It was in Binghamton, N.Y., in the late '40s when Washington's best-known guitarists, Bill Harris and Charlie Byrd, first met. Harris recalls that he was working as an arranger for the Brown Skin Models, a troupe of sexy female dancers, when someone told him about "this white guy who played a guitar at a Negro hotel nearby."
"That's like me playing the blues on a Spanish guitar made by a Puerto Rican," he said. "So I checked him out and we had a lot of fun that night. I told him all about Washington and the rest, I guess, is history."
History indeed. Like Byrd, Harris has since become something of a Washington institution, though not just for his music and his unvarnished way with a blues lyric, but for his now shuttered Northeast club, Pigfoot.
Tomorrow night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater he'll perform a recital of works associated with nearly 60 years of guitar innovators, including Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Kenny Burrell. Also included will be Harris' own "Wes Montgomery Suite," a richly evocative three-part tribute to the late guitar legend, Harris' personal friend.
"I'm hoping to expose this music and what these musicians meant to jazz to people who might not get a chance to hear it otherwise," says Harris, who recently dubbed himself "Guitar Bill."
Ironically, for someone so closely associated with Washington, Harris says he originally found it very hard to study the guitar here. Though he became a proficient blues guitarist growing up in North Carolina, he didn't really take the instrument seriously until attending Howard University after serving in World War II. He enrolled at Howard with the intention of becoming a pharmacist but soon found music was more to his liking.
"So I decided to change directions," Howard recalls, "and went back to the music department to Dean Lawson, who kind of laughed and said, 'We don't teach the guitar around here.' "
The response was much more encouraging at the now defunct Washington Junior College of Music, where Harris says a professor "kind of thought the guitar was a sort of instrument played by low-lifes sitting on corners drinking wine" but nevertheless invited him to attend as a voice student. "It was a real plus for me," he says. "I sang, played drums in the orchestra and applied the music I heard to the guitar. I got a real strong foundation in the music -- the theory and the piano repertoire."
Shortly afterward, Harris turned professional and was soon a guitarist and an arranger for the Clovers, the popular '50s R&B quartet. He toured with the band almost constantly for seven years, playing on the same bills as the R&B and jazz greats of the era. All the while, inspired by Andres Segovia and guided by artist-teacher Sophocles Papas years earlier, Harris continued to hone his craft as a solo guitarist.
With the encouragement of guitarist Mickey Baker, he made the first of a series of recordings for Mercury in the mid '50s, including the first jazz solo album performed on a Spanish guitar. "I wanted to do for jazz what Segovia was doing for classical music," Harris says of the highly acclaimed recording.
Still, it wasn't until 1975, when he and his wife Fannie opened Pigfoot, that Harris really found his niche, singing and playing the kind of heartfelt rural blues he heard growing up.
"One day," he says, "I just asked myself, why did I study the guitar: to accompany myself singing. And what am I going to sing: the blues. I just started doing it and people seemed to love it."
As it turned out, running Pigfoot involved a lot more money, time and experience than Harris had bargained for. In spite of all the problems, he still cherishes the memories of the good times, "the camaraderie, music and friends."
Harris has been especially busy lately. In addition to teaching guitar students, he recently created and performed an autobiographical one-man show called "I Am the Blues," and released a cassette recording of the production.
What really has him excited, though, is landing a role in the upcoming Washington production of August Wilson's play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" which opens at the Source Theatre May 18. When the show first opened on Broadway without him, Harris says, he was extremely frustrated.
"I was so undone that I wasn't working in that play, because I had this recitation I do of Sterling Brown's about Ma Rainey and I just knew that I should be part of this show."
Not surprisingly, he jumped at the chance to audition for the production. The effort landed him the role of Cutler, the guitarist and bandleader in the show.
"It's funny," he chortles, "now I'm up late at night studying all these lines. My wife and I were talking about it just yesterday and got a big laugh out of it. She said, 'You've got to get some sleep.' And I told her, 'Remember I only got three hours of sleep at the Pigfoot. At least now I'm getting five.' "