The Musical Abundance of Rich Harney

photo courtesy of Brenda Ladd

By Jeff McCord

He was all about music. Rich Harney, the Austin pianist who died of a heart attack Sunday, January 5th, spent his time playing, composing, and teaching his favorite subject. When he wasn’t doing that, he loved to talk about it.

He was talking up music in a mid-Seventies Austin hippie crash pad when he first met his friend and future collaborator, saxophonist Alex Coke.

“I woke up, smelled coffee, went into the kitchen,” Coke recalls. “Rich was there. We hadn’t even finished a cup of coffee when we started playing together. We never stopped.”

“Rich wrote a lot of pop and blues tunes when I met him,” Coke recalls, “But he gravitated towards jazz. Back then there weren’t very many jazz schools. We both wanted to learn how to play. We learned together.”

Coke and Harney would work together throughout Harney’s varied career, in all kinds of circumstances. “We played the Potpourri, a little restaurant on Guadalupe across the street from the state school. We did that three or four days a week. That’d be our breakfast. We made some tips. You’ve got to remember back in the late 70s, early 80s, rents in Austin were forty, fifty dollars a month. That’s why there were so many great musicians. I mean, you could afford to be here.”

They made records together, had groups like the Worthy Constituents and Countenance that gained some national recognition. Coke and Harney would wonder if they’d played 10,000 gigs together. “I remember one year I think we had two days in one year we didn’t play. And often we played two or three gigs a day. I mean, in this last month we’d played 13 times with him since I’ve been in town the second week of December.”

“I played a gig with him the morning he died. He was fine, and I was looking forward to playing with him that night at the Elephant Room.”

Harney, born in Champaign IL in 1954, was a friend and associate a wide array of the Austin music community. The shock of his sudden death is only beginning to be absorbed. A regular member of the music ensemble at the Northwest Hills First Presbyterian Church, Harney staged a long-running “Child’s Christmas In Wales” program there with singer Suzi Stern. He had a regular stint with Red Volkaert and Heybale.

“He loved playing with Red,” Coke recalls. “He kept Rich on his toes.”

“Rich could walk into any place. If it had a piano, he’d sit down and play. And he would transform the place. I would always joke he could walk into a McDonald’s and get a gig there.”

“He was so prolific. He wrote reams of things. I’d be visiting from Amsterdam, I’d go over to his house. Let’s play out of your new book, I’d say. Instead, he’d say, ‘I just wrote five new tunes.’”

Coke has fond memories of his longtime friend. “We used to live in the same house over on Nueces and 19th Street, and one of the things I remember was how we egged each other on. We would often see who could wake up first and start practicing. I’d set my alarm to try to be the first one. But he often was first. I just love stuff like that. I mean, just waking up from the get-go with music.”

  • A Musical Feast Concert Series invites you to a tribute concert celebrating the music of jazz pianist Rich Harney this Sunday, January 12 at 5 p.m. in the warm acoustic of Triumphant Love Lutheran Church, 9508 Great Hills Trail. Led by Daniel Durham and Alex Koch, the concert will feature many selections from Rich’s prodigious collection, played by a quartet of his “regulars” along with several friends. Free, come early for best seats.
  • There will be a musical memorial for Rich Harney Sunday, March 1st at Austin’s Elephant Room. And Jay Trachtenberg will feature Harney’s music on the KUTX Sunday Morning Jazz program January 12th.

Rich Harney playing with Straight No Chaser at a KUT Views and Brews in 2012.

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