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From Brooklyn to Britain: Allan Harris
This November, the Brooklyn, NYC born musician is performing on the stage in London, before taking part in the opening gala of the London Jazz Festival 2018. Allan Harris spoke to us about his jazz inspirations, his love of England, and US/UK cultural connections
Thank you so much for speaking with us Allan. Our traditional first question to start, where in the States are you from?
I am from Brooklyn, NY originally but I now live in the Sugar Hill area which was recently renamed Hamilton Heights in Harlem.
How did you first become interested in music, and in particular Jazz? Was there music in your family?
My mother was a classical pianist, and graduated from the first graduating class of the School of Performing Arts in New York. Her sister, my Aunt Theodosia, was an opera singer who turned to the blues. She was managed by the foremost African American producer in the country, Clarence Williams. He wanted her to be the next Bessie Smith. My other aunt owned a soul food restaurant next to the Apollo Theater called Kate's Home Cooking where all the entertainers dined. I used to go to the matinees on Sundays and then go to my Aunt’s restaurant and absorb all the conversations going on around me. My mother wanted me to play piano, but my Aunt Theodosia bought me a guitar and that started my love of the guitar. But to give my mother credit, she encouraged me to sing for a school project at the Catholic School I was attending so at the age of seven I sang a nervous yet cheerful version of the tune Blue Velvet. The nuns who were my teachers went crazy and brought everyone into classroom and asked me to sing it again. In that one single moment I realized that being a musician and an artist was the path in life I was going to pursue.
They say that where we grow up is a huge influence when it comes to our lives - did your surroundings in NYC contribute to your music?
Oh definitely, I was always taken as a child to the Opera, Broadway plays and musicals, ballets and jazz clubs. Sometimes on weekends I would spend time at my cousin's father's house in St. Albans Queens. He was Clarence Williams, one of the first African American record producers. Entertainers such as Louis Armstrong would frequent his house. When my mother went into labour her childhood friend and performing arts classmate, the late great ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell, took her to the Hospital where I was born. My family was so proud when he opened the first all Black classical Ballet company, the Dance Theater of Harlem. So to answer the question, my surroundings had everything to do with the the music I was trying and still trying to develop.
Another big influence for you seems to be Eddie Jefferson - your latest album is called The Genius of Eddie Jefferson. What was special for you about Jefferson's music?
Eddie Jefferson was an artist of exceptional talent. I know the phrase he's a genius has been bantered about very loosely when describing certain people or genres of music and art, but when one attempts to tackle and learn the prose and the poetry of Jefferson's lyrical content, you begin to fully realize that this unsung hero was a true genius. To apply the exact words and rhythms to the solo's of the greatest instrumentalists in Jazz while not losing the swinging structure of the tune is in my opininion genius.
Who are your favorite musicians, past and present?
That is a daunting question for my palate for listening and learning is so vast and eclectic that to single out one particular person is narrow. I do have a number of musicians who have influenced me starting with Nat Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire and Led Zeppelin. Some of the musicians who are my favorites now are Keb Mo, John Mayer, Vince Gill, Dianne Reeves and Gregory Porter!
During November, you're performing in the UK as part of the London Jazz Festival. The event has got quite a reputation for American musicians coming to the UK, how does it feel to be part of that 'American Invasion'?
I look at it as not an invasion but as a swinging homecoming! Not only do we share the same language we have always listened and exchanged the same music. From Big Band during the war era, to soul, rock, the blues and even country, the UK has been our second home when it comes to cultural exchange. For after all, we are the UK's prodigal step children.
This isn't the first time you've performed in the UK - you were also part of the London Olympics in 2012! How did you get involved, and what was it like to perform as part of that huge occasion in the UK?
I was invited to perform with a well known Russian big band Igor Butman & The Moscow Jazz Orchestra and they put me up at the Russian House. It was very interesting to say the least. I was a cultural fly on the wall. I sang for dignitaries from all over the world and had the pleasure of meeting some past and present Olympic legends. London really put out the red carpet for the Olympics and showed the rest of the world how to embrace each other with warmth and respect. I really fell in love with England from that moment on!
What do you like to do or where do you like to visit when in the UK?
I have met and kept in contact with so many wonderful people in the UK I am now having to really limit my social calendar for I just can't see and do everything I would like to do! But I do enjoy going for long walks in Hyde Park, dining in Soho, shopping in Kensington, meeting with friends like Rainer Becker who opened Oblix in the Shard Building where I actually performed for six weeks. I also love going to Ronnie Scotts or Pizza Express to hear some music. This is my second time performing during the London Jazz Festival and funny enough, two years ago I did 10 concerts in 10 days all over London. The band and I played in pubs, book stores, museums and shops all over London and meeting the locals was really a great experience. But this November, I am really looking forward to enjoying the company of the amazing conductor/arranger Guy Barker and his fabulous orchestra as we get ready for the opening night concert at Southbank Centre at Royal Festival Hall "Jazz Voice."
What can visitors to your London concerts expect, and what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Expect to hear and see an artist who with his soulfully swinging band makes you laugh, cry and tap your feet to a myriad of jazz and soul music!
Finally, what's the best thing about being Allan Harris?
I am still figuring that out! Actually the best thing about being Allan Harris is lying down at night after a performance, closing my eyes and seeing hundreds of smiling faces before I drift off. I am truly blessed.
Allan Harris is in London this November, and will be performing at The Pheasantry in London, on November 12th and 13th, at the Southbank Centre on November 16th as part of the opening of 2018's London Jazz Festival, and at the Jazz Lounge in Hampstead (NW3) on November 17th. Book tickets via www.allanharris.com/shows.