One night at Smalls, the venerable jazz club on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, I asked Spike Wilner, the venue’s proprietor, “Whatever happened to that beautiful cat that used to haunt this place?” (Though I can’t verify it as fact, it’s possible that across America, many jazz clubs have an official house cat that slinks around the club. A cat amongst cats, as they say in the jazz world.)
Spike raised an eyebrow. “Minnow. Do you know the story about Minnow?”
I did not know the story about Minnow, though I remember that regal feline creature with a spectacular mane that used to sit atop the piano, but only when certain musicians played. “Tell me about Minnow,” I said, encouraging the club owner.
The band was between sets, patrons coming and going. It was spring 2019. I sipped some tequila. Smalls is a basement joint known for its lively mix of students, hipsters, and true jazzheads from back in the day. “Well,” answered Spike, “to tell you about Minnow, I first need to tell you about Harry Whitaker. Do you remember Harry?”
I did remember the late Harry Whitaker. Beginning in the late 1990s, Harry was a regular performer at Smalls. He was a piano player of prodigious talents. I never met Harry, but I saw him play a few times at the club. I was stunned by his facility on the piano and wondered why I was unaware of this artist, who was maybe the best pianist I ever heard perform live. By then, Harry was in his 60s, heavy-set, like a big African American buddha. His hair was gray, and he had a pronounced lower lip that seemed to protrude as he got into a groove on the piano. He often slumped on the piano bench when he played, as if he were under hypnosis, eyes closed, his mind and spirit in some other place, but his artistry present in ways that tended to hush an audience into awe.
Spike’s voice became somber when he mentioned Harry’s name. I gathered that Whitaker had special meaning to him. “Okay, then,” I said. “Tell me about Harry.”
What followed was the beginning of a dialogue that started that night and would continue, off and on, over the next year. What Spike told me about Harry lingered in the ether of my imagination. As well as being a club owner, Spike Wilner is also an accomplished piano player. Harry had played a crucial role in Spike’s development as a musician, and taxed his emotions, as Harry succumbed to bouts of mental illness that would eventually be his undoing. The club proprietor and the piano legend became the inheritors of a spiritual symbiosis that is at the essence of jazz. Minnow the cat also played a role.
Spike was always willing to reminisce about Harry, either at his club, with sax solos in the background accenting the conversation, or over a cup of coffee during the light of day. Eventually, he led me to others who had been touched by this singular artist who practiced his craft with an unyielding sense of wonder. In exploring Harry’s story, I felt as though I was entering the inner sanctum of the neighborhood’s rich jazz culture. I rustled the ghosts of long-lost gigs and stirred memories of a discordant past. In the process, I embarked on a journey into the heart of jazz, where an enigmatic figure and precocious artist had enlightened, exasperated, and entered the bloodstream of those who knew and loved him.
The piano is the North Star of jazz instrumentation. Rhythm, melody, tone, and tempo all start with the piano and spread like a gale of wind through the canyons of a band’s geological formations. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Teddy Wilson all led big orchestras from their perch at the piano. Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner explored the contours of the instrument in ways that were intimate and quirky. Harry Whitaker was not as well-known as these legends, all of whom sustained long, robust careers, but he rode the wave of his talent in ways that were endemic to the Village, where young players came—and still come—to make their mark, and veteran players come to dance among the tombstones.
Harry Whitaker was born in Pensacola, Florida, on September 19, 1942, and first began playing scales on the piano at the age of 5. While still a youngster, his family moved, first to Chicago and then to Detroit, where the young pianist began to find his voice. Motown was in its heyday; jazz in the Motor City was rich with the influences of rhythm and blues, gospel, soul, funk, and Black psychedelia. The city produced many jazz stars: Yusef Lateef, the Jones brothers (Hank, Thad, and Elvin), Pepper Adams, Paul Chambers, and, especially, the late Barry Harris, who was a contemporary and close friend of Harry’s.
The more he heard Harry play, the more he thought, “What happened with this guy? Why did he fall off the map for more than a decade?”
At the age of 16, Harry graduated from high school and set out on the road with bassist Ray McKinney, who had his own group. After two years, Harry settled in New York. In 1965, while still in his 20s, he landed a job with a band led by Lloyd Price. In this band were many firmly established jazz veterans, such as Kenny Dorham, Jimmy Heath, and Slide Hampton. Already, Harry exhibited a proclivity that would later become his hallmark, an ability to play circular melodies that put listeners in a kind of trance.
Harry’s style was especially well suited for the next phase of his career. In 1970, he was hired by Roy Ayers, the vibraphonist, composer, and producer who was on the cusp of becoming a crucial figure in the intersection of jazz, soul, and funk. Over the next decade, Harry, as pianist for Ayers’s band, Ubiquity, would find himself at the center of the 1970s jazz/funk explosion. You can hear Harry on the 1973 soundtrack album for Coffy, starring Pam Grier, with tracks he and Ayers composed. For Ayers, Harry also arranged and performed on the classic “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby,” a rich, orchestral piece with vocal incantations that would become a prime focus of rap and hip-hop samplers decades later.
In 1971, Harry was hired to serve as musical director for soul singer Eugene McDaniels, who, under Harry’s guidance, produced Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse, a jazz/folk/funk protest record with politically oriented lyrics such as “Jews and Arabs / Left wing and right wing / Niggahs and crackers / We are the cannon fodder,” and “Everyone wants peace of mind / Everyone says we should ignore / The graves we dance upon.” The album was brought to the attention of the Nixon administration, specifically, Vice President Spiro Agnew, who condemned the record as incendiary. Under political pressure, it was pulled from distribution by Atlantic Records.
