Opinion » Bill Cope

Janie's Own Jazz

Finally

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It's still a mystery to me how I came to prefer jazz over all other music. It wasn't early exposure. As far back as memory takes me, my big sister was serving up Bach and Brahms on the family upright. On Mom's radio stations, if there was any music at all between the sermons, it was stern hymns and the sort of soft, meandering fluff that funeral parlors always have playing in the background. Dad's radio always seemed to be tuned to a Hank Williams song.

I don't remember even hearing jazz until my early teens. An odd cousin from Iowa visited and brought his Dave Brubeck albums with him. I believe he intended to show my sister some of the things living people were doing with the piano, but I was the one who got hooked the hardest. Not long after, Mr. Cherry--the lone band man for the entire 1962 Meridian School District--started what I believe was the first high school jazz band in this corner of Idaho. (The first tune we learned was "Little Brown Jug," and to this day, I think that tune is one of the funkiest ever.)

Today, after half a century of listening to jazz, playing jazz, obsessing with jazz, worshipping at the altar of the old jazz gods and the new, Louis Armstrong and Art Tatum, Brubeck and Stan Getz, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and Maynard Ferguson right up through Wynton Marsalis, I am still intrigued by how an Idaho farm boy could fall so heavy for a musical expression birthed among Southern blacks and reared in big cities. Twenty-five years ago or so, I asked Janie Harris, another born-and-bred local like myself, why she thought people like us could come to love jazz in a place so remote from the origins.

"I see jazz as the language old souls use to reach one another," she said, or something like that. "It's not about different backgrounds or where we live. It's about sharing something universal within us."

Janie looked at everything through an intensely spiritual lens. To her, it was only natural that her life-long love of the music would lead her to the love of her life, Gene Harris.

Janie died in May. By then, she had been battling cancer for more than three years. Almost two years ago, I wrote about the vile injustice that had been done to her by the insurance company that had dropped her coverage and also about a fund-raising concert organized by Paul Tillotson (BW, Opinion, "Cancerous," Aug. 19, 2009). At the time of the concert her cancer was in remission. It came back. By May this spiritual, kind and loving woman who had traveled the world at the side of one of the greatest jazz musicians to have ever strode a piano was losing her home to foreclosure. There wasn't enough money left to throw a funeral or pay for an obituary in the paper.

I have struggled since then to find a way to write one last time about Janie Harris, my friend. I couldn't do it. I'd written about her husband several times over the years, but somehow, especially when he died in 2000, I always knew what I wanted to say about him. Over the years since I'd met him and Janie, Gene had shared his stage with me and several of the luckiest musicians to have ever called Boise home. Maybe I could write so freely about Gene because during all those nights down at Peter Schott's and all those summer afternoons out at St. Chapelle, during all those sweet Gene tunes we played together, that Janie was right--that he and I had "shared something universal within us."

Except for those times she came to the stage to sing her duet with Gene on "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries," Janie and I never made music together. Perhaps that's why I was stuck ... blocked ... left dry with what to write about her when she died. I'd known her, to the minute, as long as I'd known Gene. The two of them had dined in our home several times, and if there is one thing Janie wasn't, it was a shrinking violet. The two of them were grand talkers and always seemed to be speaking in the same key. They were in tune with one another like few couples I have met. I knew her as well as I knew Gene and probably better on many levels because we had grown up within a 10-mile circle of one another.

Still I couldn't find the words I wanted to say of her. I was angry over the injustice surrounding her dying--the insurance company dropping her, the loss of everything she and Gene had earned, the ignobleness of what this noble woman had gone through in her last years--and maybe I didn't want the last thing I would probably say to her memory to be angry. So I put it off. And put it off. I just didn't know what to say.

Then, on Aug. 9, I stumbled across her belated obituary. I was relieved to see it, that this final record of Janie Harris' passing had shown up. I was so relieved, evidently, that I neglected to read the whole thing and didn't see the most relevant part--the part about the memorial celebration set for a few days later. And we missed it, my wife and I.

Only then, when I learned I had missed this last bow to such an elegant old soul, did I know what I had to say. First I must tell Cherie Buckner-Webb (another elegant old soul, believe you me) that you are a wondrous person for arranging for the memorial and not letting Janie go so unsung, and I am so sorry for not being there.

And to Janie's family, again, sorry. Rebecca and I should have been there. But in lieu of changing that which can't be changed, let me say that we loved your mother, sister, grandmother, aunt, and that we will miss her forever. Or until that day we're there to hear her and Gene again sing "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries."

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