Jazzman Allan Harris Tells a Cowboy Tale His song cycle Cross That River tells how African Americans helped shape the western frontier. The CD is part of a project that includes a novel, a musical and plans for an educational offering in Harlem schools.
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Jazzman Allan Harris Tells a Cowboy Tale

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Jazzman Allan Harris Tells a Cowboy Tale

Jazzman Allan Harris Tells a Cowboy Tale

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In jazz circles, singer Allan Harris is known as a crooner who favors old standards, including show tunes. Think Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ALLAN HARRIS (Singer): (Singing) I have often walked down this street before. But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.

ELLIOTT: Allan Harris' newest project is quite a departure from that sound.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HARRIS: (Singing) Buffalo soldiers, fighting men rode for the Army, the pain of the of the land. Nobody messed with the ninth and tenth from the Kansas plains to the Rio Grande.

ELLIOTT: This new CD is called Cross That River. And it's more like the soundtrack to an Old West musical. The songs on the album tell the story of the African American cowboy. Allan Harris joins us in NPR's Studio 4A. Welcome to the show.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: So tell us how you got from jazz standards to the Old West.

Mr. HARRIS: It wasn't a big leap. I grew up with a Western world. My father used to take me to the movies and...

ELLIOTT: The old Westerns...

Mr. HARRIS: The old Westerns. You know, I loved all the John Ford flicks. And I spent a lot of my summers in western Pennsylvania. My grandfather had a - about a 500 acre farm and we moved there when I was 14 years old, and it was tough work. Believe me. I broke some horses while I was there. I learned to really ride properly. And being in that area I was in a lot of country rock bands.

ELLIOTT: That's not the kind of music you expect to hear of a jazz crooner talking about, you know?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, exactly. I've always kept it hidden from my fan base now, but...


Mr. HARRIS: For a number of reasons. I just really wanted to develop my voice.

ELLIOTT: So now you're kind of midway through your career and you felt a little freedom to reach back a little bit, reach down into some roots?

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. Well, I wanted to do this just for myself at first, just to release some pathos. And little did I know it would start - it would morph into this. It's evolved - now it's part of my whole demeanor.

ELLIOTT: Now, when slaves left the South and found freedom out West, how did they navigate in that world? What did you find as you were researching for this?

Mr. HARRIS: I found that a lot of homesteaders and white ranchers really were brave. They were brave. And no one really talks about that heroism. I sing about that in the next series of songs that I'm writing for the - the saga's three parts. And I sing about that because it was an act called the Fugitive Slave Act which Congress passed which stated if you as a white landowner, or rancher, harbored a runaway slave, you could not only be put into jail but your property could be taken and auctioned off. So it was pretty brave for them to take these free slaves in. So there was a lot of open arms for them out there.

ELLIOTT: Were you surprised at all at anything that you learned about the role of African Americans in conquering the Western frontier?

Mr. HARRIS: The main thing where I was surprised was how it was smothered in history books, you know, for so long. It really was. It was conscious effort in mainstream America at the time to really not depict the story of these people. And I'm - and I'm trying to figure out why, and I can't get any clear answers, so obviously I'm - it's up to my own devices to come up with it, which is why I've written this story.

And I feel that there needs to be something in history that we can look at other than just picking cotton and being porters and mammies. Because I feel that the children now, Generation X, needs to see that there was a noble part that we played in the conquering of this country.

ELLIOTT: Now this album has been called a song cycle. Each song picks up on a little more of the story. And it starts in the South, where you have freed slaves trying to get out of the South and many of them find their way west. In fact, the first song, the title track, Cross That River - would you mind playing that for us?

Mr. HARRIS: Sure. It's - it's the main character, Blue, who's the main character in the story. And this song tells of - a short announcement of him escaping from the plantation in Louisiana, across the river into Texas.

(Soundbite of song Cross the River)

Mr. HARRIS: (Singing) Mamma said a white man be coming in the morning. Gonna drag big daddy away. Sold him to the next farm. Gonna breed him to the stock there. I guess that's where he's gonna stay. They took baby sister up to that big house, learn her to cook and mend their things. Sometimes in the late night underneath that staircase sister rocks herself to sleep. They say there's an old man that take you across that river. Nobody knows his name. Sometimes around a full moon better make it to that river and hide along the bank 'til he whispers your name.

Cross that river. The dogs gonna run away down on the south fork. Mamma said it's gonna be okay. But we heard that man screaming to the early dawn. Lord he kept us all awake. I know there's a pretty place way across that river where the wild ponies run and play. One day I'm gonna get there if it takes me a lifetime. A lifetime of being a slave.

