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Harris, Walter, Jr. (1947-2020)



  • Existence: 1947 - 2020

Biographical Note

Walter Harris, Jr. (1947-2020) musician, conductor, choral director, and scholar.

1947 – 1964: Suttle & Selma, Alabama: The musical genius of Walter was born in Suttle, Alabama to Walter Sr. and Arie Bailey Harris. He was born into a family of Christian believers and a love of music in a Christian setting. The musical journey of Walter was started under the tutelage of his mother; Mrs. Arie Bailey Harris at home and at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Walter served Ebenezer in the role of accompanist and sang in various church choirs. The Bible of Hymnals that the Harrises used during his early days was the Gospel Pearls. This sought-after book of hymnals was first published by the National Baptist Convention in 1921. The Pearls gave Walter relevant songs for worship and devotion, evangelistic services, funerals, and patriotic and other special occasion services. Containing 163 hymnals and spirituals in conventional notation, it was the foundation of Walter’s framing for his Christian musical journey. He provided the worship services for the Historic Harris Family Reunions for over 43 years, the dates in Selma were 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986, and 1990. He also provided the musical repertoire for the funerals of his parents, his brother Michael Harris, his sister Susie Harris Edwards, and his niece Jeanette Melton Lee (his last visit to Ebenezer in 2020). As part of the Historic R. B. Hudson High School Class of 1964, Walter served Hudson High as an accompanist and member of the band and choir. Selma became the center of and nexus of the civil rights campaign during the 1960s. During this period of time, Walter often played for the mass meetings and rallies at Brown Chapel AME Church and at other venues.

1964 – 1968, Knoxville College: Walter’s next journey was to the historical Knoxville College (KC) in Knoxville, Tennessee as a music major where he had been recruited with a scholarship. He was a member of the Concert Choir and College Choir. While at KC, Walter studied choral conducting and performing under Dr. Nathan Carter, classical piano performance with Aurturo Rivituso, and mastered several orchestral instruments. KC was founded in 1875 as part of the missionary effort of the United Presbyterian Church of North America. Walter would go on to be a Presbyterian Minister of Music for the next 56 years, leading choirs and developing the church’s music-oriented activities. The McMillan Chapel on KC’s campus, built in 1913, was where Walter was nurtured, trained, and developed in the music of the Presbyterian Church. Later, after completing his master’s degree, he served as McMillan Chapel’s Director of Music, which delivered Presbyterian Church services from 1969-1980.

1980 – 2000, Phoenix, Arizona: Moving to Arizona in 1980, Walter served as the Minister of Music and Director of the Chancel Choir for Southminster Presbyterian Church (SPC) in Phoenix, Arizona. SPC was founded in 1954 as the first African American Presbyterian church in Arizona. At SPC, Walter continued to venture and realize his love for all types of music for the worship services. The Chancel Choir, under Walter’s leadership, became the most versatile and multifaceted choir in the African American community, and by some accounts, may have been the most versatile in the Phoenix Metropolitan area. Over two decades, the choir sang contemporary gospel music, high church liturgical anthems, and everything in between to absolute perfection with Walter’s guidance.

2000-2003, Durham, North Carolina: Walter served as Minister of Music at the historical Covenant Presbyterian Church which had its beginnings in 1887 to serve the needs of African American Presbyterians in the Durham, North Carolina community. Walter was able to work with and lend assistance to the many choirs of the church during his short tenure in North Carolina, including the Chancel Choir, the Youth Choir, the Intergenerational Choir, and the Children’s Choir.

2003 – 2020, New Orleans, LA: Walter was a member of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church (SCAPC) in New Orleans, Louisiana from 2003 to 2020. Walter’s performances at SCAPC included guest performances with the Chancel Choir and members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, including Morten Lawruidsen’s Lux Aeterna, Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, Giacomo Rossini’s Sabat Mater, and A Celebration of Carols.

Teaching at Knoxville College, Michigan State University, Arizona State University, North Carolina Central University, and Loyola University New Orleans: Walter’s greatest joy was teaching where he could use all of his skills, research, resources, and talents. His most famous and rewarding courses were Survey of African American Music and African American Music. These courses were taught in a historical sequence, from the earliest origins of African music to the present, analyzing the music within its historic, economic, social, and racial setting, explaining the past, and perhaps illuminating the present, focusing on music created or performed by African Americans. Spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, and classical music were all given appropriate consideration not only as art for art's sake, but also as an explication of the social, economic, and racial factors that have influenced both creators and receptors of what is often considered the greatest contribution of music to the United States. The courses placed significant emphasis on extra-musical dimensions and showed how African American music was both a product of and catalyst for political, cultural, and social changes. The courses demonstrated how, through time, traditional African musical elements wended their way to the Americas and how those elements, across various American periods, fused to create different genres of music. Additionally, the courses were covered by Walter from his perspective, highlighted his research and expertise in the following areas: Spirituals, Black Nationalist Composers, Singers of the Black Renaissance, Black Choral Conductors, Black Musicals on Broadway (Porgy and Bess), Black Classical Pianists, African American singers as performers in the Metropolitan Opera Company, the mental health properties of African American music, the musical culture of African Americans, esthetics in traditional Africa, education and research in African Music, negro spirituals and the slave experience, African American music and West African music, Black musicians in art, stereotypes and beyond.

A Lifetime of Civic Engagement: In addition to his dedication to his Christian music endeavors, Walter contributed to every community he lived in with active civic engagement. Over the years, Walter has served on a number of national, regional, and local arts, education, and civic committees, boards, commissions, and accrediting bodies, including premier organizations such as Alpha Alpha Boulé New Orleans, a subordinate of the Grand Boulé Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity; Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.; Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary; American Bar Association; American Choral Directors Association; International Congress of Voice Teachers; Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra; Military and Hospitaller Order of St. Lazarus of Jerusalem Grand Priory of America; National Association of Teachers of Singing; National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ; National Public Radio affiliate WWNO; New Orleans Youth Orchestra; Outstanding Educators of America; Presbyterian Association of Musicians; Phoenix Boys Choir; Phoenix Symphony Orchestra; St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church; and, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Walter Harris, Jr. is survived by his loving wife Dr. Henrietta Augustus Harris, his two devoted daughters and sons-in-law, and three adoring grandchildren: Ayana (Harris) Teter, her husband Aaron, and their children Evangeline, Naomi, and Ezra (Pittsburgh, PA); and Askala (Harris) Calhoun and her husband Destry (Fort Worth, TX).

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Walter Harris, Jr. papers

Identifier: 832
Content Description The Walter Harris, Jr. papers document his professional work as a Professor of Music at Arizona State University (ASU) from 1980 to 2000 and Loyola University New Orleans 2003 to 2018. The papers mainly encompass course outlines and syllabi with supporting research documentation for courses focused on African American Music in particular music culture, esthetics in traditional Africa, and Negro Spirituals. The bulk of the collection consists of sheet music focused on African American...
Dates: circa 1920-2018