Rich Harney (1954 - 2020), pianist, vocalist and composer, was born on June 7, 1954 in Champaign, Illinois. In his youth, he was first inspired by Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron, Charlie Parker and the early jazz piano of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. He began making music in Austin in the 1970s, frequently with saxophonist, Alex Coke, who became a lifelong musical collaborator. The two teamed up over the years in groups including The Worthy Constituents and Countenance, recognized in 1990 by Musician Magazine’s Best Of The Unsigned Bands Contest.
A recipient of many local and national accolades, Harney performed extensively as band leader and/or ensemble pianist with Gene Ramey, Tony Campise, Carmen Bradford, Martin Banks (Duke Ellington Orchestra), Clifford Scott, Redd Volkaert, Ted Piltzecker (Director, Aspen Music Festival’s Jazz Program), as well as his own award winning bands, Countenance and The Worthy Constituents. In addition to writing, recording albums and playing jazz festivals and local venues, he and singer, Beth Ullman, co-produced the popular concert series, “Jazz at St. David’s,” and the highly acclaimed theatrical concert, “Dyin’ to Swing.”
Harney released an album in 1983, “The Promise,” still very much in demand. He further released several CDs including “Where Love Begins” in 2008, “Sessions” featuring many of Austin’s finest jazz musicians and “Solitaire,” a solo piano recording, both in 2012. In 2016, he released “Blue Soul,” a trio record with Daniel Durham on bass and Masumi Jones on drums.
Harney also was a longtime presence in the music ensemble at First Presbyterian Church in Northwest Hills. First Presbyterian often hosted the popular holiday performance of the Dylan Thomas short story, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” an adaptation by Harney, Coke and Suzi Stern.
A fixture at the Elephant Room, Austin’s longtime haven for local jazz musicians, Harney was a familiar sight in recent years playing piano for country guitarist, Redd Volkaert’s Saturday afternoon shows at The Continental Club. Harney helped to mentor Elias Haslanger when the young saxophonist was just beginning his career in jazz.
Rich Harney passed away on January 5, 2020. He was an incredible jazz musician and a truly wonderful person. He will be sorely missed by the Austin jazz community.
Click below to view Rich's youtube performances:
I'll See You There (Rich Harney)
That's BeBop (Rich Harney)
Bethany (Rich Harney)
Ballad For M (Rich Harney)
It Could Happen to You (JImmy Van Heusen)