May 2003 By Lee Mergner
Jazz Goes West: Allan Harris Gives the Black Cowboy a Makeover
When many people think of the image of the black cowboy, they conjure up a flamboyant character played for comic effect: Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles, or Laurence Fishburne’s Cowboy Curtis on Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
For jazz singer Allan Harris, however, the black cowboy is a heroic and unsung figure in American history. His jazz-meets-country musical, Cross That River, follows a runaway slave from Louisiana to a ranch in Texas, where he joins a trail ride herding cattle to Abilene, Kan. Harris found the journey had surprising social and musical implications.
“It was one part of our history as Americans, when everybody was on an equal playing field. On the cattle drives, whites and blacks got paid the same from after the Civil War until the 1890s when reconstruction came west. There was no color barrier on the trail. The foremen figured it didn’t matter what color you were, because the cow didn’t care. It just mattered if you roped and rode and stayed on the trail for 110 days.”
How did a jazz singer find his way to this territory? “I’m an avid horseman. I’ve been riding since I was three years old. My grandfather had horses. My father was a horseman. So cowboys were a part of my life. I’m a guitarist also. I happened to run into some bluegrass cats some years ago and just loved the way they picked. And I began trying to morph that music into what I was doing.”
But it took a gig at the San Angelo Jazz Festival in Texas to make it click. “Next door to the festival was Fort Concho, where the Buffalo Soldiers were posted. I had just read a book by Elmer Kelton, who is one of the foremost Western writers. I thought, ‘I need to work on this.’”
Despite his own affinity for the subject, Harris was concerned about the stereotypes. “I had this fear of being perceived as doing the Blazing Saddles of Jazz. But I found out that it was the one profession that a man of color could go into that had some nobility. You weren’t carrying bags. You weren’t picking cotton. You weren’t working in a factory. A lot of them were pioneers. They helped build roads; they helped guard stagecoaches. Two out of every five soldiers in the West were black!”
They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers, those determined slaves turned soldiers who fought on the Union side in the Civil War. After the war, many headed west to do the dirty work of opening up the frontier. “The white guys didn’t want to do it. They sent the Buffalo Soldiers out to the West to free up all those buffalo passes and Comanche war trails for the settlers. They became fierce fighters.”
When the cattle drives ended around 1890, the black cowboys found “they couldn’t go into town for jobs. Either they did homesteading or they joined the military: working the roads, clearing the countryside and guarding the white people coming out to settle. The stagecoach and Wells Fargo trains were all guarded by black soldiers, because, again, white men didn’t want to do it. That was some crazy and dangerous duty.”
Ironically, that means that the premise of Blazing Saddles—finding a black man for the hazardous-to-your-health job of sheriff—was somewhat historically accurate (except, of course, for Count Basie playing out in the desert).
For Harris there were musical lessons as well. “I learned that a lot of the music at that time, outside of the blues, came from the mix of British Isle immigrants with African-Americans. They played together and created this wonderful music that’s indigenous to America, prior to the Storyville thing or ragtime thing. In Texas they were jukin’ and pickin’ back in the middle part of the 19th century. Before New Orleans and Louis Armstrong, we were playing music together.” Harris blames reconstruction and Jim Crow for ending the interracial exchange, at least in public settings.
Harris hasn’t received any negative reaction for his odd coupling. “My biggest fear was that my jazz audience wouldn’t get it. But that was erased immediately when I started performing it live. The core of my rhythm section are jazz cats, and I added mandolin, dobro and fiddle on top of that.”
He was also surprised at the virtuosity of country and bluegrass people. “I have to admit that initially, as a black man, I had some misconceptions. Would they have the rhythm or soul to pull this off? But it was so easy. It made me realize how American this music is. And how bad these country and bluegrass cats can play.”
After sold-out performances at Joe’s Pub and B.B. King’s in New York City, Harris is going back to the drawing board, consulting with theater people in the hopes of tightening up the show. He’s written 25 songs already and is in the process of writing five more. And in November, he’s doing performances at several historic sites in Texas, including Fort Concho. “The Buffalo Soldiers group does a reenactment every year, and they invited me to perform. They’re going to do a cavalry charge in front of the stage at the end of the show!”
That doesn’t sound like a jazz audience.
Originally published in May 2003