Present at the recording session for this album was the singing star Roberta Flack, who had played a role in discovering McDaniels. Flack was so impressed with Harry’s contributions as musical director and pianist that she hired him to serve as her own musical director. For five years, he worked with Flack during her most fertile period, when she recorded “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “The Closer I Get to You.” At the same time, Harry formulated his own musical vision, which had become increasingly cosmic and ambitious. On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, in 1976, at the age of 33, Harry recorded an album called Black Renaissance: Body, Mind and Spirit, a funky, aurally complex world music attempt to encompass the full scope not only of Black music in America but Black history as interpreted through music.
Harry had for years been building toward this opus, which was a melding of the various styles he had mastered in his young life. The album has only two tracks, “Black Renaissance” (23 minutes, 40 seconds) and “Magic Ritual” (15 minutes, 34 seconds). Recorded at Sound Ideas Studio, in Manhattan, there were no musical charts, and little preparation. In liner notes that accompanied a re-release of the record, in 2007, Harry recalls, “We discussed ideas the night before—just the basics like the bass lines and the drums, but that was it. It was recorded in what I call moment-to-moment.” Each track was recorded in one take, and there were no overdubs or edits. “The musicians on the record were, and still are, my friends and confidants…. The studio was packed, it was like a party celebration or a gathering. It was full of people who appreciated music and that helped the energy and the vibe. We were able to bounce ideas off the crowd. There are solos, poetry, and even rapping on it, all of it improvised. They say the first rap records came out in 1976—maybe mine was one of the first.”
The album barely got a release. Produced by Baystate Records, a label based in Japan, the label misstated the date of the recording—June 15 instead of January 15, the date of MLK’s birthday, which was an important aspect of the record’s conception. For some reason, Baystate printed a copy of the master recording, not the original, and released it in 1977 without Harry’s knowledge.
Though years later he would blame himself for his minimal knowledge of the recording business and his indifference to commercial realities, Harry was devastated by the record’s mishandling. It had been an intensely personal experience into which he had poured his entire essence as an artist, and the result had been largely ignored by audiences, most of whom probably didn’t even know the record existed.
And then Harry Whitaker disappeared. He no longer had a regular job with any band, and his recording history over the next decade is nonexistent. Only a few years earlier, he had been a well-paid sideman and musical director with Ayers, Flack, and other major names in the recording industry. By the 1980s, he was a ghost.
“He was like Yoda, or some kind of Zen monk you might find from Chinese medieval times. He had these disciples, people who would follow him around.”
In 1987, Spike Wilner was a young pianist who, at the age of 21, had just secured his first steady gig as a musician. Arturo’s, a vintage Italian pizza joint at the corner of Houston and Thompson streets, was a beloved institution in Greenwich Village with a stellar music policy. For years, the place had been offering jazz with no cover charge, and it had developed a reputation for presenting quartets and quintets featuring piano players and the occasional vocalist.
Though jazz on a national scale was not exactly thriving in the late 1980s, in Manhattan, and especially in the Village, the music was prevalent. It seemed that every corner bistro or bar had a pianist, sometimes playing solo, sometimes with a bass player or guitarist or horn player. The vocalists were often aspiring actors or Broadway show people who would gladly sing tunes from the American songbook for a few dollars dropped into a bucket or basket. Arturo’s was revered by many as a friendly neighborhood establishment with arguably the best coal-oven pizza in the city, and the music was a cut above what you might find in other places.
Wilner was thrilled to be working there. Among musicians, Arturo’s was a coveted gig. There was no salary, but the tip jar was often good and the owners of the restaurant fed the band. The atmosphere was old-school, evoking a time when the Village was, indeed, a village, with a classic Italian-family-style vibe, regulars who were known by their first names, and a wonderful sense of camaraderie amongst the musicians and other employees. “I dug so much coming into Arturo’s,” Wilner told me. “It felt like you were part of a really vibrant community there.”
The owner of the place was Arturo Giunta, known to everyone as Artie. An amateur drummer, Artie took a strong interest in the music at Arturo’s. Since opening the place, in June 1957, first on MacDougal Street and then, five years later, its current location around the corner on Houston Street, Giunta believed that live music, especially jazz, was essential to creating the atmosphere he was going for. Arturo’s was designed to be cozy, the kind of place where you could sip a cocktail, listen to some great piano jazz, and watch the snow come down outside, without a care in the world.
Wilner was first hired to play for the restaurant’s staff meals, every weekday afternoon at four o’clock. It was a special hour, when the restaurant was closed and the staff had a private, family-style meal, accompanied by solo piano. Recalls Wilner, “Arturo liked me, I think, because I played all the old show tunes, ‘I Love New York in June,’ that kind of thing. Then he asked me to also come in on Saturdays and Sundays to play their private dinners. That led me to segue into a regular dinner gig at night.”