ELLIOTT: Allan Harris singing Cross That River, the title track of his new CD. Pretty powerful music.

Mr. HARRIS: The song took on so many different connotations for me, just - not the slave thing but just cross that river in my mind. I really had to dig deep into a part of my psyche that I thought was lost as a teenager. I decided to shed a lot of things. And this one was the façade of not being a jazz singer, which I love, but just showing my audience and my fan base the whole spectrum of who I am.

ELLIOTT: Because it was risky for you to cross that river musically, right?

Mr. HARRIS: Very. Very risky. You know this - jazz is my bread and butter. Many people in my fold, my entourage, were kind of taken aback. Not discouraging, they just gave me a - a high brow look of...

ELLIOTT: Like are you sure you really want to do this?

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. You sure you want to - you know, you do want to keep eating, don't you? I mean...

ELLIOTT: Now, this music has gotten you entrée into sort of a new crowd. I see you spend some time in Nashville these days. How is that different than the jazz world that you're used to?

Mr. HARRIS: It's - whoa - jazz is, it's an elitist art form, you know? Rightly so, you know, because technically you have to be efficient to play your instrument and your craft. The country fold, the Americana fold, the folk, the root music, you have to be proficient in storytelling and bringing to the table what you are as a person and what you've lived through. And that's what your fan base wants to hear. They don't care about E flat ninth and how you sat down and orchestrated this one melody. And it's really not important to them.

What's important to them is that the songs that you're singing is something that is real, that they can relate to. I found that with the country music and root music, right out of the box you can just sing what you're about and the audience will embrace you. Just three chords, you know.

(Singing): I'm here on the porch and I (unintelligible) the dog done bit me and my wife have left me and the pickup is down and the..

(Speaking) And people can relate to that because they have dogs and the wife left and the pickup truck is broken down. So they relate to that.

ELLIOTT: That's their story.

Mr. HARRIS: That's their story, you know, they want to hear it. When you're singing a standard in jazz, more or less, there's almost an air of critique-ness for the first few bars as they look at you, because they really want you to nail the song done. If you're doing a song that Sarah Vaughan make popular or Ella Fitzgerald made popular or Tony Bennett made popular, they're - they're a very hard audience to - well, there's a term we use, it's called the jazz police.

ELLIOTT: The jazz police.

Mr. HARRIS: The jazz police...

ELLIOTT: They're going to get you.

Mr. HARRIS: They're going to get you. Because they'll come at you at the end of the show: you know, in 1958 I saw Mel Torme do that song Stardust, and you know the line that you use in that song, he sang it differently; you should learn how to do it that first before you start making up your own stuff.

ELLIOTT: So this has helped you find your own voice.

Mr. HARRIS: Totally, I love it. I love it. I love those country folks. I love them. And they're bringing my jazz folks into the tent with them.

ELLIOTT: They are? Your jazz folks are okay with this?

Mr. HARRIS: They're kicking and screaming but they're coming in. And once they're coming in, they're like, oh, okay. I like it, it's all right. Okay, but do another Nat King Cole after that one.

ELLIOTT: See, now I read where that's your next big project, is Nat King Cole.

Mr. HARRIS: It is.

ELLIOTT: I happen to be a Nat King Cole fan.


ELLIOTT: You're not going to give me just a little sample are you?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, you never know.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HARRIS (Singing): Gee, its great after being out late, walking my baby back home. Arm in arm over meadow and farm, walking my baby back home.

Mr. HARRIS: There you go.

ELLIOTT: Thank you.

Mr. HARRIS: You're welcome.

ELLIOTT: Thank you very much.

Mr. HARRIS: You're so welcome.

ELLIOTT: Will you take us out on a song from your more country CD, Cross That River?

Mr. HARRIS: Sure. I'll do something bright and airy, Mail Order Woman.

ELLIOTT: Mail Order Woman.

Mr. HARRIS: Mail Order Woman.

ELLIOTT: And this is about the brides that went out West?

Mr. HARRIS: Yes. And this song is about the character, Annie Hutchinson, in the story, and she's from Philadelphia. She comes out to meet this guy called Ben Tiller. And later on in the story I sing something about how depressed she is, but this is her on the train coming out. And she's happy and cheerful.

ELLIOTT: Allan Harris, thank you so much for joining us here in NPR Studio 4A.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of song Mail Order Woman)

Mr. HARRIS (Singing): Her hand grabbed the handle of that old leather satchel that contained all her petticoats and dreams. The other clutched that letter from the fellow who would get her at the station in Old Abilene. She's 20 years and seven. Her folks have gone to heaven. Just a widow without any...

ELLIOTT: You can hear more of Allan Harris' Studio 4A performance at npr.org.

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