.
Allan Harris: Totally. I have a couple of friends outside of Austin who have 2,000 acres out there, and I go out there and play cowboy with them now and then. They move some cattle and I go out there to join them, and they laugh at me. They just put me on a horse and say, "Just stay out of our way." I’m doing a novel with the Cross That River project, and when I was researching some of the cattle drives and the different terms and stuff, I went out there just to hang out with him he’s fifth generation Texan and they let me on a little cattle drive with them, maybe two hundred head. They let me do that for about eight hours, and after that, let me tell you, I was through. I went with the manure being flung in your face, and the dust and the flies and the gnats, and it was just wild. We did that for eight hours and then went back to his ranch for a barbecue, and he said, "Now imagine being in the saddle for twelve hours a day, you haven’t washed for a month, infantigo, lice, crabs, and on top of that, fifteen hundred head of cow in front of you all day long. Imagine that. Oh, man. That’s why many black folks did that. Not many white boys wanted to do that, until after the Civil War, of course. Then there were no jobs, and they picked it up. It took away the romanticism of being a cowboy for me completely
JazzReview: It was the reality.
Allan Harris: Really it was hard work. The cattle he had were pretty tame. He has a friend who has a Longhorn ranch; and we went over there. I had never seen Longhorns before, except in the movie HUD. Remember that movie with Paul Newman? There were about twenty-five Longhorns in this pasture; and my friend said, "You don’t want to even go in that pasture, because they’ll kill you." I couldn’t believe it. They’re wild and they’re crazy. That’s what my forbearers had to put up with, so they were tough, crazy people. So, I really have a true outlook on who these people were from that area.
JazzReview: This may sound like I’m changing the subject, but I have to ask you something. Your bio says that your mom was a classical pianist and your aunt an opera singer? How does this all fit in with your background?
Allan Harris: My mother’s family, the Ingrams, originally come from Hamlet, North Carolina. They are a hodgepodge of people, Native American Indians. When they settled the Lippon Apache reservation in Oklahoma, they sent all their warriors to Florida and they sent all their women to North Carolina. My mother’s family intermarried into the Indians. They eventually migrated to Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, and my mother benefited from the fruits of their labor. She was in the first generation of free black women that got an education. My grandmother put her in performing arts. My mother was in the first graduating class of the school that became the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. After emancipation, it took a couple of generations for the black people to learn to be free. My mother was in the first generation that was allowed to go to school with whites. My grandmother moved to Harlem in the 1930s and my mother benefited from that, as I benefited from that in turn. My aunt went to that school, also, and became an opera singer.
JazzReview: How did your classical family react to your decision to embrace jazz?
Allan Harris: My family was cool, because there was always music in the house. Another aunt had a soul food restaurant called Aunt Kate’s, right down the street from The Apollo. Every Sunday, kids got in free to the matinee. I would go and see everyone from Jackie Wilson to The Temptations to Duke Ellington. We would eat at my aunt’s restaurant where everyone would come and eat: Louis Armstrong would be there, Ella Fitzgerald, a famous organist named Jimmy Smith. Everyone who was worth their salt in that time period went to eat in that restaurant. The country thing came about when I was fourteen. My father was from Pennsylvania my mother met him in the USO he was a real country boy. I moved to Pennsylvania when I was fourteen or fifteen, to my grandfather’s farm. While I was there, I really got inoculated with the country music. I played guitar, so I played in a lot of bands and did Southern rock stuff. So I melded that with my jazz thing.
JazzReview: Now, as part of this, you have appeared at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club. How did you like it?
Allan Harris: I was just there. I was in their country thing, and was invited to be one of their artists. It was really interesting. This was one of those epiphanies. Some of my jazz fans and friends were apprehensive about my doing this because they thought I might ruin my jazz base. They opened their arms to me it was wonderful. I was befriended by Eddy Arnold and Earl Scruggs, and I got invited back to Nashville a couple of weeks ago by Vanderbilt University who did a party for all of the artists in the Kennedy Center country festival. I met a myriad of wonderful country folk who are very open to what I am doing. They are just surprised that more black folks aren’t more open to them. It was really a wonderful experience for me, the Kennedy Center thing, then going to Nashville the week after.
