Mr. Cope’s Cave: Just Wild About Harry


Boise lost a good one last week. Harry Lawless. This wouldn’t be the same town had he not come along. From Georgia originally, Harry had his banjo-plucking fingers in the foundations of so many things that now define our city—Alive After Five, the farmers market, the Gene Harris Jazz Festival.

So how’d an un-civic-minded mug like me get to know Harry?

As it turns out, he was an ardent jazz fan, but not just any old jazz. He had a deep love of the earliest roots of that most American of arts. I’d always called it, simply and wrongly, “Dixieland.”

Harry called it “trad” (for “traditional”) and when we got together, the four of us that formed the core of the Capitol City Jazz Band, he called it a “trad band.”

It all came about because Harry was doing promotions out at the St. Chapelle Winery, one of which was an annual exhibit of the Idaho Wool Growers Association. It amounted to a Sunday of intense Basque-ness: wine out of botas, mutton kabobs, sheep-shearing... that sort of thing. (They may still do it; I’ve just stopped paying attention.)

In 1987, the St. Chapelle people asked Harry to hire a band to play the event, and Harry thought Why not an oldy-time trad band to go with the oldy-time flavor of the exhibit?

Trouble was there were no oldy-time trad bands in Boise at the time, which offered Harry his opening to ask a few of us who played in Gene Harris’ shadow to join him and make an afternoon of it. Larry Boyd on tuba, Billy Mitchell on cornet, me on trombone and himself on banjo. One rehearsal, four hours of playing for a crowd who had never heard anything like it before, and we all knew this was going to go on for a hell of a lot longer than one afternoon.

Capitol City played together for over 20 years. Ground breakings (the Towne Square mall, for one) grand openings (Centre on the Grove Convention Center, an example), festivals (e.g., the Sun Valley Swingin’ Dixie Festival) private parties, public parties, Kentucky Derby parties, Fat Tuesday parties, St. Paddy’s Day parties, Christmas parties, political fund-raisers (Larry Craig hopped up on stage during one of them and sort of  sang with us, by which I mean he didn’t know the words to the song he’d actually requested), Alive After Five, the Idaho Centennial (we were standing next to the track when the biggest steam engine in the world rolled into the depot and shook the ground), Hawks’ games, the River Fest (remind me to tell you sometime about the rainy night were playing on a raft, floating down the Boise, all lit up and amplified with juice from a generator, and the river was so swollen that the raft’s superstructure hit the bottom of a bridge and we just about tipped over backwards. Whoowee! Having some fun now!) and funerals (among which was Larry Boyd’s, with an empty chair there where Larry would have been).

We played old folks’ homes, the VA nursing home and schools whenever a band director wanted to show his kids what other kinds of music there are in the world. We played at the memorial service Boise held for Gene, and we played everywhere Phil Batt asked us to play, and for other reasons than that we always knew we could get a clarinet player for free that day.

We were bid for, and bought, at Fundsy auctions. We played for free a lot of the times, and for good money a lot of the other times. But... other than those jobs where we were either baking like griddle-cakes on a parking lot in the summer sun or freezing our asses of at some insane out-door function in the middle of winter... we played as much for the love of it as the money. And nobody loved what we were doing more than Harry. Unlike Larry, Billy and I, Harry had never played music professionally before Capitol City. He had always been an amateur in the truest sense of the word. You know... that “amo, amas, amat” stuff.

In 20-some years of being together in a band (or anything, I suppose) you either grow to be stronger and stronger friends, or... well, there is no or, because if you don’t grow to be strong friends, there is no 20-some years of being together. This is, as closely as I can express it, what Harry meant to me: A third of my life spent doing something I loved with people who loved doing it as much as I, and at some point, I realized I loved the people as much as what we were doing together.

I want his kids, all six of ‘em, to know that we shared a blessing, Harry and I, and it was a blessing sharing it with him. Tomorrow, Billy, Phil and I will play one more time, with an empty chair there where Harry would have been.

And Harry, before you go, just one more banjo joke: What do you do when your friend’s banjo catches on fire.

Nothing! Just let it burn!

Here’s to you, pal.