Bill Harris and the Pigfoot
Bill Harris, for four decades one of Washington's best-known and influential musicians, a versatile guitarist and singer, was a fixture in the city's music community as a composer, performer, promoter, club owner and teacher almost from the time he arrived in Washington after his World War II Army service. Although he gained an international reputation as a jazz guitarist, he also was noted locally for an outgoing and relaxed personality that characterized his work and prompted area musicians to support several benefit concerts on his behalf in recent years.
Born and brought up in rural Nashville, N.C., Mr. Harris played his first music on the organ at his family church, and was forbidden by his parents to practice the blues that he heard from radio programs and street-corner musicians. "In my family's case, it was for religious reasons," he told The Washington Post in an interview five years ago. "But the uppity people, they looked down upon it because it was plain low-down dirty blues."
Mr. Harris began to learn the guitar, and after trying a pharmacy program at Howard University after the war, studied classical guitar at the now-defunct Washington Junior College of Music.
During the 1950s, Mr. Harris wrote and arranged rhythm and blues tunes for the Clovers, and defined himself as a jazz guitarist with what was described as the genre's first solo album. He continued to play classical guitar, although he once surprised his colleagues and displeased his guitar teacher by playing a jazz -- rather than a classical -- piece for Andres Segovia when the Spanish master visited a group of local students in the 1950s.
Mr. Harris later turned teacher himself and opened a studio. He promoted local musicians through a series of picnic jazz festivals that he began in his Northeast backyard in the 1970s, and at Pigfoot, a jazz club he founded in 1975. As he did, he continued to experiment with his music, returning to the blues music of his youth.
Pigfoot, at 1812 Hamlin St. NE, was auctioned by the Internal Revenue Service in 1981 for nonpayment of $30,000 in taxes. Mr. Harris and his wife Fannie lost their home last year in the same dispute with the IRS.
As he struggled with his finances, his friends rallied to benefit concerts -- the latest one on Oct. 16 -- to defray the cost of his medical bills.
Amid his financial difficulties, Mr. Harris continued to perform concerts of classical, jazz, flamenco and blues music -- titling a 1986 concert series, "I Am the Blues."