One musician with considerable sway at Arturo’s was Steve Berger, a guitar player who had been performing at the place since 1981. When Berger was first hired, the musician in charge at Arturo’s was Bobby Pratt, a veteran pianist and trombone player who had played regularly on 52nd Street during the heyday of that legendary scene. In 1989, Pratt became ill, and Berger took over as unofficial musical director. It was a highly prized position. Not only did Berger have the power to hire musicians, he was doing so at a place that seemed to capture the essence of New York. Says Berger, who is now retired and lives in the West Village, “It was precious. Bass player Bill Takas used to come in a lot because he lived around the corner. He used to say, ‘Man, this is like the old Village. This is like the Village in the ’50s.’”
“He was so free that I would constantly egg him on to play another chorus, and every chorus would get more and more interesting. That was good for me because I’d follow him around and find new ways to accompany him. No one else I’d play with did that. I never experienced anything like it.”
In the early 1990s, it became clear that Pratt would not recover from his ailments (he died of heart and kidney failure, in 1994). Berger went looking for a new pianist for Arturo’s. He knew of Harry Whitaker from Teruo Nakamura, a Japanese bassist and music producer who had played with Harry and loved his style. As Berger remembers it, “I called Teruo and asked if he knew where Harry was. He said, ‘He’s living in Queens. He has no money. He’s living in somebody’s basement, and he eats cat food.’ So I picked up Teruo and we went out there and sure enough, he was living in somebody’s basement and looked all fucked up. I said, ‘Harry, I need somebody. Are you interested in playing?’ He said, ‘Yeah, man.’”
Berger was aware of Harry’s past accomplishments, but he was unprepared for his brilliance on the instrument. “He could do things I had never heard before.” But the more he heard Harry play, the more he thought, ‘What happened with this guy? Why did he fall off the map for more than a decade?’”
He soon found out. Harry could be manic, with a history of mental illness. Some days he was friendly and joyous, other days he was dark and demanding. There were times when he did not show up for work, and Berger was tasked with calling round to his many musician contacts to find a fill-in, which usually wasn’t difficult. “People loved playing at Arturo’s, for the food if nothing else,” he says. Eventually, Berger was told that Harry had been sent to the hospital. “He was sick. He had high blood pressure, hypertension. He was put on Zoloft for depression.”
After being away for two months, Harry returned. On the surface, he seemed better. He was functional, though Berger found playing with him to be a roller coaster ride. “When Harry soloed, I was accompanying Harry, and when I soloed, I was accompanying Harry. He was not the most giving player…. Sometimes it was like playing with God, and sometimes it was like dentistry. We are emotional beings. How you are feeling will determine how you play on any given day. Are you giving, or are you taking? Are you hungry for nourishment? Are you feeling gracious and giving? Well, Harry could be a selfish motherfucker.”
Berger acknowledges that Harry’s mercurial nature was likely a consequence of what appeared to be his bipolar disorder. And not everyone at Arturo’s shared Berger’s view that Harry could be a “selfish bastard.” Lisa Giunta, Arturo’s daughter, who, along with her brother, Scott, managed the day-to-day business at the restaurant, adored Harry. Partly it was his playing, and partly it was his willingness to be part of the Arturo family.
A few months after I first spoke with Spike Wilner about Harry, I interviewed Lisa at Arturo’s. It was a typically busy night at the restaurant, crowded, with people coming and going. We were seated at the bar. When Lisa spoke of Harry, she tended to look toward the piano, as if he were still there. “He was always helping everybody. He was especially good with singers, who he seemed to like, and they liked him. When Harry was here, it was magic.”
Pat O’Leary, a bass player who is still a regular at Arturo’s, remembers Harry with great fondness, saying, “I always looked forward to playing with him.” Pat was on a break during a gig at Arturo’s; we sat on a bench outside the restaurant and he talked nearly nonstop. “Harry’s playing spoke for itself. The best way of saying it is that he never played the same thing once. He was so free that I would constantly egg him on to play another chorus, and every chorus would get more and more interesting. That was good for me because I’d follow him around and find new ways to accompany him. No one else I’d play with did that. I never experienced anything like it.”
Harry said, “Your left hand, it’s fucked up. On your next solo, try sitting on your left hand. Play only with your right hand.”
Most witnesses from those days at Arturo’s agree that Steve Berger’s negative feelings about Harry probably also have to do with the way Steve left his job, which led to Harry becoming a fixture at Arturo’s. It happened one night in the mid-1990s, when Arturo himself was sitting in with the group, as a drummer. Midway through the set, Arturo suggested that Marilyn Kleinberg come up and sing with the band. Marilyn was a regular at Arturo’s, a favorite of the owner’s, who would often sing with various groups that played there.
Wilner was also at Arturo’s that night, though it was Harry’s gig—he was on piano. Wilner’s memories of the scene are vivid. “Marilyn was a good friend of everyone there at Arturo’s. She was not a bad singer at all. Arturo loved her. He said to Steve, ‘Bring up Marilyn, I wanna hear her sing a few songs.’ Steve was not having it. He said, ‘Man, this is my gig. I do what I want on my gig. I don’t wanna have a singer on this.’ Arturo was calm. He didn’t even react. He said, ‘Bring her up for a song,’ repeating it. And Steve went the same way. ‘Man, I really don’t want to.’ Arturo stood up and said, ‘Steve, come with me outside, please.’ They walked outside together. We were all kind of watching through the window. We could hear them talking. Arturo said, ‘Steve, what’s the name of this place?’ ‘Arturo’s.’ ‘What’s my name?’ ‘Arturo.’ Clarified. ‘Now get your shit and get out of here.’”