JazzReview: How would you say that a country audience is the same or different than a jazz audience?
Allan Harris: A country audience feels that their artists are approachable to them; that’s what I’m learning. I’ve been a jazz artist for so many years and been on stages with so many wonderful folk, from Clark Terry to Ray Brown. I’ve been grateful enough to share the stage with some of the legends of our genre to some of the young lions, too. Now that I’m doing this country thing, I’m finding that country audiences feel that, at any given moment, they can reach out and touch the performer and it will be reciprocated. The jazz audience believes that what happens on stage is almost iconistic. There’s not a lot of call and response between a jazz audience and jazz artists. There was a time in this country when it was that way, during the big band era. They need to get back to that, and I think that’s a large reason why jazz isn’t as popular as it should be. The audience feels that they can’t approach the artists, there’s almost like a reverence to it. Some of the music that the jazz artists are doing is very deep, so I understand why they have to get into it and pay strict attention to what’s happening on stage; but there has to be a time in the show where the audience feels that you are a part of them, too. This is why the jazz audience is really dwindling, and why they’re moving into other genres, to get that thing that audiences need: to touch the performers that they like. They’re getting that from the country performers.
JazzReview: The country genre has just exploded.
Allan Harris: Big-time. And they can pick, from performers like Vince Gill, who can sing like a bird and play like an animal, to Brad Paisley, who can just burn on the guitar, Marty Stewart, Ricky Skaggs, Allison Krause. When they are not singing, they torch something, they’re playing some serious stuff, almost on the same par as jazz cats.
JazzReview: How did all this make you feel as a jazz performer, and as a man of color?
Allan Harris: As a jazz performer, this has given me something that I needed: to feel that I’m having fun, too, and not just doing this to prove my technique. A country audience reciprocates that immediately; you get immediate response from them, not just for your talent and technique on your instrument. They appreciate it, and there’s a lot of love happening.
JazzReview: They embrace their performers.
Allan Harris: Yes! It’s beautiful. And there’s no bitterness; there’s no jazz police, "When they played the F9 chord " And, as a man of color, I’m torn between a lot of different things. I don’t want to be an anomaly, a novelty act, the jazz cowboy. I found that my trip to Nashville just completely washed that out of my mind, because I met some beautiful people, like Scatting Cowboy Jack McLean, who did fifteen of Charlie Pride’s albums, and most of Johnny Cash’s albums, and who also did a large recording of Louis Armstrong which he produced. It’s teaching me that I need to break down a lot of my attitudes about the white man in this industry, because I carry a lot of baggage, too. I had thought that I didn’t want to be the black person that they put on stage because they needed to fill a quota. Believe it or not, I went with that attitude at first; and this trip completely erased that from my mind. They want to embrace me not just as a man of color, but as a performer, first and foremost.
JazzReview: Every music teacher tries to teach the kids that music is a universal language, and of course it is.
Allan Harris: It really is. And I’m glad I’m getting back to that. I got away from that for a little bit. I put myself in a box for a while. This Cross That River project has brought me back to that, and in turn, I am bringing that back to my jazz and seeing it through different eyes now.
JazzReview: Do you think that this will make you try to be more approachable to jazz audiences?
Allan Harris: Totally. ‘Cause it’s not the audience’s fault that they have that distance between us, it’s my fault, it’s the artist’s fault. They’re only reacting to how they perceive my attitude on stage, cool and a little aloof. I put dark sunglasses on and my suit, and we’re buried with the band and doing our riffs, and I peek up every once in awhile to the audience; and they figure that’s how I want them to be with me. I can’t blame them for keeping that up every time they see me. It’s up to me to reach out to them and pull them in.
JazzReview: I agree with you; audiences are used to seeing the jazz musician having a good time on his own and we get to observe it. It sounds like you want to involve the audience in your music more.
Allan Harris: Oh, definitely, because I’m finding out that there’s a heightened level of magic you reach that you can’t get just on your own, playing your instrument. Of course, I get the high of singing or playing the guitar, and that’s an accomplishment. But there’s another high that you get when that bridge between you and the audience has been reached, because there’s a place that the audience can take you that the musicians onstage can’t take you, and it’s beyond technique, beyond learning the songs, beyond learning a certain melody. It’s something called a sharing of a common thing.
