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Lafayette Harris, Jr. is still “Swingin’ Up in Harlem’

 Lafayette Harris, Jr.
Paul de Luna
Lafayette Harris, Jr.

It was great to catch up with the pianist Lafayette Harris, Jr. to talk about his newest offering, Swingin' Up in Harlem released recently on Savant and produced by his once employer, the legendary Houston Person. We reminisced about the past jazz scene in Harlem, his ten years running the vocal jam session at the Lenox Lounge and how gratifying it was for him to work with Houston, Ernestine Anderson and other giants in jazz. Though the album is mostly comprised of standards, Lafayette penned two terrific originals. The always swinging and joyful pianist couldn't have asked for better "partners in time" than his incomparable friends Peter Washington (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums), who are masters of groove.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview Transcript:

Sheila Anderson: I know you must be happy at the success your album is garnering. I know you're up in the charts and I want you to tell us about this recording of yours. It is your 10th as a leader. Talk about Swingin' Up in Harlem and why you chose to make the record now and why up in Harlem.

Lafayette Harris, Jr.: Why not up in Harlem? I had a jam session and a vocal and open mic in Harlem for 10 years. I used to live in Harlem, back in the ‘80s. That's the second place I lived. I started living in Harlem in 1986 and stayed on 138th Street for about four years. I did lots of walking around Harlem. I worked at the Harlem School of the Arts so I got immersed in the neighborhood and the parents and the kids who were coming there to the school.

I really feel Harlem, because that's one of the places where I started out as a young person. I used to walk past a lot of clubs that were still happening in that time—The Baby Grand, The Lickity Split, The Lenox Lounge, Showman's, St. Nick’s Pub. and The Legion, of course.

There was Paris Blues. I've been living up in Harlem since 1991. When I began to immerse myself into the jazz scene, I had a Monday night routine. I'd start at the Local 802 Union jam session and I'd head to Zinno’s or whatever. I would always end my Monday night at St. Nick’s Pub and then walk home, if I was in the condition to walk home. Just the memories of so many great musicians that came through the clubs in Harlem. How did you make the connection with Lenox Lounge to run that jam session?

I was at a party. I think Rodney Kendrick threw some kind of party for his wife, and at that party Danny Mixon, who had a connection with the club, was there. As a matter of fact, it was one of the few times I ever heard of a musician getting paid through the union. That is a story in itself. Alvin Reed had hired Danny to do the booking, and Danny was looking for someone to take over the open mic.

We saw each other at the party and he said, “Lafayette, call me tomorrow, man. You're the perfect person for this thing I'm going to talk to you about.” I went ahead and called him the next day. We talked about the open mic and jam session and all the protocols. It was great. Ten years ago.

Before we talk about the record itself, let's talk about your beginnings. You hail from Baltimore, went to Oberlin and then got your master's at Rutgers. Talk about your mentors, Kenny Barron as well as Barry Harris. There's so many. I also want you to talk about your association with Max Roach and Houston Person. And talk specifically about Houston Person. You worked with him, but he also produced this recording.

Here in New York, my mentors of the piano were Walter Bishop Jr,. Barry Harris, Kenny Barron, Sammy Price. Before I came to New York, I had a great teacher in Baltimore, Charles Covington. Bobby Pierce who was in Columbus, Ohio. I went to Denison in my freshman year and stayed there one year. Then I went on to Oberlin. I didn't have a jazz piano teacher, but I studied classical with the late great Ms. Francis Walker, who's an African American woman. She was the sister of George Walker from Washington, D.C. I studied African-American music and jazz with the late Mr. Wendell Logan. When I moved to New York, about a year or two later in 1989, I was going to Kenny Barron's house in Brooklyn and studying with him and I thought, I'm going over here studying, I might as well get a degree. I said to him, “I'll just see you on campus at Rutgers down in New Jersey.” He was teaching down there then.

Those are some of my mentors. I used to watch Eubie Blake when he came to Baltimore a couple of times to do concerts. I would watch snippets of him on television, and I wanted to learn how to play the “Maple Leaf Rag.” It was a very hard piece for a kid, but I figured it out.

Did you want to be a musician from childhood or did you just sort of develop, because it's one thing to play an instrument, but to make a career doing that is a whole other level of commitment.

