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Singer and composer Allan Harris brings his musical Cross That River to NYC

Singer Allan Harris stars as "Blue" in Cross That River
Allan and Pat Harris
Singer Allan Harris stars as "Blue" in Cross That River

Singer and composer Allan Harris brings his Cross That River musical to 59E59 Theaters in New York City through October 8. Harris and his wife Pat wrote the book which tells the tale of a runaway slave in the 1860's unsettled West. That territory and backdrop provide a new life and new dreams for "Blue" who escapes to Texas to become one of America's first Black cowboys.

Harris, who was a finalist in the most recent edition of the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition spoke with WBGO News Director Doug Doyle about composing the music for Cross that River and playing the lead role.

"The genesis comes from grandfather and father have a farm in Western Pennsylvania, a place called McDonald, PA. I rode horses there and learned how to ride. I saw many people of color who rode horses on my grandfather's farm and they worked there. I would come back from summer break when I was young. At school I was always admonished by those kids saying there weren't any Black cowboys. I would say really? I know a few! Years later, when a had a little sabbatical from my jazz stuff, I decided to write a few songs based on Country Western meets R&B meets Jazz and out of this came this story of a runaway slave who becomes a Black cowboy. It's based on historical fiction. Little did I know it would morph into this years later."

Cross That River runs through October 8 at 59E59 Theaters in NYC
Love Productions Records/Allan and Pat Harris
Cross That River runs through October 8 at 59E59 Theaters in NYC

How has the music of Cross That River changed the acclaimed jazz singer?

"I've changed in a number of ways. One is understanding my peers in the country and blue grass world. Being on stage with them the past few years has made me realize what monsters they are on their instruments. Since I've had these guys incorporate their styles into mine, it's been wonderful. It's changed my mind in the past ten years. These country cats can pick and play!"

Working professionally with his wife Pat for many years has produced great results for Allan.

"She's an English major. Her writing ability, from the books and thesis she's written, Pat has brought that to my table and added that to my story. She brings a sort of Victorian flavor to my writing, which is good. In turn it's rubbed off on my music too. We have a wonderful relationship. It helps that she's also my best friend."

Singer and composer Allan Harris
Courtesy of the artist
Singer and composer Allan Harris

Has playing "Blue" made Allan a better jazz singer?

"Yes, unlike in Jazz, there is no improv for vocalists in Country BlueGrass, there's none. When the song is written, you have to sing it just exactly the way it is because you're telling a story. So I brought those skills now back into the Jazz world that I inhabit. I'm starting to explore some the Standards that I used to filter and mess with and I'm starting to sing straight. People are embracing that again. They want to hear a voice that tells them a story, tells it with brevity and tells it where they can understand it."

The cast of Cross That River includes Allan Harris (Blue), Taylor Elisa Jackson (Ragtime), Brooke Sterling (Mystic Pizza) and Jeffery Lewis (“Ma’s House”).

Cross That River will also feature ArcoIris Sandoval as Music Director, piano and keyboard; Norman Edwards Jr. on drums, percussion & background vocals; Paul Beaudry on bass; Alan Grubner on violin; and Alicyn Yaffee on guitar and background vocals. Cross That River will feature lighting design by Michael Giannitti and projection design by Joey Moro. Alex Moore serves as stage manager and Jade Elliot is the sound technician, with additional casting by Stephanie Klapper.

You can SEE the interview with Allan Harris here.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 250 awards from organizations like PRNDI (now PMJA), AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.