JazzReview: It sounds like you are doing so many things: you’re going to Nashville, you’re doing different kinds of performances. Where are you going to take it from here?
Allan Harris: Well, I’m going out to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I’ve been invited to go out there and do a show on June 25, and I’m really excited about this. It’s like a "Sauté and Swing" thing. It’s a wine auction. They open up their homes to different chefs, like Emeril Lagasse, they each go to different houses and cook; it’s like $10,000 a plate. I’ve been invited to one of the houses to perform; each house has a different performer. I’ve opted to stay three extra days, get a horse, ride around, see the Tetons. I hear it’s just beautiful. I’ve been to the West a lot; but I hear this part is breathtaking. After that, I’m going to Aspen, Colorado. They have a Literary Guild Festival every year; and this year’s theme is Western artists. All the modern Western artists who are worth their salt will be there. They’ve invited me to perform for their party. I’ll reach a number of people in this genre, and who knows what might happen.
JazzReview: That sounds so exciting! Speaking of reaching people, tell me about your "Artist Share" thing on your website.
Allan Harris: My wife, who does all my production work, was listening to Maria Snyder on NPR. She was talking about how she had just won one of the first independent jazz Grammys. She was explaining how she had hooked up with this group called Artist Share. You set this up online, and each person pays a participant share, from several thousand dollars down to maybe eighteen dollars, and they can get streaming video, backstage things, an in-depth look at the activities of an artist. Your fan base sends in money, and they get these perks in exchange. She raised over $100,000 with this. They own an insight into a project that they like. My wife said, "We need to do this." The entire Cross That River project has been funded by this. It’s been really great.
JazzReview: This sounds amazing; and it will bring your audience so much closer to the whole process. You were talking about how you want to bring your audiences closer, and now you will be bringing them closer to the daily workings of the project. They’re able to share the experience with you.
Allan Harris: And I get to get out of my tortoise shell for a minute and see what the average person who has followed my career for the past several years really thinks about. Now that they feel they have an invested interest in this, they can speak more freely. When they used to come backstage to talk to me, they would walk on eggshells. Now I get to understand how a fan really thinks that is totally into the artist without ulterior motives.
Jazz Review: Have you looked down the road to the future? What do you want to be doing in a year?
Allan Harris: I just got a great offer. I’m going to Ireland August 11 and 12. Nelson Riddle’s family is doing an anniversary then in Dublin; and they’ve invited me to sing some of his songs, his original charts, with a 62-piece orchestra. I am out of my mind, walking on clouds. You know, Nelson Riddle did fifteen of Nat King Cole’s albums. He did "Mona Lisa." He did one of my favorite Frank Sinatra albums, Songs of Swinging Lovers, with "You Make Me Feel So Young." They’ve got the original charts and I’m gonna sing them. The jazz side of me is just falling out of his skin with this offer.
JazzReview: So, you get the best of both worlds. I’m just assuming that you must be a consummate music reader to do all this.
Allan Harris: You have to be. It’s the shortest way. When you are as busy as I am, you don’t really have the time to spend.
JazzReview: Ok, here’s a platform for you to speak for music education. Tell the kids out there the importance of reading, especially the kids who might have not grown up with that importance in their life.
Allan Harris: Of course, we all try to get to a certain place in their life. The kids that you and I will be talking to have chosen music to get to wherever they want to get to at the end of the day, to find where you are as a human being, for yourself and your neighbor.. A lot of our contemporaries, a lot of people we listen to, read. But, every once in awhile, a genius comes along that doesn’t read. Take, for instance, Irving Berlin, who didn’t read.
JazzReview: ..who didn’t read and had to have a transcriber
Allan Harris: ..who had to have a piano with a bar on it, the transposing piano. Carlos Santana doesn’t read. George Benson doesn’t read. Some of the greatest composers in our contemporary music don’t read. This doesn’t mean that I don’t need to read to get where I want to go. They just found their path quicker than others. The majority of us need to have that path as an adult, because it’s a short road to your destination that’s all it is. It eliminates the need for trial and error; it eliminates mistakes. Once you get it out of the way, you can enjoy what it’s really about, which is the music. That’s why you need that under your belt. Of course, you may have that one student who is so great that they don’t really need it. I haven’t run into that person, have you?
