Boise jazz pianist Gene Harris dies at 66
Artist’s health had been failing;
transplant was a month away
By Marianne Flagg
The Idaho Statesman
Gene Harris, internationally acclaimed jazz pianist and a
beloved cultural figure in the Treasure Valley, died
Sunday of complications from kidney failure — a
month before he would have received a kidney
from one of his daughters. He was 66.
Harris died at home about 1p.m. after suffering a
seizure. He had endured a series of health problems
for the past six years, including high blood pressure
and diabetes, which led to the kidney failure.
“He was the kindest, most giving, most generous
man,” said his wife of 21 years, Janie, surrounded by
family and friends at their Northwest Boise home. “He
loved life. He loved his music.”
Fans and friends were shocked by his sudden death.
“Idaho has lost one of its very best people,” said former Gov. Phil Batt,
an amateur clarinet player who had performed with Harris. “Not only
was Gene an immense talent, he was a genuinely wonderful person.”
Harris was a luminous figure in jazz and blues, a Grammy
Award-nominated pianist who had performed in the world’s most
famous clubs and festivals. He played on more than 80 recordings and
had shared the stage or recording studio with artists such as Joe
Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson and Nancy
Wilson. His career spanned musical styles and trends for 40 years.
He oversaw the debut in 1998 of a Boise jazz festival that bears his
name. A former Golden Gloves boxer, Harris used the power of his
large hands to create a percussive, swinging blues style that also
could be delicate and sweet.
But for a man who spent much of his life in robust health, the past few
years were difficult. Janie Harris said her husband had grown weary of
being ill and often had to be prodded to take his medicine or to
“When he turned 60, it was one thing after another,” Janie said. “He
had Bell’s palsy, congestive heart failure, which was reversed. He had
lost his eyesight.
“I don’t think he was comfortable living with the thought that someone
else’s organ would be in him — especially one from one of his
children,” she said.
At the time of his death, Harris had been preparing for a kidney
transplant that could have occurred within a month.
Harris’ daughter Beth Haire, who lives in Benton Harbor, Mich., was
given the green light by doctors to donate a kidney to her father.
Doctors at Swedish Hospital in Seattle cleared him for the transplant.
Harris had surgery Tuesday on his right eye to repair damage
resulting from diabetes. He came through the surgery in good
condition and had been recuperating at home, his wife said.
Harris had been walking out of the bathroom when he collapsed. “He
was shaking and sweating and he sat on a step,” Janie Harris said. “He
laid back and went into a seizure. I called his name and shook him.
After half a minute he came to. I said, ‘I’m going to get some help.’ He
said, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’
“He went into another seizure, and his heart stopped.” She called for
emergency medical help and administered cardiopulmonary
resuscitation, but he was dead by the time paramedics arrived.
As word of Harris’ death spread, family and friends called his wife and
made visits to the house, where tears were shed and laughter shared.
“It’s like losing my brother,” said Cherie Buckner, a close friend for
years and a singer who had performed with Harris. “He was just
charming and wonderful. My relationship with Gene was like family. I
am so in awe of his talent and I’m so knocked out by him
professionally. I’ll always have his music.
“But I’m mourning a brother. And I’m mourning for Janie. The love affair
between those two is storybook and then some.”
Harris’ music also touched fans.
“The thing I have been so impressed with in working with the festival is
how many people have been impacted by Gene’s music,” said Esther
Neely, executive producer of the Boise State University Gene Harris
Jazz Festival. “On our Web site, we consistently get comments from
people who say I have been a fan of Gene’s since he began making
music many years ago.”
A native of Benton Harbor, Mich., Harris inspired fans and fellow
musicians since the late 1950s. He first reached acclaim with the jazz
group The Four Sounds, later pared to The Three Sounds.
Harris played a variety of music. He dabbled in electronic pop in the
’70s, but it didn’t touch his soul.
Tired of touring, Harris announced his semi-retirement by moving to
Boise in 1977, having previously seen Boise while touring. He gigged
around town and settled into regular performances at Peter Schott’s
lounge in the Idanha Hotel, where he welcomed jams with local
Always highly regarded in the jazz world, Harris became known to a
wider audience in 1989, when he was up for a Grammy Award for Best
Big Band Jazz Instrumental for his recording “Gene Harris All-Star Big
Band Tribute to Count Basie.”
A tireless performer, he toured Japan, Australia and other countries,
and performed at New York’s legendary Blue Note club. Despite his
heavy touring schedule, Harris always made time for Treasure Valley
events, playing at the late-summer block party on 8th Street and at
Ste. Chapelle Jazz at the Winery concerts .
His last performance was in October at a jazz festival in Hawaii. After
that performance, he came home to gain strength for the transplant.
Harris had four grown children. A daughter, Tammy, died of cancer.
His son, Gene Harris Jr., lives in Tacoma, Wash. Another daughter,
Niki, is a singer and dancer who came to fame performing with
Niki Harris is in India performing — on her own, not with Madonna.
Harris’ family is trying to reach her.
Services have not been set. Janie Harris said it was likely that a
memorial service would be held this weekend, to give family time to
Contact Marianne at 377-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org