POINTE COUPEE PARISH, LA (WAFB) - Raymond Harris is hanging at his sister's house in Lakeland when 9News visits. As he pulls out the instrument so natural to his hand, the trombone gleams. The glow sort of tells you this will be a special sound, and it is. As Harris draws in a breath and plays, he uses a mute. Even muted, the golden sound of the instrument comes through.
"I love the sound. I love the shape. It's unique," Harris said. "It reminds me of a fretless bass. It's a challenge because you have to use your ear to play the right notes in tune."
Harris decided a couple of years ago to finally leave New York City and come home to New Roads and Pointe Coupee Parish. In south Louisiana, he remains in professional playing condition despite recent dental work. "I'm the type of person that's not going to lay down," he said.
If you are familiar with the trombone, you'll notice something unique about the way he's playing. "In high school, there was a gentlemen named Alvin Paul giving my brother trumpet lessons," said Harris. He talks about how he'd ride with his brother to lessons on the handlebars of his bicycle. The lessons were at the home of Paul, the brass teacher. Paul had watched Raymond's interest in music. "And he came out and said, 'Look man, I have a couple of brass instruments. Pick one.' And I chose the trombone. He didn't notice I picked the trombone up and turned it left handed, showed me a scale, and didn't dawn on him that I played left handed," Harris explains. Turns out, he would keep playing left-handed through high school and college career. "My vision was stronger visualizing the slide on the left side."
Harris pulls out his scrapbook of photos. The pages are brimming with images mounted on the pages and placed loosely on top of them. "This is a photo of my beginning as a student at Southern University," he says, handing us a black and white photo. "I played in the marching band for a couple of years, met Mr. Alvin Batiste, enrolled in the jazz program, and under Mr. Batiste, he was preparing us for professional careers."
Harris says Batiste would really challenge them. He taught them strange and wonderful scales and jazz licks that would later be amazing during jazz rides of improvisation. Harris got a job straight out of high school with a fellow Southern student in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. As lead trombone in the band, while Duke's son, Mercer Ellington, conducted, Harris stood out with his seasoned confidence at such a young age. Mercer gave Harris the nickname "Youngblood." Harris played backup to a literal Jazz Hall of Fame. "Whenever we would get a call from Lou Rawls, Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Rosemary Clooney, Natalie Cole, they would use our horn section," he says.
To hear Harris with Ellington's Band in Tokyo, click here.
After spending years with the Ellington organization, Harris continued his world tour with another standout act, the Cab Calloway Orchestra. As Calloway dressed in sharp pastel tuxes with white shoes, his white hair flowing, he'd pull Raymond from the band to improvise standing by him. Calloway would beam a giant grin as Harris wailed away, thrilling audiences. If the world is a stage, then Harris has played all over it. "Every state in America. We frequent Japan, Paris, Germany, Italy, England, Poland, Switzerland, all the European countries," Harris remembers.
Want to see Harris with Cab Calloway in 1987 in Berlin? Click here.
After performing for thousands across the globe, Harris is back home in Pointe Coupee Parish, still practicing and still playing and always ready for audiences who still love to hear more of him.
"Seems like they just don't want it to end when it's time to quit. More! Encore! All good times. All good memories man," Harris said.