Chiz Harris Hits an Unbeatable Sound : For the Studio Cafe and the Jazz Drummer, It’s Been a Lucky 13 (and Still Counting) Years
In what has to be the longest running gig on the Southern California jazz scene, drummer Chiz Harris’ Saturday night stint at the Studio Cafe has been continuing for more than 13 years.
“It’s been a good learning process,” Harris, 64, said outside the club between sets recently.
Recalling the day in 1978 when he first got the gig, Harris explained: “I knew the place was here and used to come in as a customer. When I heard their band had quit, I called the (Studio Cafe) manager from Las Vegas and he agreed to let me try it for a while. After a few weeks, he asked me, ‘You happy?’ ‘Yes,’ I told him. ‘Are you happy?’ I asked him. He said yes, and we’ve been here ever since.”
Well, almost ever since. He missed Saturday’s performance, but that was only so he could make an engagement he’s had even longer--for Jerry Lewis’ annual Labor Day weekend telethon in Los Vegas. Harris has been supplying the backbeat since 1967 as millions of dollars are raised for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn.
Harris’ connection to Lewis goes back to 1963, when he made an on-screen appearance in Lewis’ movie “The Nutty Professor.” “I was with Les Brown’s band at the time, and we were hired to do that prom scene near the end. You can see me there--my hair was a different color back then,” he said, laughing. “I met (Lewis) on the set--it was about a week of shooting--but it was just a bit part in the movie and we didn’t really spend any time together.”
But the comedian must have remembered him. He called Harris three years later for a job in San Francisco, and he has been with Lewis’ orchestra ever since. In addition to playing for the telethon, Harris has backed Lewis in appearances in the United States and abroad, including a performance earlier this summer in Monaco before Prince Rainier.
But this weekend, it’ll be back to business as usual at the Studio Cafe with his buddies Jay Migliori on sax and Joe Lettieri on keyboards. Perhaps even more remarkable than the sheer longevity of the weekly gig that takes him from his home in Studio City to Balboa is the fact that his quartet’s personnel has pretty much stayed the same over the years, with the only change in the bass chair. “I knew Jay from Woody Herman’s band. Joe and Jay and I all came out here about the same time in ’59, and we just stayed in touch.”
Jim Crutcher was the bassist for the group’s first three years at the Studio. In the last several years, Swiss-born bassist Isla Eckinger, a veteran of stints with Chet Baker, Kenny Clarke and Art Farmer, has handled the low end. But the last time Harris played, Eckinger was “out touring the world with (trumpeter) Clark Terry. They’re playing places like India and Sri Lanka--all over the place,” Harris said. In his place was Harris’ old friend Buddy Clark.
Harris was born Charles Harris in the coal-mining town of Shamokin, Pa., where he got his nickname because of a love of ice cream.
“My mother would send me down to the store for a loaf of bread or some ham and tell me to have the storekeeper put it on the bill,” he explained. “So I’d see the ice-cream man and get something and tell him to put it on the bill. Well, the bill got up to 50 cents or something, and that was big money in those days. So he went to my mom and told her, and she kind of laughed and said, ‘You little chiseler.’ And I’ve been Chiz to this day.”
That little chiseler began music lessons at the age of 8. He recalls listening as a teen-ager to radio broadcasts of J.C. Higgenbotham and Red Allen at 2 a.m. while hiding under the blankets in his bed. Gene Krupa was a major influence. “He was the drummer on the scene, the guy that opened the door for so many drummers and brought them to prominence. Also Louie Bellson and his two-bass (drum) thing with the Ellington band, that was a real innovation.”
Max Roach was another inspiration. While stationed at Sheepshead Bay during a stint in the merchant marine, Harris would travel to New York City and head for Birdland, the famed be-bop club. “I saw Bird (Charlie Parker) with Curly Russell, Dizzy (Gillespie) and Bud Powell. There was so much energy going on. Max was a big help. Watching him gave me the confidence that drummers could play solos within the structure of the music.”
Harris began working with big bands, and he appeared with some of the biggest names of the period: Ted Weems, Hal MacIntyre, Harry James and Si Zentner. After his stint with Les Brown, he became a Las Vegas fixture backing such singers as Vic Damone, Rosemary Clooney, Robert Goulet and Johnny Mathis. That’s he keeping time behind Lou Rawls on the vocalist’s first recording of “Tobacco Road.” In addition, he pulled straight-ahead gigs with such musicians as Carl Fontana and Frank Rosolino.
Orange County-based Cexton Records released a disc of the Chiz Harris Quartet’s work (with trumpeter Conti Candoli) that gives a good view of the band’s work on three Lettieri compositions as well as on standards such as Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” and the album’s title tune, Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” Earlier this summer, Harris recorded with Dutch keyboardist Frank Geibels in the Netherlands for a Europe-only release.
Inside the Studio Cafe one Saturday last month, Harris was at the eye of a party hurricane. The room was packed and noisy as Harris, sitting tall, played to the beat on “That Old Devil Moon.”
During Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” a group of teen-age boys too young to get into the club pressed up to the window to watch the silver-haired drummer swirling through his solo. Inside, a guy with shoulder-length hair and a forearm tattoo, looking more heavy-metal than jazz, was playing air drums in a vain attempt to keep up.
At the end of the solo, someone whooped, and there was a surprising amount of applause. “Who am I to spoil their fun and demand they be quiet?” Harris asked later. “We play right though the noise. We should be able to get the crowd to react, and nine times out of 10, we do. We’re having fun. Why shouldn’t they?”
* The Chiz Harris Quartet plays Saturdays at 9 p.m. at the Studio Cafe, 100 Main St., Balboa. Admission: free. Information: (714) 675-7760.