JazzReview: Not yet.
Allan Harris: I haven’t run into that person yet. Of course they’re out there. Stevie Wonder’s out there.
JazzReview: And Stevie Wonder’s brilliant.
Allan Harris: Oh yes. He sat in with me ten years ago in a little club. A friend of ours brought Stevie in and he blew my mind. Stevie sat in for an hour; and he did nothing but standards: "Don’t Blame Me, "Night and Day." I couldn’t believe it. I have a picture of us together at that performance. But we’re talking about genius here. I’m not trying to lower the bar for that one child who might be listening to this that you’re writing. All I’m saying is, yes, reading is important. The mind is a big databank, and it can only handle so much before it starts frizzin’ out. Memorization is one thing that does it. If you read, that is one part of the brain that can just concentrate on the magic of the music. Am I making sense?
JazzReview: Of course, because reading becomes an automatic skill that frees the rest of you to really pay attention to the interpretation.
Allan Harris: Memorization and triall and error take a large amount of your brainpower to store all that. You could use a lot of that part of your brain to create; that’s what it’s for. Why crowd it with trial and error?
JazzReview: I totally agree. Thanks for talking about that. We’ve talked about so much today. I’d like to know if you have a wish in your mind that you still want to accomplish.
Allan Harris: Yes, I do. I love this question! No one ever asks me this. I’m a horseman. I love horses. I was raised around them. I used to go to my grandfather’s place and ride; I’m a freak for horses, especially the Arabian horse breed. I’m a student of this and have a library here of Arabian horse books that dates back to the early 1900s. Wherever I travel in the world, I try to go to the Arabian stud farm, when I’m in Turkey or Poland or Germany. In fact, there’s a famous Arabian horse farm in Tucson, Alhambra, run by one of the foremost Arabian breeders in our country. My dream is just have a wonderful place in the mountains, not really big, overlooking a lake, a big picture window in my studio with my guitars set up. And every morning I get up and write, and look through that picture window and see my horses in the pasture by the lake. That’s what I want to do. I know it’s a crazy dream; but that’s my dream. I live it vicariously through people who have horses and invite me out to stay with them. I just can’t get enough of the barn, and I ride, and I’m caught up in the whole thing. It’s something in my psyche that draws me to that. It helps my writing, it helps my outlook, and it makes me a more powerful person when I’m around horses.
JazzReview: It’s wonderful that you have another interest outside of music. It makes you a better person. Music is all-consuming and it can take you over.
Allan Harris: It’s never-ending and it’s all-consuming. There’s always something over the next mountain with it. The older I get, the more I realize how much more I have to learn, how much I’ll never learn; so I just have to try to learn what I can do, and I’m still learning.
JazzReview: It sounds like you’re doing a lot. Is there anything else you want our readers to be aware of?
Allan Harris: Don’t get caught up in the hype of the media, especially for the kids. Don’t get caught up in the American Idol thing, in "I can make this money right now and I’m gonna scream and yell because I want to get paid." Realize that, this gift that we’re given, those of us who can make people smile from the stage, it’s something that has to be really cherished and nurtured, because it’s so fleeting that it can be taken away any minute. No one knows how it’s taken away, whether it’s through bitterness or through who knows? You have to really cherish it that’s the most important thing, I feel.
JazzReview: One last question, please. At the end of the day, what makes you really happy?
Allan Harris: Wow you’re good. I was in Munich about a year and a half ago, and a little girl, about twelve, wanted to be a pop singer, and her mother kept bringing her to the concerts. I kept noticing her and I told one of the road managers to bring her backstage. She said, "Mr. Harris, how can you keep singing the same songs night after night? Don’t you get tired?" I said, "Put yourself in my shoes. This is what I do for a living. I make people smile. The last thing I’ll do before I go to bed tonight is see your face and the faces of the people out there who are smiling back at me. The Pope doesn’t have a gig like that. If you’re into this for the long haul, that’s what it should really be about: sharing this with your fellow man, ’cause that’s how you’re gonna get better."