Elegant Soul: The Life and Music of Gene Harris traces the late jazz-blues pianist's rise from child music prodigy to one of the world's greatest performers. Written by his wife Janie Harris (with research and interviews by Bob Evancho), the account is peppered with opinions and insights forged by the author during their 15-year marriage.
The beautifully designed Elegant Soul tells Gene's story through words and more than 200 color photographs. The pictures include Gene and Janie with international celebrities such as Dizzy Gillespie and George and Barbara Bush, as well as Boise notables Peter Schott and Curtis Stigers.
Chapter one begins, "Eugene Haire, the second of John and Ruby Haire's four children, was born on September 1, 1933, in Benton Harbor, Michigan ... Years later John and Ruby's son would take the stage name Gene Harris." It identifies Gene's elementary school and even cites the win/loss record of his high school basketball team.
The minutiae may delight jazz-trivia addicts, but readers looking for a meaningful and objective assessment of Gene's character and personal and professional relationships will be disappointed. Sandwiched between a prologue and epilogue that resonate with Harris' love for her husband, the biography never probes the causes or emotional impact of key events in his life.
No reason is given for Gene's decision to change his name. His early gang involvement, drug use and illegitimate children also receive cursory treatment.
Gene fathered six children out of wedlock, and participated little in their upbringing. The author puts a rosy spin on his parenting, "Ironically, it was those personal issues that drove Gene to be the great pianist that he was. He internalized all of the conflict and pain and used his music as his outlet."
Gene joined the service in 1951. Riding on a train filled with soldiers bound for Fort Bragg, black soldiers were ordered to the back when it crossed the Mason-Dixon line. "Gene told me he had never experienced anything so degrading and infuriating," Harris writes. She does not investigate further and concludes, "Fortunately, Gene's ability at sports and music would help make his time in the Army considerably less dangerous and humiliating that it could have been."
The majority of chapters discuss Gene's career in music, and Harris faithfully records names and dates.
In the 1960s, Gene saw fellow jazz pianist Thelonious Monk play at a bar. Monk arrived late for his show, and once on stage he pounded the piano and shouted obscenities. Harris reports, "According to Gene, it was a farce, a total contrivance ... That was a part of jazz that he wasn't proud of."
Gene gained fame with The Three Sounds and played jazz and pop-oriented fusion throughout the 1970s. He settled in Boise in 1977, and met his future wife at Peter Schott's Lounge. The author remembers, "We were just like old friends catching up on the bits of each other's lives that we had missed over the years. A few months later we were pretty much inseparable." The couple married in 1985.
From 1989 to 1991, as pianist and leader for several Philip Morris Superbands, Gene toured the world with such international superstars as B.B. King and Ray Charles.
Harris relates a story about Charles in chapter seven that brings the jazz world alive. As the blind singer prepared to go on stage, he brushed against the author and said, "Oh, girl, your blouse feels soft and silky." A stage manager told him she was Mrs. Harris. "And without missing a beat," Harris writes, "Charles reached out, touched my breasts and said, 'Why, yes it is.'"
In 1998, Boise held the first Gene Harris Jazz Festival. Gene had suffered various health problems by this time, including a bout with Bell's palsy and kidney failure, but pressed on with a busy touring and performance schedule. Harris writes, "While his body was slowly failing him, Gene's music continued to sustain him."
He played his last concert in October 1999. He died at home on January 16, 2000, with Janie Harris at his side.
Elegant Soul provides a complete account of Gene's life and work, but fails to paint a vibrant portrait of Gene Harris the man. Readers will come away knowing the chronology of his music career, the names of dozens of artists he worked with and the clubs he played in. They'll even know the name of his Boise eye doctor. What they will not have, however, is a sense of what drove him to the heights of success, or the price he paid to get there.
About one third of the way through the book, Harris writes, "Gene was born to play. He was labeled a jazz musician but called himself 'a blues player with chops.'" Elegant Soul leaves readers longing to hear more about those chops.