Berger remembers it slightly differently. Though he agrees that he was none too excited about Marilyn being called on to sing, he says he left the band to go outside because his back was bothering him. “For some reason, Artie took this as an insult. And he got really ugly with me. He started screaming. I’d been there for 20 years by this time. I’d grown up playing there. But that was it. Artie was old-school. The boss says play, you play.”
What everyone agrees on is that it was a seminal event for all involved. Berger was out of what he called “the best gig of my life.” Later, Lisa Giunta asked Wilner, “We’ve got nights to fill, who should I have take over for Steve?” Wilner didn’t hesitate. “You’ve got one of the greatest piano players around playing here already. Give it to Harry. Let’s see what he can make of it.”
And thus began what would become a major renaissance in the life of Harry Whitaker. Over the next few years, he would go from being a forgotten man to being the king of the Greenwich Village jazz scene.
Smalls Jazz Club was opened by Mitch Borden in 1994, at 183 West 10th Street, two buildings west of what had once been Nick’s, a revered neighborhood jazz venue from the 1950s. Borden, a former U.S. navy nurse and occasional player of jazz violin, had in mind something of a jazz collective, where musicians would come to jam in their off hours. Originally, the basement space was raw, and the club had no liquor license.
Smalls was most definitely not the Village Vanguard, the esteemed club that remains today, just around the corner and two blocks north, on Seventh Avenue. Given its history and reputation, the Vanguard books top-name acts and pays accordingly. Smalls initially didn’t pay at all; it was mostly intended as a breeding ground for musicians who might hope to one day play in the neighborhood’s tonier clubs.
And Smalls did surprisingly well, attracting a young, jazz-savvy following throughout the late 1990s. It became known as something of a stepchild of the Vanguard (“Son of the Vanguard”), a venue that was cheaper ($10 cover), unpretentious, and with fewer tourists. If you stopped in at Smalls, you were likely to hear straight-ahead, traditional jazz played by cats you never heard of, who nonetheless played to a very high standard.
When 9/11 happened, Smalls, like many establishments in downtown Manhattan, was hit hard. In 2002, Borden filed for Chapter 11, and the club went out of business. Borden focused his attention on Fat Cats (now called Cellar Dog), a basement billiards hall two blocks south, on Christopher Street, that eventually established its own jazz following through bookings like those that audiences would have seen and heard at Smalls.
Borden thought he was finished with Smalls—until 2004, when the owner of the establishment that took over the space after Smalls first closed approached Borden with a proposition. How about they reopen Smalls in the same space, with an infusion of capital that he, the owner, would supply? Borden agreed. Smalls reopened, two years after it had closed. Three years later, in 2007, that owner wanted out. Borden was understandably attached to the place; it had, in the first decade of the new century, reestablished its reputation as the “Son of the Vanguard.” Borden went looking for a new partner.
Spike Wilner had been playing dates at Smalls since the mid-1990s. Though he had no experience as a club owner, he loved the idea of being one. In 2007, he cobbled together the money he needed to buy in as Borden’s partner. Nobody remembers the exact date when Harry Whitaker had first performed at Smalls. It was likely in the late 1990s, after he took over as musical director at Arturo’s. Whatever the date, it wasn’t long before Harry was playing regular engagements at Smalls again. He became something of a rarity at the club—an older musician who had once been semi-famous. Most patrons had no idea who he was, but they could see and hear that he was an extraordinary piano player and composer.
Those were glorious years for Harry. He was playing five nights a week at Arturo’s, where he was loved by all. He would then leave his evening gig at Arturo’s and walk through the Village to Smalls, or sometimes Fat Cats, where he played a late set or two. Longtime jazz aficionados who lived in the West Village (myself included) became aware of Harry as a unique presence. He didn’t have the name recognition to be booked at the premiere clubs—the Vanguard or Sweet Basil or the Blue Note—but he was top of the second tier, a collection of smaller bars and clubs that showcased a quality of jazz musician any other city would be thrilled to promote. Now that Wilner was managing Smalls, he created a regular residency for Harry, and watched him become a local star. “He was like Yoda, or some kind of Zen monk you might find from Chinese medieval times. He had these disciples, people who would follow him around…. Harry had this staff, with bells on it at the top like a kind of tambourine. And he wore this robe. He’d come into Smalls and he’d start shaking his fucking staff, to announce himself. His people would be parading around him. And then he would sit, and he’d proceed to play the piano.”
The gigs at Smalls were often astounding. Remembers Wilner, “His playing was special. Nothing was prepared. The place where he wanted to be was in a complete spontaneity zone. Don’t prepare any idea of what you want to play at a set. Don’t even tell the musicians what you’re going to play. Choose a tune you assume they’ll know—‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ ‘’Round Midnight,’ it didn’t really matter—and go. Do it without forethought, with one idea suggesting another. That’s where I was like, Damn, that’s the shit for me. Most guys are like, ‘Here’s my arrangement for this’—they have it written out. ‘We’re gonna play these sections together. We’re gonna try this concept tune.’ But Harry was like Miles, or Monk. Nothing prepared. Totally in the moment. Listen to your muse. The purest kind of shit.”
“He was into it, but he was high. I’m sad because that could have been his opus. But it wasn’t.”
