The Detroit jazz community, so tremendously rich in talent, has suffered several losses in recent years, most recently with the death of bassist Ray McKinney. The passing of these brilliant torches only makes the city’s living legends that much more precious.
One of those legends is Teddy Harris Jr., who experienced a jazz epiphany at the tender age of 7, inspired by a live performance by Duke Ellington. Not surprisingly, his newfound career of choice was embraced and nurtured by Teddy Harris Sr., a Detroit jazz pianist of note.
Under the tutelage of his father, Harris evolved into one of Detroit’s most prolific and treasured jazz musicians. He can play nine musical instruments — leaning toward the saxophone in his youth and the piano later in life — and has done so on six continents and in over 35 countries. He cut his musical teeth in the ’60s, working with Aretha Franklin and Motown acts such as Martha Reeves and the Supremes. He’s studied in Paris, lectured in Africa, performed for members of the British royal family, played the Woodstock festival with Paul Butterfield and even taken the stage with Sammy Davis Jr.
Unfortunately, Harris hasn’t been well of late. He suffers from sciatic nerve damage, which causes pain in the legs and feet and limits mobility. Because Harris is a working musician, time off for rest equals a blow to the pocketbook.
The idea of a benefit was first pitched by John Colbert, co-owner of the historic Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, where Harris performs and oversees a jam session every Wednesday.
“I thought we could raise some money so it would be like a paid vacation for him,” says Colbert. “This would allow him to have some money saved up if he needs time off to tend to his health problems.”
“He’s my top pianist,” says Colbert. “He’s the consummate professional, and he gives 100 percent at his work,” says Colbert. “He wants to continue to play as long as he can.”
Harris’ birthday occurs two days after the fundraiser, making it a joint celebration.
“I’ll be 70 years old, the same age as the club,” says Harris with a smile, on a Thursday night at Baker’s between sets with his New Breed Bebop Society Orchestra, a once-a-month attraction at Baker’s.
Harris, soft-spoken and gracious, is rail thin. He says the pain in his left leg and foot had become so severe he lost his appetite. He leans on a black cane, and gingerly, painstakingly slowly lowers himself to the piano bench. But once seated, Harris’ fingers fly across the keyboard, unleashing a sparkling stream of beautiful harmonies.
His left foot rests underneath the piano bench, still as a rock, while the right taps a beat.
Harris is optimistic, indicating that he’s improving with physical therapy.
“Everything seems to be coming back around,” he says.
And while Harris has trouble getting around, his fingers are still agile and artful.
Saxophonist Wendell Harrison recently gigged with Harris at the African American Music Festival on Hart Plaza where they backed up singer Dennis Rowland in a rollicking tribute to Count Basie.
“He hasn’t been well, but he made it there, and he made it with flying colors,” says Harrison of the gig. “When it comes to music, Teddy’s gonna play. If he can get there, he’ll play.”
Harrison will be making a guest appearance at the benefit, along with more than two dozen jazz luminaries from near and far, among them: Donald Byrd, Martha Reeves, James Carter, Donald Mayberry, Donald Waldman, Ernie Rogers, Larry Nozero, Marion Hayden, Kenn Cox and Dwight Adams.
“It should be a glorious affair,” says Harris; then he rises from his break and heads back to his piano.
Teddy Harris Jr.’s Benefit/70th Birthday Party Jam Session is Wednesday, Aug. 25, at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, 20510 Livernois (just south of Eight Mile), Detroit. Doors open at 7 p.m.; reserved seating is $25, and general admission is $10. Call 313-345-6300 for more info.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]