In Memoriam: Billie Harris – Serving the Highest Art – 1937-2014

By Chuck Bloomquist

From the late sixties until shortly before he died Billie Harris was a superb musician playing pure, beautiful jazz on his tenor saxophone in and around Venice.

When he first arrived in Los Angeles he lived in an old Helms bakery truck with his wife and two children at the parking lot at the end of Rose Avenue. He would often get his tenor out and start playing on Ocean Front Walk, his wife would get her flute and join him. Friends would come by with whatever instrument they had and they would soon be making a most joyful noise.

Soon, however, they felt the need for a more permanent place to live and play. It turned out that at exactly that time Jerry Rowitch was converting some property he owned across from the Westminster School into Venice Place. It was to house various art-related businesses. Billie arranged to convert one space into living quarters and a jazz club, which they called the Azz Izz. With help from friends and other musicians the club opened in 1970

There were many other places that presented jazz in Venice before and after the Azz Izz: The Comeback Inn, Hop Singh’s, Hal’s Bar and Grill, Driftwood, Canal Club, but none matched the Azz Izz as a place to consistently hear good jazz. Jazz musicians from around the county, the country, and the world heard of the Azz Izz and many played in its magical confines. Some of the famous were Art Blakey, Bobby Hutcherson, Blue Mitchell, John Carter, Horace Tapscott, Arthur Blythe, Frank Morgan, and Billy Higgins, It was an incredible experience and the music really got next to your heart. But Billie and his friends could not do the music and the business, and by 1978 the magic had pretty well run its course.

Billie Harris also played soprano saxophone and was a composer. He recorded two CDs under his own name, I Want Some Water (Nimbus West Records, NS 510 C) and Billie Harris at the Balcony (produced by Katsuyuki Ueno). He also recorded with many others including Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra.

He played regularly at The Café Balcony on Rochester Avenue in West Los Angeles, and could often be found at the corner of Rose Avenue and Ocean Front Walk. He also played at several events for Venice Community Housing. When he played for the brunch at the Seventh Annual edition of Jazz at Palms Court, he walked up Palms Boulevard playing his tenor and continued playing on through the crowded court yard and on to the stage. He loved playing and he loved playing for people.

I was privileged to know Billie in all these settings and considered him to be a good friend and a great musician. The following sketch was made of the two of us at Café Balcony by an artist unknown to me. Billie’s passing is the end of an era and I miss him.


Above: Billie Harris and Chuck Bloomquist, Dec. 12, 2002


Categories: Obituary

3 replies »

  1. I was so shock to stumble upon this article. my heart just dropped. Billie was a special man. We used to see him perform at the Café Balcony every Thursday many, many years ago. When The Balcony closed in Rochester we tracked him down at the Culver Hotel. We asked him to perform at our wedding 3 ½ years ago and he did. He was very special to us. Thank you for this article.

  2. Billie was kind enough to help a kid learn upright bass. In the Helms Truck days . Imagine his wife Carolyn (aka Cookie) a classically trained flutist, and Billie on Alto flute playing Swinging Shepard blues. We rehearsed wherever we could. The Venice Beach Blues Band. Dudley Clark on Congas. I remember the kids too. His dad wrote a song for the two of them, “A Cookie for Billie”.
    Billie was a gentle giant. More than I deserved as a friend. My Best to the family. Greg T