An Interview with Lamar Harris

Lamar Harris has a passion for music. A brief conversation with him about his inspirations and thoughts on music simply flows with passion and excitement, and he’s channeling it to help shape the St. Louis jazz culture. Like jazz itself, Harris does not place himself into one neat, tidy little box. An award-winning brass aficionado, Lamar is a respected educator, arranger, entrepreneur, DJ, and comic collector. Jazz St. Louis spoke with the eclectic Harris about his life, music, the jazz scene, and his upcoming show at Jazz St. Louis on May 17th and 18th, An Evening of Philly Soul. 

Jazz St. Louis (JSL): What’s your musical background?

Lamar Harris (LH): Music started for me with the violin in kindergarten. Then I started trumpet and tuba in middle school and continued playing in the band and symphonic orchestra at Normandy Senior High; picking up trombone my senior year. I didn’t want to do music full time. I ended up at Mizzou (University of Missouri-Columbia) as a business major but, tried a lot of different things such as engineering, science and trying to avoid being a music major. I came back to St. Louis and toured around with various groups. Eventually, I got into teaching. But one of my mentors told me I had to decide between being a full-time educator or a full-time performer. When you’re passionate about both, it is hard to give both the proper time that is needed to do them well.

JSL: It seems like you’ve been able to do both well, among other things. Tell us more about your business, Mind Speak Consulting.

LH: I started Mind Speak Consulting to assist organizations with creative consultation on arts programming to a variety of institutions, schools, art groups, and creative events. One of the goals of the company is to assist artists with brand development and consultation in business management. I want artists to see themselves as entrepreneurs and not just a performer. They are providing goods and services just like any other business and deserve to be fairly compensated.

JSL: Who are some of your musical inspirations?

LH:  Fred Wesley, Roy Hargrove, Russell Gunn, George Clinton to name a few.

JSL: Who is DJ Nune and where did the name come from?

LH: Well, I’m DJ Nune, and Nune (pronounced “noo-nee”) was my grandfather’s nickname. I didn’t know what to call myself when I started deejaying. I always thought his nickname was unique and interesting. I got started back in 2009, basically teaching myself. I ended up deejaying for Kevin Johnson’s (from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) birthday party. I spun non-stop for 8 hours with no breaks! About a week later, I got offered to deejay a wedding and decided it was time to get some real turntables. DJ Uptown showed me how to work them, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

JSL: Does DJ Nune ever make an appearance at a Lamar Harris show, or vice-versa?

LH: “He” shows up at some of my other shows. Who knows… he might show up for the Philly Soul show.

JSL: Who are some of your DJ influences?

LH: Rich Medina, MDCL, 45 King DJ Spinna and Gilles Peterson. I am an open format deejay. I don’t consider myself to be in a particular genre. It’s whatever I’m feeling at the time and what the gig calls for.

JSL: What does Jazz mean to you, and what do you love most about it?

LH: Jazz is the great communicator. It’s like a chameleon. It can be whatever it wants to be and what the artist feels it should be at the moment in life when they’re performing. It’s the freedom of improv, or strictly play what’s on the page.

JSL:  How did you get involved with Jazz St. Louis?

LH: I played at the Bistro on and off since 2007. Paige Alyssa (former Jazz Academy Director) asked me to become a part of the Jazz Academy team co-teaching with guitarist/educator Travis Lewis. This is my second year with Jazz Academy.

JSL:  What do you like about it?

LH: I enjoy watching the students’ journey to figure it out. It’s where you plant the seeds for high school and beyond. You open the doors to think about the future possibilities now.  They are exposed to music from other places and are treated to live experiences from musicians who have performed all over the world. They learn the language of jazz and have access to a variety of resources. It’s a game changer for these students. It’s exciting to watch them and see how they adapt to the different artists and gravitate to them. A

JSL:  Miles Davis’s birthday is coming up. Was he an influence and what are some of your thoughts on his influence on Jazz?

LH: Yes. He was a revolutionary figure that stayed progressive. He required it in himself and the people who played with him. There’s a story that he once made Herbie Hancock sit on his right hand and only play with his left hand. Miles told him he was trying to do too much. That was one of the best lessons that Herbie said he learned.  Miles was always reinventing his sound and never went backward. He inspired me to stay progressive.

JSL:  What can fans expect from your upcoming show?

LH: This show is a little different. I’ve been working on it in my head for a couple of years. I grew up listening to my mother play her music throughout the house on Saturday mornings. From The Ojays, Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul, and Patti Labelle. All of these artists were on the Philadelphia International Record Label. Even jazz artists Thad Jones and Mel Louis recorded an album on the label.  I have always enjoyed the love, life, encouragement and unfortunate struggle messages the songs from the label conveyed. It’s music made for people. In my opinion, the label that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff created doesn’t get its due credit like Motown.

I’m also excited about this show, because this will be the biggest group of musicians I’ve had on this stage.  Nine total. We have four horns, two keys, percussion, drums and bass. They are all band leaders.

JSL: What are your thoughts on the jazz scene here in St. Louis?

LH: The jazz scene here is in a developing mode. It’s on the cusp of something special, but the cusp of what? It’s like we’re trying to put jazz in a box which stops the evolution of what it can become. It’s bigger than any one type or genre. Artists are creating some great work that’s progressive in sound and approach. We need more people advocating for artists to share their original works.  People need to be more accepting of different styles of jazz. If you’re going to create a jazz scene you need to create a platform for everything jazz encompasses.

JSL:  What advice would you give to some of the young/current artists here in St. Louis, especially ones who are coming up as advocates for the progressive jazz? 

LH: Do YOU, unapologetically!

See Lamar Harris advocate for jazz when he performs May 17 & 18 – An Evening of Philly Soul.

Learn more about Lamar Harris on his website – https://www.thelamarharris.com.