by Charles Upchurch | photography by Jeffrey Williamson
Dontez Harris is a jazz virtuoso. His story unfolds like a dramatic score, punctuated by tales of prison troubadours, seedy nightclubs, posh private schools, the great performance halls of Europe and the return of the native son.
If you’ve caught Harris on saxophone at Transfer Company Food Hall on a Friday night, you’ve likely been transfixed by his interpretations of the masters. Bird. Coltrane. Cannonball. And yet, at 61, despite a decades-long career as a performer, Harris remains first and foremost a teacher. Never married, he has no children by blood. But there is an extended family of hundreds of former students—and current ones—that share the DNA of his influence.
Over oysters and beer at Locals Oyster Bar inside the food hall on E. Davie Street, I asked Harris which instruments he teaches. “All of ‘em,” he says, then pausing. “Except oboe and French horn. I don’t do double reeds.” Guitar? “Nah, no guitar,” he confirmed. I asked because he had told me about Uncle Charlie, his first musical mentor as a child growing up in South Raleigh. It was 1969; Harris was 11 years old. Charlie Jeter, known as “Guitar Charlie” in long-lost local clubs like The Cave and Burnette’s, had picked up music theory while in prison. “Some country-western cat taught him. When he came out, he knew everything.” It was Jeter who first invited him into a world with its own esoteric language and elegant mechanics. Harris remembers his uncle playing Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness on a Fender Stratocaster and sensing, even at 11, that there was something in music that makes life bigger. Besides, Uncle Charlie was having so much fun. That world—and Harris’ fluency within it—would spirit him to places many only dream of.
In junior high, guitar wasn’t an option, so Harris chose the sax. By age 13 he was playing nightclubs with Guitar Charlie. When the ABC raided a joint, he would scramble under the tables. As a teenager, Harris began exploring the sonic terrain of swing and bebop. While at Broughton High School, he attended a band camp at Shaw University and was offered a chance to practice with their concert and jazz ensembles. He played in the Shaw marching band as a high schooler, and formed a jazz quartet that performed recitals at Broughton.
After high school, he told his mother, a medical secretary at Dorothea Dix Hospital, that he’d rather get a job than go to college. “She gave me that look, you know,” Harris says. “Like, I don’t think so.” With a letter from his music instructor at Shaw, Harris was accepted at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Focused more on music than on academics, he ended up transferring to the University of the District of Columbia shortly after. Though he never graduated, Harris soon found himself in demand as a music educator in public and private elementary schools in the D.C. area, where he taught for a decade. He moved to the Rappahannock community in Northern Virginia and taught at preparatory academies for another decade. He earned accolades as an actor in summer stock theater, playing the baseball legend Satchel Paige and starring as Hoke Colburn, the chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy. He even played saxophone at the White House while Bill Clinton was president.
Over the years Harris has studied with trombonist Calvin Jones (known for his work with Ray Charles), toured with Millie Jackson, shared stages with the O’Jays, Stylistics and Bobby Womack and helped the reggae band Black Sheep rise to prominence, all while continuing to teach. During this journey, one experience stands out.
While teaching in D.C., Harris was contacted by Wayne Davis, one of the back-up singers for Roberta Flack. (To put it in perspective: Flack’s other singers were future Grammy winner Regina Belle and a young vocalist named Luther Vandross.) Davis was looking to put together a youth choir and band to tour Europe, and he heard Harris could help. He was right. Harris and Davis worked to put together an instrumental quartet and a 20-person choir comprised of 12- to 14-year-old African-American student performers from the Washington area.
For five consecutive years, they toured Europe during the holiday season, performing in some of the world’s most historic music halls, cathedrals and opera houses, travelling to Paris, Lyon, Copenhagen, Warsaw, Vienna, Geneva, Munich and Milan. “One time, the kids really wanted to ride the bumper cars at a carnival, but nobody had any money,” says Harris. “So, I took some of them down to a street corner, lined them up and they started singing. We passed a hat and ended up with enough to ride the bumper cars for three hours and get snacks and drinks for everybody.”
The next year, in Vienna, Harris was out for a walk with some of the adult chaperones when they rounded a corner and heard singing. “It was beautiful, so we stopped to look,” he says. There stood a group of his young choir members, singing in flawless harmony—Joy to the world, the Lord is come!—with a hatful of money on the sidewalk.
“I had to confess that they learned it from me,” Harris says. He fondly recalls reunions with former members of the choir, many with children of their own now, and the gratitude expressed for an experience that helped shape their lives.
Harris returned to Raleigh only a few years ago. Today, he teaches at Sam Ash Music Stores and leads children’s programs at St. Matthew AME Church and Resurrection Lutheran in Cary. One congregation is predominantly black; the other mostly white. They come together on occasion, the children performing as one group. In their faces and in their harmonies, Harris recognizes the joy he felt at their age, hearing Uncle Charlie summon an exotic diminished or augmented chord from his Stratocaster just for him, accompanied by unbridled laughter, knowing that young Dontez was standing at the threshold of the magic door.