Over time Wilner became fully aware of Harry’s manic side—his disease—but it bothers him when he hears that anyone would relate to Harry as selfish. During his times with the pianist, which were often, he benefited from a kind of generosity from Harry that bordered on the sacred. “He used to watch me playing the piano during my gigs. He was studying me. Later, he came up to me and said, ‘Man, your left hand is fucking you up.’ You know, as a piano player, reconciling your right hand and your left hand is a challenge. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Your left hand, it’s fucked up. On your next solo, try sitting on your left hand. Play only with your right hand.’ I gave him a look, like ‘Huh?’ He said, ‘Literally put your hand under your ass, and as much as you’ll want to pull it out, just play like that.’ So I listened to his advice. I sat at the piano and started to play a solo. It was a little weird at first, but then it started to feel different. Because my concentration was on my right hand, my line, and I realized that I could phrase it creatively. It was a remarkable breakthrough for me, an insight that I had while playing that night. I understood how in-depth I could get in my creative line, that I was losing my creativity because my left hand wasn’t correct. I played one solo and I finished. People were applauding for it, just a right-hand solo. I looked up and there was Harry with a big, beautiful smile on his face. We made eye contact, he pointed at my hand. I looked at him, and I was like, Damn. When I got off the bandstand, he was laughing, hugging me. He said, ‘See motherfucker, I told you.’”
At other times, Harry could be forbidding. There was an evening, famous to Wilner and others who were there to see it, when the late, great Roy Hargrove showed up at the club during one of Harry’s gigs. Harry was wrapping up “The Children and the Warlock,” one of his seminal compositions from the 1970s. Near the end of the tune, Hargrove, without being invited, pulled out his trumpet, stood up, and performed a solo. Then he sat down. At clubs like Smalls, and elsewhere in the Village, it was generally understood that Hargrove had carte blanche to sit in and do solos as he pleased. He was a star, and as such he was accorded certain courtesies. The problem was, other musicians in the house at Smalls that night took Hargrove’s solo as a signal that they too could get up and play. After two more musicians separately stood up to play an uninvited solo, Harry exploded. He stopped the music and commandeered the microphone. “Who the fuck do you think you are? This is my gig. You don’t come up here unless invited.” Hargrove was mortified and apologized profusely, as did the others. “It was amazing to see,” remembers Wilner. “He was schooling them on decorum. I loved it. I loved it so much.”
In the late 1990s, Harry moved into a studio apartment at 260 Bedford Street, which was walking distance from his various gigs. He seemed to prefer the bachelor life. He had two ex-wives who were no longer part of his life, and he had two children: Mark, his oldest, had a stable life and was employed in the financial industry; his other son, Jahan, had struggled with mental health problems, much like Harry.
In January 2020, I met with Jahan at the Waverly Coffee Shop, a venerable Village diner not far from where his father had lived. The first thing you notice about Jahan is that he is a dead ringer for his father, complete with the soft eyes, the butter-eating smile, and the full lower lip. He was born in 1978. His parents split up when he was 3; Jahan stayed with his mother and grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, until the crack era of the 1980s made it a perilous place to be. He then moved in with his stepfather and stepbrother in New Jersey. As a child, Jahan didn’t really know his father. As he describes it, this left a big hole in his heart. When he did occasionally see his father, on weekends, it made him happy. Over coffee and a sandwich, Jahan told me, “I loved him. When I saw him, it was like a dream. Then I would go home and cry my eyes out to my stepfather.”
Jahan was well aware of his father’s mood swings and depression. Sometimes, Harry would drop off the face of the earth and cease all communications. Jahan figured this was Harry going into one of his down periods, when he didn’t want to be seen by other people. As Harry’s son, Jahan wanted to help, but he had his own issues. A dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, he, like Harry, was a sensitive soul; he had his own experiences with depression. And then, in 1996, he was assaulted in a random act of street violence. This sent him into a mental tailspin. He was diagnosed as psychotic and bipolar.
In the summer of 1997, thinking it might help him with his recovery, Jahan moved in with his father. It was the first time they had ever lived under the same roof as adults. Says Jahan, “It was a really strange experience because we never got to bond, like really bond, but we were very close. We smoked tons of weed together. And I remember two things that he told me. One, things will never go down the way they’re supposed to go. And two, niggers and onions will make you cry.”
During this period, Jahan had many opportunities to see his father perform. When he did: “I felt like I was watching God, like I was watching Beethoven or Monk. He had completely mastered the piano. He was so connected to what he was doing…. Playing light is harder than playing heavy. You have to barely touch the keys. The harmonies he had. He had a very attractive style. I felt he was at peace at the piano.”
Watching Harry play, Jahan came to understand and accept his father’s shortcomings. “Without music, he was nothing. He was a musician, really. He wasn’t much of a father. He wasn’t much of a husband to my mother. But what he did in terms of music he did to the best of his ability, and above and beyond his ability. He kicked ass.”
Eventually, Jahan moved on. Harry fell into a familiar pattern of emotional highs and lows. Says Wilner, “I’d go over to his place. He had pictures all over his walls from the past, posters from the different gigs he’d done. It was the most modest little dump for a guy his age. But he didn’t care. He didn’t need a lot. He had really embraced the simplicity. But he had started to withdraw. He was still doing Arturo’s, still doing his thing, but the vibe wasn’t happening, and this time maybe he wasn’t coming out of it.”
“We all knew he was struggling, and when he was struggling, we wondered if this was it, would he go down and not get back up? But that night, listening to Harry, I never heard him play better.”