Sure is. Like many children in school at that time, talking about the late sixties and early seventies, you had little music classes. I lived in Germany for three years, from the third grade to the fifth grade. I got a recorder in the third grade and they brought in a teacher just to teach us how to play the recorder. So that was really my first music lesson. I was eight years old. I took piano when I was 11 and then when I became a teen, I was having fun playing with other musicians in Baltimore, playing in the funk bands.

At some point in my teenage years I said, “You know what, I could do this.” I was really into science and physics so my freshman year, I went to Baltimore Polytechnical Institute in Baltimore. We had marching band and jazz band after school. It was not a very big music school. We only had one music teacher, Mr. Funn. I have a science and technology background from going there. I was a physics and piano major my freshman year but ended up dropping the physics and went on to Oberlin, just with piano.

You're what we used to call a brainiac. Let’s go back to your beginnings in New York City. Even before the pandemic, things had changed as far as the clubs, the music, the industry.  When you came along, there were clubs, there were bands, there was mentorship, there were all kinds of things that are becoming fewer and fewer. Since you also teach, what kind of things do you tell your students who are starting out about what to do? What do you tell young people?

That's a very good point, a very good question. Most of the kids I have are still quite young and not really thinking about their future as much. Every now and then I get to be around some younger people who are really serious about music. I tell them that while mentorship is key, getting some comrades who are right there in your age group is also important as well. You're going to be developing around the same time, even if you are a super genius of music like Roy Hargrove. Although most of his friends his age weren't on his level, I’m sure that when he was in high school, it meant a lot to be around peers.

You kind of mix it in with study, with being around older musicians, going to the clubs, listening to people—especially live—and of course learning tunes. That's a big one. That was a definitely a big one for me because it’s hard to play with people if you don't know the songs they want to play.

Speaking of comrades, you're joined by your comrades, Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. Talk about what it's like to work with them and how was it different working with Houston Person as producer versus you working in his band?

Peter Washington was one of the first people I met when I moved to New York. and he told me later that he wasn't even living in New York. He had just come through to do something or maybe to hang out and we ended up playing on a jam session here in Brooklyn. It was just so wonderful to see somebody who was so advanced on this instrument at a young age.

I guess I was 21 and he must have been 20 or something like that. Super nice guy. Lewis Nash is an amazing drummer and musician. He is always so uplifting and supportive in his demeanor when he's speaking to you. I said one day I’ve got to make a record with these two guys. I had already made a few records in the past with some great people like Lonnie Plaxico, Cindy Blackman, Don Braden, Terell Stafford on my first record. Then, I just got the idea later to change it up and expand with Mr. Houston Person. I had the pleasure of working with him with Ernestine Anderson, together in her band.

I saw you several times. I love Ernestine. She was something else—fun to listen to and hang out with. She was delightful. You have the recording with Ernestine Live from Dizzy's.

That might have been the last record or maybe the next to the last, but I did her last three records and Houston was on them. I ended up being the band leader and music director. It was just so fortuitous that I was doing The Lenox Lounge open mic all that time because that was a great practice session for when I was with Ernestine.

Now what kinds of things are required or expected when you play behind a singer. Are there certain things that you have to tune your ear to?

I would say definitely that it's different than playing with a saxophone player. You’ve got to be really supportive. You find things that really work for that style of vocalist and they're all different. Ernestine was a big blues and church-influenced jazz singer. Then you have people who don't have that background so much. You have to be a piano player that can relate to that. If you hadn't played much blues or you didn't spend much time going to church because mama didn't get you out of bed or whatever, then you might have trouble with that. A more modern singer who's not so much into roots are doing more chord-based songs. They're like a piano player doing more pentatonics and fourths and more of those kind of things. Then of course you’ve got people that juggle and do it all.

I hear musicians comment about Ernestine Anderson and her generation of singers and they speak specifically about the kind of phrasing that that generation used. Is that something that you also take into account when you're phrasing? How you speak versus singing? For those who aren't musicians, break it down.

A lot of the jazz repertoire comes from Broadway shows, right? If you were to hear the composer sing it, or somebody on Broadway sing it, it would sound quite a bit different. Then if you heard Dinah Washington sing it, because she's bringing her life experience to it, which is a different experience than probably the person who's who composed that piece of music, she’s not going to be doing every note just like it is. There are going to be some delays. When she'll bring a phrase in, if it's written on the beat, you'll almost never hear it being sung on the beat. A lot of people coming from that Broadway world have a lot of trouble with trying to go to the jazz world.It ’s quite a difference in the field when you become more sophisticated, rhythmically.

