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Jazz Legend Born in Venango County Passes Away
Harris, who was born and raised in Franklin, PA, came from a musical family and started his career young. He joined his brother’s band when he was just 17 years old. However, after graduating from Franklin High School, he paused his musical career to take up a military career. He honorably served in WWII and fought at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. He was commissioned as an officer at a time when the armed forces were segregated and served as a German and French interpreter.
Once the war ended, Harris found himself still stationed in Europe, playing in Army bands with many other great musicians from all around the United States. He took the opportunity to expand both his knowledge and his contacts among fellow musicians.
Once his term of service was over, Harris returned to the States and began attending the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. While there, he studied with three top percussionists, including Billy Dorn of the NBC Orchestra. He also began to play gigs around New York City and Newark, N.J. After finishing his formal training, he played in jazz clubs in New York, Newark, France, Germany, and Scotland. He worked with Hank Mobley, Jimmy Smith, and James Moody, among others, and was a regular member of Grachan Moncur III’s band. He went on to play with jazz legends Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie.
Harris eventually moved back to western Pennsylvania, settling down in Meadville. He spent some time working at Polk Center, where he was employed as an Institutional Music Therapist.
The Cootie Harris Band was well-known throughout the tri-state area. On January 14, 1967, his quintet provided dance music at Gov. Raymond P. Shafer’s inauguration in Harrisburg. He taught hundreds of percussion students and inspired many local musicians who went on to choose music as their careers. In 1975 he founded the Cootie Harris School of Tai Chi. His schools of Kung Fu and Tai Chi were in Franklin and Meadville. He also started the Cootie Harris Jazz Jams at the Meadville Council of the Arts to inspire and work with young musicians. The Jazz Jams continue to this day.
Harris also participated in many stage productions and starred in “Driving Miss Daisy”. He was a long-time volunteer in service to others serving on the Governing Board and the Health Advisory Board of Active Aging and on the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board.
Harris was chosen to carry the Olympic Torch on January 1, 2002. He received the President’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award from Edinboro University on January 31, 2005. He was also a recipient of the Governor Raymond P. Schafer Award for distinguished community service. He was chosen as one of the honorees to receive the Wesbury Senior Tribute Award on October 9, 2014.
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