Stroll into Arturo’s restaurant on Houston and you’ll likely see a crowd of hungry people waiting for tables or eating and drinking at the small bar just inside the door. Amid the customers and hustling staff, you’ll find Harry Whitaker’s jazz trio playing to an audience focused on conversation and brick-oven pizza. One thing is for sure: Never has an Italian restaurant had a hipper musical vibe.
Whitaker isn’t just some cat who plays piano in a pizza joint. He worked with Roy Ayers in the early ’70s, composing the seminal (and much sampled) rare groove tune “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby,” and playing on and co-producing Ayers’s soundtrack for Coffy, a 1973 Pam Grier blaxploitation flick. Usually working as a sideman—he was Roberta Flack’s music director from 1974 to ’81—Whitaker stepped up and recorded the obscure Black Renaissance Body, Mind and Spirit album on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 1976. The album was a fully improvised affair that fused jazz and funk grooves, poetry and spoken word, and the soloing came from a notable cast of friends, including the late Woody Shaw.
Now at a baby grand piano wedged between Arturo’s kitchen and bathroom, the 59-year-old Whitaker tinkles away on jazz classics like “All Blues,” throwaway ditties like “Take Me Out to the Ballpark,” and standards like “Moonlight in Vermont.” He’s flanked by bassist Pat O’Leary and drummer Dan Oran, who manages just fine with a snare drum, high hat, and ride cymbal. Playing background music in a restaurant isn’t the best of musical settings, but the sharp-eyed will catch customers tapping the tables in time, and waitresses will occasionally couple for a quick two-step as they slide past each other.
The pianist has been at the restaurant for eight years, and the trio is loose from its five-sets-a-night grind. According to Whitaker, Arturo’s has become something of a hang where amateur vocalists (including a charming little nine-year-old girl) and professional musicians stop by to sit in.
Doubtless the scene at Arturo’s will become even hipper when the fabled Body, Mind and Spirit is reissued on Luv N’ Haight on August 20. Sounding like a free-jazz version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Body, Mind and Spirit will catch people’s attention this time around—the two-song, 40-minute album was supposedly originally issued in 1977 and again in 1983 by the tiny Japanese label Bay State, though no one knows for sure, and they never bothered to notify Whitaker. Through a tragic series of events—the label went under just after the album, which was mastered from the wrong set of tapes, was released, and the original masters have since been lost in a fire—Body, Mind and Spirit is almost more of a rumor than a reality, with copies costing rare groove junkies $350 and up when they can find it.
“When Black Renaissance comes out, I’m gonna be Barnum and Bailey,” Whitaker says from his West Village apartment. “They knew about getting out there and promoting themselves.”
Whitaker sees the reissue as a turning of the tide: He’s taking much of the hip-hop royalties he’s received from Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, and others to fund a variety of projects. He’s got dozens of compositions that he wants to record, and in the same open-ended, multi-dimensional spirit as the Black Renaissance project, Whitaker is also producing and leading a new live revue called “Moment to Moment.”
“What this is is the beginning,” he says. “I’ve got so much stuff going on that the whole rest of my life is now planned.” Arturo’s regulars will be happy to note that his plans include keeping his restaurant gig.