 Cover of Lafayette Harris, Jr.'s album Swingin' Up in Harlem
Cover of Lafayette Harris, Jr.'s album Swingin' Up in Harlem

Speaking of a repertoire, on your newest recording, Swingin’ Up in Harlem, you have two originals. You open and close with those originals, and you also have some standards. I'm so glad to see more and more jazz musicians specifically doing Stevie Wonder, because I think he's one of the greatest composers alive. I'm glad he is getting the credit that he is due. Talk about your own composing, but also why you chose the songs that you chose.

Let's see, what can I say about my own composing? It's developed a lot more over the last 10, 15 years because I really took to heart a lot more of the teachings that Barry Harris was laying out for us. You're going to learn a lot of music by being around Barry Harris. When I say music, I mean songs, including a lot of songs that people don't remember anymore. I also got a big refresher course on the basics of music studying Barry Harris's techniques.

That led me to having an easier time writing more tunes. These two tunes that I wrote—“Swingin’ Up in Harlem” and “Nat’s Blues”—emerged as I was practicing some of his exercises, and before you knew it, I was writing a tune.

Now, who was “Nat’s Blues”? There are a few Nats. What Nat did you write the blues for?

It sounded like Nat King Cole piano playing to me, so I said, “Okay, this is ‘Nat’s Blues,’ you know?” On my last record I had a tune called, “Blues for Barry Harris.” When I was messing with that tune, I thought, “This sounds like Barry, so I'm going to name it after him.” I played it for him. I was over his house and got to play it for him.

I miss Barry already so much. Now, do you write lyrics?

I do write lyrics as a matter of fact. Jazzmeia Horn recorded one of my tunes earlier this year or maybe it was last year.

What was the name of that song?

I called it “She Could Be Perfect for Me.” She changed it to, “He Could Be Perfect for Me,” and I wrote the lyrics and the music. I had recorded it with Melba Moore singing on my second record on Muse. After hearing Jazzmeia sing at the Lenox Lounge, which is where I met her, I said, “You know what, I think Jazzmeia’s got the voice for this song.” I said to her, “Check it out.” And she loved it right away. She started doing it on her own gigs and then eventually recorded it.

What comes first? The lyrics or the melody?

It all varies. I'm not like those people who write songs all the time, like the great Stevie Wonder. Sometimes I just have music and sometimes I have lyrics. Sometimes they both come together like the song, “She Could be Perfect for Me”. The lyrics kind of came at the same time.

What is the significance of recording the album at Rudy Van Gelder's studio?

I got to get over there and record with Houston Person, maybe about six months before Rudy Van Gelder passed. I did meet him and got to be a musician in the studio on a project that he was engineering. The reason that I did my next record there is the Houston Person connection. He does all his recordings there so that was his suggestion that we go back there.

Speaking of Houston, that's a man that knows a lot of songs. Did he have input into the songs that you chose?

Very much so. He would say, “Okay, make your list, Lafayette, and then call me tonight and I'll give you mine.” And that's alright. You can have an idea and some of these songs I actually played with him in his band. Like “It's All in the Game.” I was going over to friend's house and that song was just percolating in my head. I love doing it with him. When I got to my friend's house, I just sat at the piano and started just trying to play it from memory. And I said, “I’ve got to record this song at some point.” I'm so glad that I had that opportunity.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In 1995 Sheila E. Anderson joined the staff of WBGO in Newark, New Jersey where she hosts Weekend Jazz Overnight and Salon Sessions. She has authored four books: The Quotable Musician: From Bach to Tupac (2003), How to Grow as A Musician: What All Musicians Must Know to Succeed (2005) (both published by Allworth Press), The Little Red Book of Musicians Wisdom (Skyhorse Press, 2012) and the 2nd edition of How to Grow as A Musician was published in 2019,

In addition to curating jazz at the Newark Museum of Art, Ms. Anderson is a 2017 Columbia University Community Scholar, an inaugural Dan
Morgenstern Fellow by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark
(2020), is a graduate of Baruch College and resides in Harlem, NYC.