Last night I went to a memorial service for Harry Whitaker, jazz and soul pianist, teacher, and all around New York music legend. Roberta Flack sang a song for him, remembering their days playing the world together. In her clear voice, she described how, as her musical director for fabulous records like Killing Me Softly, he transformed a song Stevie Wonder had written for her into something like “an Egyptian chant,” free and open, meditative and forward-thinking, like Harry himself. “Harry was the scene,” said Eric McPherson who, along with saxophonist, Abraham Burton, also played for him last night.
I remember Harry where I met him, in his berth behind the piano at Arturo’s, the pizzeria-restaurant-bar, on Houston Street. A non-musician, I can only appreciate the steadiness of his time, his soulfulness. Also there was that pile of books, filled with markers and notes that sat on the piano, evidence of his voracious appetite for reading. Histories, biographies, philosophy–Harry read a lot. Musicians appreciated his flights of mind, the way he took them high, and kept them there. “Everytime he played, the music was fresh, new. He never played the same old shit. I can’t say that about too many people,” says Itai Kriss, who played frequently with the great pianist. Harry was a real teacher, what Jacques Ranciere might call an ignorant school master: one who shares his knowledge openly, without imposing relationships of inequality on his students. He taught without his students knowing he was teaching. He taught them how to be free, by being emancipated himself. Most important, Harry was a sharp wit:
“I’m having fun, this is the best time of my life. I love music and I’m passionate about it. It took me a long time to realize this is what I want to do, I just need to keep working on it. Money is no problem, it’s about how do you want to make the money.” Whitaker laughs, warming to his subject. “I’m a runaway slave. I ain’t in the kitchen, I ain’t in the fields picking cotton, I ran away and they have to come and get me! I’m doing what I want to do.”
for more about Harry’s life and work, visit waxpoetics.