When I opened the Golden Age storefront in April, of ’05 one peculiar thing started to happen and has continued to occur to this day. Some guy would walk into the shop, sit down and start playing some totally amazing jazz guitar. Naturally I’d have to engage this great chops cat in conversation and the same thing would almost inevitably come up; they studied with Harry Leahy. Over the years this came up so often that I almost felt like I knew Harry (and wished I had). For the first couple of years probably one out of every three good jazz players to walk in the store studied with Harry. And what’s more, they all loved him. It’s gotten to the point where I can tell Harry’s students from their playing. “Hey, you sound great. “I bet you studied with Harry” has become a familiar refrain at Golden Age. Harry had this area covered like a blanket. From his home in Plainfield, the cult of Harry spread to all the surrounding towns: Scotch Plains, Westfield, New Providence, Clark, Cranford and Summit all have numbers of his disciples. Only Sam Koontz’s name comes up anywhere near as much. And that’s probably ten to one.
Well, with all this in mind, I think a short bio of Harry is in order. Harry was born in Plattsburg, NY on September 1, 1935 and started playing guitar at age 13. Over his life he studied with the great Johnny Smith, Dennis Sandhole and at the highly respected Manhattan School of Music in NYC. He also worked with many different jazz combos including those of Gerry Mulligan, Ira Sullivan, Eric Kloss, Jack Six, Al Cohn as well as his own combo which worked extensively in the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania area. His most well know association was with Phil Woods with whom he recorded the albums “Songs for Sisyphus” (1978) and “Six – Live at the Showboat” (19787(featuring Harry’s composition “Rain Danse” and his arrangement of Django’s “Manoir de mes Reves”). Unfortunately, Harry left us little in the way of recorded work. His discography includes the 2 Woods albums, ” “Silver Threads” Harry Leahey and Steve Gilmore (1981), “Giant Box” Don Sebesky (1973), “Le Jazz Grand” Michel Legrand (1978) “Living Room” Mark Murphy (1984) “Ceora” James L. Dean (ca. 1992) and Harry’s own “Unaccompanied Guitar” (1989) and “Still Waters” (1980) are left to speak for him.
Harry was a devoted teacher who touched thousands of lives through his efforts. Teaching for over 30 years he taught many who went on to professional careers, among them: Bob DeVos, Vic Juris, Jon Herington, Jack Six, Walt Bibinger, Larry Barbee and Chuck Loeb. He also taught at William Patterson College from 1974 to 1988.
Harry died on August 12, 1990, at the far too early age of 54. He never attained wide notoriety, but was very well known and respected among his peers. Some of their quotes about Harry include: “The most complete guitarist I ever heard” – Vinnie Correo, “He was the top of the heap. He was the best guitar player that I had ever played with – and I played with every one.” – Phil Woods, “He was a great guitarist and a very beautiful man” – Leo Johnson.
Which brings me to my closing comments. Apparently, Harry Leahey was more than a great guitar player – he seemed to be a wonderful human being as well. Of all his students I’ve met, I’ve never heard anything approaching a bad word about him. His student loved him without exception. And I feel at a great loss never having met him.
One of my hopes for 2011 is to organize a guitar event/concert commemorating Harry Leahey and to celebrate his musical and personal legacy. More to follow.