Pat O’Leary, who adored playing with Harry, started to become more cognizant of his manic side. “He’d start to get loud, to act like he ruled the world. He wouldn’t take any bullshit from anybody. And sometimes it was uncalled for. Sometimes he got so full of himself, it was hard to be around him. He would snap at people for seemingly benign reasons. People in the band, or singers who would come on set and not know the keys or the tempo, he’d snap, become flustered.” Harry’s friends and bandmates were worried. Says O’Leary, “Marilyn and I went over to his apartment and got him. We told him we were taking him to get help. We brought him downstairs. He was docile as a puppy dog. We put him in the back seat. He was a shell of a human being. Whatever we said, he would do.”
Pat and Marilyn drove Harry across the river to Englewood Hospital, in New Jersey, a facility that operated under the auspices of the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund. The Fund was an initiative for musicians, founded by Gillespie himself, to help artists in need at a minimal cost. According to O’Leary, “He stayed there a couple months. I went to visit him there.” Eventually, Harry was released with a new medicine regimen and renewed optimism, though his periods of stability tended to be transitory.
Part of the problem was Harry’s financial instability. Even during periods when he was working steadily, he remained saddled with debt. “The banks kept offering him credit cards,” says Wilner. “He’d max them out until he got to the point where he was in despair. He knew he couldn’t get out of debt, and it gave him the most anxiety you can imagine.” It was at this point that a guardian angel entered the picture—or, at least, that’s how it appeared at the time. Noah Sapir, the proprietor of Fat Cats—one of the places where Harry played regularly—gave the pianist ten thousand dollars. He said to Whitaker, “Harry, this is from me to you. It’s not a loan. Utilize it any way you can, to pay off debts, whatever. I’m giving it to you. I love you, Harry.”
Wilner recalls, “It was a very generous thing to do. And if Harry had been in one of his more together phases, where his thinking was more rational, it could have been positive. But that’s not how it went down.”
And here is the part of the story where Minnow the cat makes her entrance.
Somehow, Harry got it into his head that he could make money by breeding cats. Not just any cat, a Maine Coon, one of the rarest and most luxurious breeds. Maine Coons are known for their full, lush coats of fur, and they can be large, up to 12 pounds for a female. They are one of the most desirable breeds on the market, with purebred kittens selling for anywhere between two and four thousand dollars.
“I have no idea where Harry got this idea into his head,” Wilner tells me. “It was part of this thing that was going on with him, part of his bipolar nature. He wasn’t having clear, rational thinking. He was having fantastical thoughts, obsessive thinking. It’s possible that he created this thing with the cat in his head. It’s also possible that someone bamboozled him.”
Harry bought a thoroughbred Maine Coon for four thousand dollars. “It was the most beautiful kitty you’ve ever seen,” recalls Wilner. “Both her mom and dad were champion Maine Coons.” Harry bought the cat from an authorized breeder. He had papers from a sanctioned cat breeding association verifying that the animal was pure 100% Maine Coon. But, says Wilner, “Harry quickly discovered that breeding thoroughbred cats is complicated. It’s not like you just let them fuck and have kittens. You have an incubation period. They have to be sanctioned by the Maine Coon society, with certificates of authorization to prove who sired who, showing that both cats are pure and legit. Breeding cats like this can be a full-time job.”
Once Harry realized what was involved in breeding the cat, his attention moved elsewhere. At the time, he was in full mania mode, and soon he transitioned to another big project, which used up the remaining six thousand of his financial bounty.
In early 2008, Harry invited many of his musician friends to take part in a three-day recording session. It was inspired perhaps by the re-release of Black Renaissance one year earlier, which had brought him a degree of attention online and a new following of young hipsters. Harry believed he could recapture the glory of what he believed was his greatest creation, a mostly spontaneous exercise in group creativity and genius. Unfortunately, the recording sessions were a disaster that would lead him on to his final descent into madness.
Joe Magnarelli, a trumpet player who played with Harry’s band at Smalls and other venues, was invited to take part. His own relationship with Harry was intense. “I loved him, and he loved me. Playing with him opened the door for me harmonically. He always encouraged me to try things. It was a challenge, but he did it with love. He never judged me. Over the years, we had blowouts. He could be difficult. But it never got stupid. Those blowouts ran their course and everything was cool.” As for the sessions says Magnarelli, “It was kind of a disaster, not well organized. It was frustrating because it seemed he had something he wanted to accomplish but he couldn’t make it happen.” Pat O’Leary was also invited. “It was a mess, very haphazard,” he remembers.
Jahan stopped by a session one day, to see his father at work. “He was high as a kite. There were maybe 30 people there—artists, singers, sax, drums, with him on piano. All the familiar faces in his musical life. He was into it, but he was high. I’m sad because that could have been his opus. But it wasn’t.”
Of the people who were at the recording sessions with whom I spoke, no one had heard tapes of them. If they ever asked Harry about it, they say, he would mumble and say nothing more.
Harry’s epic attempt to reclaim his past glory had crashed and burned. According to Jahan, the recording sessions had cost over five thousand dollars. Now Harry was back to being financially strapped. He disappeared from view for an extended period. When he was in a state of depression, he often didn’t eat healthily or bathe or take care of himself. Wilner and his partner, Mitch Borden, became worried. Wilner went to Harry’s place and knocked on the door. No answer. It seemed no one was there. It was Borden who came up with an idea—“Hey, call around to the local hospitals. Maybe he’s in the hospital and he doesn’t know how to get out.” Sure enough, they found Harry at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. Wilner went over there; he talked to a nurse, who said, “Look, this guy has serious blood pressure issues. You need to get that tended to.”
