The good news is: Cornbread Harris says he’s still got it.
“I’m not writing new songs like I used to,” the 93-year-old jazz, R&B and rock pioneer said. “But I can still sit for an hour or hour and a half at the piano and noodle away brilliantly.”
The bad news, of course, is that for the first time in his seven-decade career, he has not been able to brilliantly noodle in public for most of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This is a guy who lives to be a musician; a former orphan who credits music for saving him from a troubled childhood; a father whose son Jimmy “Jam” Harris took the musical genes far enough to become a legendary record producer; an American Hoist & Derrick retiree who spent most of his golden years gigging two to five nights per week in cafes and bars around the Twin Cities.
Finally, after his annual birthday concert in April got put off by the pandemic, the Hook & Ladder Theatre is hosting an altered “93½” celebration with Harris (officially James Samuel “Cornbread” Harris Sr.) on Thursday night.
The show — doubling as a release party for his new CD, “Cornbread & Friends: Live at the Hook and Ladder, Vol. 2” — will feature a very small audience and be livestreamed via the venue’s hi-def HookStream series. That’s good enough for Cornbread.
“I don’t care if there are five people there in the audience or 500 watching over the computer,” he said, “as long as I know there’s someone there appreciating the music.”
“I still sit and play [the piano] by myself every couple days, but it’s not the same as having people there enjoying it. That’s what it’s all about.”
Harris talked with gusto for a half-hour by phone last week from his home in Minneapolis, where he still resides most of the time with his wife. He wanted to meet up for an in-person interview at the adult care facility where he stays a few days each week, but we declined out of precaution.
He’s not fearless about the virus, he said, “but I’m feeling healthy and am not too concerned if nurses are around to make sure it’s safe.”
Aside from a church service gig and a few private family events, he has not performed for people since the lockdown began in March. And with all the other turmoil this year, it’s been extra difficult to sit on the sidelines.
“Music really does bring people together,” he said. “We need it more than ever. I need it. I need to play it. It’s my blessing from God that gets me through the foolishness of the world, and there is way too much of that right now.”
Noting that he has lived through many other calamities — the Great Depression, World War II, the 1960s civil rights fight — he added, “This is the craziest I’ve ever seen things.”
Singling out the George Floyd tragedy and other racial injustice incidents, he said, “This is all a reminder of why we had to have the civil rights movement in the first place. It still hasn’t gotten through to people that there is deep racism in this country.”
A new song featured on “Live at the Hook, Vol. 2” seems to be written specifically for the woes of 2020: It’s titled “Put the World Back Together,” a lightly jazzy, Louis Armstrong-flavored ballad in which he calls out “politicians talking fear and hate”:
“Haven’t we had enough debate? Did I hear someone say let’s wait? Why don’t we get together before it’s too late?”
Harris actually wrote the tune several years ago. He said it came to him after watching the news and talking to other senior-aged friends during the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency — hence the “before it’s too late” line, which he said has even more potency in 2020.
“These are not new problems,” he said. “We were already way behind on them. We need to fix them now.”
The new live collection is rounded out by some of the old jazz and R&B standards that have filled Harris’ live performances for decades.
Among them are Wilson Pickett’s 1970 nugget “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You,” which Harris and his band give a playful calypso twist (“I love playing it that way, it’s so fun,” he said); and the jazz standard “Night Train,” which he said shows his heavy Count Basie influence (“That one’s always been a good one for me”).
All the tracks were recorded from 2017-2019 at the Hook & Ladder, which Harris was grateful to see survive the destruction in the Lake Street rioting after Floyd’s death.
“It’s my favorite place to play,” he said, “not because of the building — although it is a nice old [firehouse] — but because of the people there. They are good to me and to their community.”
In fact, he hopes to play there a lot more. Asked if he plans to perform regularly again once live music can resume post-pandemic, Harris said, “Oh, absolutely.”
“Playing music is how I pay my bills and fill my refrigerator,” he said, “but I don’t just do it for money. I do it for my enjoyment of it, too. And I really do miss it right now.”