Dad loved going out in the cold to find the appropriate fresh pine tree to grace the living room of our five-story house on Clarissa Street in the Upper Hill, which at that time was a nice, family-oriented place to live. I was Dad’s only child, so en route to buy the tree we would stop and pick up a cousin or two who would climb into Dad’s station wagon (this was before SUVs) and turn it into a real family affair. Once the big pine tree was safely in our living room and standing tall, Dad would dig into the archive of family decorations that had been stored and tucked away from years past.
Dad was from a large family — he was one of eight children — and music filled the Harper household long before he started his eponymous night clubs Downtown — Walt Harper’s Attic and Harper’s Night Club. Two of Dad’s brothers, Ernie, also a pianist, and Nate, a tenor saxophonist, were also professional jazz musicians.
Ours was a multi-generational household, which included my grandparents — Charles Harper, a building contractor, and my grandmother, Lucinda Harper, a homemaker — my dad and me. We’d lost my mother, Dad’s first wife, in a tragic auto accident when I was young, so my grandparents stepped in. They could not have been prouder and more supportive of their son’s career as a jazz musician.
About a week before Christmas, all the Harper sisters and brothers and their children would begin to descend with their gifts to be placed under the tree.
It was also not unusual for some of the major stars of the jazz world who’d grown up in Pittsburgh to stop by to wish the Harper family a merry Christmas. Saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, vocalist and band leader Billy Eckstine and legendary bassist Ray Brown were all close friends.
For Dad, the traditions of the holiday mattered. He could derive the greatest joy from something small. Gadgets were a big thing with him — musical gadgets, battery-operated gadgets, alarm clocks. I got him more than one pair of battery-operated gloves to keep his fingers warm.
If Dad had a musical engagement on Christmas Eve, he would make sure he got back home in time to play Santa Claus. I always knew when he came in, though, because he was greeted at the door by our menagerie of pets, all with musical names. There was Jazz the French poodle, Tempo the cocker spaniel and Allegro the cat.
When I awakened the next morning, Dad would have neatly arranged under the tree an array of my favorite things: dolls, ice skates, roller skates, games, watches, clothes, books and always a musical gift, such as a Schirmer music book with scales, as a hint that I should practice my piano!
Christmas dinner was always very traditional, with all of my Dad’s favorite dishes — turkey, stuffing, sweet potato souffle, multiple vegetable dishes, rolls that would melt in your mouth and a wonderful fruit ambrosia dish — all prepared expertly by my grandmother.
After dinner, my Dad would repair to the piano to play and sing Christmas songs with the family. There was always “The Harper Family Talent Show” for the kids, which was produced by Dad.
This private side of my Dad was very special and, while he was a born music man and music visionary, he also was a daddy for the ages.
In that great orchestra up above, I know that during this holiday season he is somewhere seated at a piano singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack frost nipping at your nose … ”
Sharynn Harper (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in New York. Her biography “Walt Harper and Jazz at the Attic” is scheduled for publication in 2015.