When Wilner was finally allowed to see Harry, the first thing the pianist said was, “The cat’s still in the apartment. Save the cat. I never got the cat.”
Wilner called Harry’s oldest son, Mark, who had a key to the apartment on Bedford Street. They rushed over. Wilner recalls, “We opened the door, and there was poor Minnow. Maine Coons have this huge coat of hair, and hers was all clumped together like a Rastafarian cat. She survived, I don’t know how she did it. She survived for almost a month without any real food, just water from the toilet. Then we took her to Smalls and nursed her back to health. She became the house cat, which everyone loved.”
After Harry was released from Bellevue, his fortunes followed the usual pattern: Fortified with rest and newly prescribed meds, he rallied and then crashed again. This time, Wilner got a deep feeling in his gut that Harry wasn’t going to come out of it. In an act of desperation, he posted on Facebook that he had a dear friend, a musical genius, who needed psychiatric attention from an authorized, fully accredited physician. It wasn’t long before he heard from David Norton, a licensed psychotherapist.
I interviewed Norton over the phone. He remembered the events of that day clearly. “It was my son who saw Spike’s post: ‘musician needs therapy.’ My son is a bass player.” Norton met with Wilner over coffee and Wilner explained the situation, describing Harry as a sweet and lovable person when he was well. Then they walked over to Harry’s apartment. “The place was a mess,” Norton told me. “Unkept. Not safe at all. There were photos on the wall from Harry’s past. He was surrounded by the photos. And clearly, he was no longer able to take care of himself. It was tough to see this guy in these surroundings.”
Initially, Harry was despondent. In the apartment, Norton asked him some questions and he was unresponsive, bordering on incoherent. The psychotherapist then decided to put Harry under hypnosis. For the next two hours, Harry was in a hypnotic state. He got to the point where he was hearing music, voices, and all kinds of noises. He was sweating and having paranoid delusions. Working through the hypnosis, Norton was also able to see the sweetness Wilner had described. “I really liked the guy. But he was tormented by his condition,” Norton recalled. “At that point, it was hard to tell to what degree this was physical or psychological. His vital signs were not good. Acute schizophrenia would have been my diagnosis.”
Norton asked Harry what medications he was taking and Harry pulled out a shoebox full of pills. “He was taking tons of antipsychotics. But there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it,” Norton noted. Over the years, doctors in emergency rooms had prescribed medications for Harry with no real long-term strategy. Norton determined that the first thing they needed to do was get Harry to a “Park Avenue doctor,” meaning a physician who could prescribe medication and take Harry on as a patient. When they got Harry to a prescribing doctor, he was told, “These medications you’re taking are killing you,” and Harry was put on a new regimen of meds. Once again, he seemed to improve, though he stayed in the hospital for a week.
Once Harry was released from medical care, Wilner and Borden, in early November 2010, decided to put on a fundraiser for him at Smalls. Once again, Harry was broke, and any money they could muster up would help. “I remember he came to the event,” says Wilner. “All things considered, he looked okay. He stood in the back with a baseball cap pulled low. He was like a ghost. He wasn’t playing, and didn’t really have much to say that evening.”
What Wilner remembers most from that night is the way Minnow reacted when she first saw Harry. The cat had been nursed back to health and had taken to prowling around the club like the queen that she was. “When she saw Harry, she froze for a second, a shocked look on her face. I witnessed this whole thing between the cat and the human. It was unbelievable. She slowly turned herself around as if she didn’t want to face him. She didn’t want to see this guy. She was pretending like she didn’t even know him. Harry didn’t give a shit. At this point, he wasn’t thinking about the cat anymore. But the cat was clearly not happy with Harry. She didn’t like him, and she was letting it be known.”
A couple more weeks went by, and people were not as focused on Harry. Often, he did not show up for his gigs at Arturo’s, though sometimes he did. Pat O’Leary remembers the last time he saw Harry there. “It was one of his down periods. We all knew he was struggling, and when he was struggling, we wondered if this was it, would he go down and not get back up? But that night, listening to Harry, I never heard him play better. Never. It was pristine, perfect, warm. Everything was in place. He was on an incredible level. In the 15 years I played with him, I never heard him that sublime.”
Several weeks after the fundraiser for Harry at Smalls, Wilner got a call from Lou, an ex-cop who was Harry’s neighbor in the building on Bedford Street. “You better get over here,” Lou said. “Oh my god,” Wilner mumbled. It was a rainy day. He ran through the rain to Harry’s building, not far from the club. “I got to the building. Harry lived on the second floor. I ran up the stairs, and before I even got to the apartment, the smell hit me. As soon as I smelled that, I knew Harry was dead.”
He had been dead for a while—according to the coroner, possibly as long as two weeks. The official date of death given was November 17, 2010. That meant he died shortly after the fundraiser, where he had his cold final encounter with Minnow the cat. The official cause of death was congestive heart failure brought on by hypertension and high blood pressure. For anyone who knew Harry, it was horribly sad. Many of his friends and fellow musicians had tried to help, but Harry could be difficult. He didn’t want anyone’s help, and he rarely reached out. In the end, he died as everyone had feared, alone in his room surrounded by memories of the past.
The management at Smalls arranged for Harry’s memorial service. It took place at St. Peter’s Church, on Lexington Avenue, in midtown Manhattan. Many people from the jazz world were there, including Roberta Flack, who flew into town for the occasion. She sang a song and spoke about Harry’s talent and his sweet disposition.
— 8 —
After Harry’s memorial, everyone went on about their lives. Then one day, Spike Wilner received a package at Smalls with no return address. Mitch Borden was also there. They opened the package, and inside was a cylindrical metal urn. Wilner knew that Harry had been cremated. Could this be his remains? They opened the urn, and inside was a plastic bag filled with ashes.
Later, Wilner heard from Jahan, and also from Harry’s mother (who was still alive, at 90-something), that they wanted to split the ashes three ways: one-third to the mother, one-third to Jahan, and one-third to be kept at Smalls in memory of Harry. Remembers Wilner: “I don’t know why I agreed to this, but I said yes. I wasn’t expecting it, it was bizarre. The day came when we had to open the urn and access the ashes of Harry Whitaker, divide them and put them in separate containers. This is where Mitch’s past as a Navy nurse on a nuclear submarine came in handy. Mitch handled it. He opened the urn and we dumped out the ashes on a sheet of paper. I said to Mitch, ‘Should we say a prayer?’ He thought about it and said, ‘Yes. Let this be an austere moment.’ We were silent for a few seconds, and then we divided up the ashes and put them in separate containers.”
After they had completed the task, placing their portion of Harry’s ashes in an urn that, to this day, rests on a shelf behind the bar at Smalls, Wilner noticed that they had left behind some residue of the ashes on the bar where they opened the urn. Wow, he thought, there’s the last remnants of Harry Whitaker, a man I dearly loved. He and Borden looked at each other, as if a thought had entered their heads at the same time. “Right there, we decided that the best thing we could do was take that ash and put it into a pipe and mix it with some marijuana. And so we did. We smoked Harry’s ashes together. We took a hit of Harry. That was it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Finally, I became part of him by breathing his ashes into my body.”
Wilner admits that he has told very few people the story of smoking Harry Whitaker. “I don’t tell people because they might think it’s a kind of desecration, or weird. But for me and Mitch, it was so natural and right that we did it. It certainly wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. It was meant to mourn him. And in a way, it was edifying. Since then, I think about Harry all the time. I think about him every day.”
As for Minnow the cat, for a time she became a star at the club. She strolled around the room as if she owned the place, and audiences loved her. Patrons frequently stroked her luxurious mane. Sometimes, especially when Wilner himself played at Smalls, she would jump up on the piano and watch him tickle the keys. It was a charming routine, but over time Minnow grew weary of it. She no longer appreciated it when patrons tried to pet her, and she usually stayed in the back room during gigs. Eventually, Wilner removed her from the club and took her to his apartment, where she seemed more comfortable.
At some point, a friend of Wilner’s revived the idea that they should try to breed the cat and sell the kittens. Minnow was often in heat, demanding attention and meowing late into the night. Wilner studied up on breeding Maine Coon cats. As Harry had learned, it was complicated. Plus, he began to feel that by pursuing this idea, he was taking on Harry’s mania. Instead, he decided to have Minnow spayed. “It must be the only time that somebody sterilized a four-thousand-dollar pure Maine Coon cat,” he tells me.
Today, Minnow is alive and well and lives with Wilner in his apartment. She hasn’t been inside Smalls in years.
In the course of researching this story, following Harry Whitaker’s tracks and interviewing those who knew him, I often checked in with Spike Wilner. Having been moved deeply by Harry, Wilner was curious about other people’s memories of the pianist. That and the fact that one likely never forgets an event like discovering a dear friend wasted away and dead, the corpse sitting in a chair where you used to have conversations with that person late into the night.
I usually found Spike at Mezzrow, a club that he and Borden opened in 2011, not long after Harry’s death. Located on West 10th Street, on the other side of Seventh Avenue from Smalls, Mezzrow is even more intimate than its sister club. Modeled after Bradley’s, a revered piano bar once located nearby, on University Place, Mezzrow is, as Wilner often notes, the kind of place where Harry would truly have shined. In fact, on the wall at Mezzrow is a large framed photograph of Harry Whitaker, his pouty lower lip sticking out as he grooves on the piano.
One night I stopped by Mezzrow to hear Spike play. One of the obligations of being the owner of a club and a performer is that you are the one called on to fill in when other musicians are unavailable or other booking complications arise. I don’t think Spike minded at all. Playing solo for an hour or so in front of an audience is great for the chops.
Sitting up front, watching Spike play, I noticed that he seemed to have improved each time I heard him. Having absorbed the story about how he learned to properly integrate his right and left hands, I watched his hands carefully as he played. To me, the playing seemed impeccable. His touch was lighter than I remembered it, more trance-like. I noticed something else as I watched Spike play. He’d put on a few pounds since I last saw him. And he had begun to slump down in his seat, his eyes sometimes closed, his chin resting on his chest. His lower lip was pushed out as he nestled into a groove. He looked like Harry Whitaker. ❖
T.J. English is the author of Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld, published by William Morrow/HarperCollins.
Correction: We originally reported that Minnow was no longer with us, but have received news that she is in fact still living with Wilner in his apartment.