Lawrence community celebrates John Harmon with 70th-birthday concert

Jessica Vogt

An audience of nearly 700 people gathered in Memorial Chapel Tuesday evening to celebrate the 70th birthday of renowned jazz composer and pianist John Harmon, an alumnus of and beloved friend to Lawrence University.
Fred Sturm, director of the jazz department and Harmon’s former student, introduced Harmon at the concert. “I consider John to be one of my dearest friends,” Sturm said. “He has literally touched the lives of thousands of artists, students, teachers, and loyal fans. How fitting that his Lawrence legacy can be celebrated here where it began nearly a half century ago.”
Harmon, who graduated in 1957, jammed with singer Janet Planet, bassist John Gibson, drummer Mike Hale, trumpeter Robert Levy, trombonist Kurt Dietrich, guitarist Tom Theabo, saxophonist Tom Washatka, and soul singer Fred Simon, a surprise guest. Harmon’s wife Linda, renowned ragtime pianist, and son Noah, a current LU piano student, also appeared in the celebration. The performance consisted of “jazz, a lot of roses, and down to earth fun,” said Noah Harmon, who played the left hand of a duet with his father, “All the Things You Are.”
Inspired by heart, life, and intensity, Harmon’s own compositions – including one of his first, “No Slate,” and one of his newest, “St. Loui-ee Bound!” – constituted nearly the entire program and captured the audience from the first downbeat to the final riff.
“He has a way of engaging you and understanding who you are,” Planet articulated.
Levy, a Lawrence professor emeritus and a longtime friend of Harmon’s, concurred. “It pleases me enormously to see Lawrence University honoring him on his 70th birthday,” Levy said, “as he has given so much to the Lawrence students and the Fox Valley over the past 50 years.”
“You make a lot of friends in jazz,” Harmon commented. “If I invited everyone I wanted to, we’d be here until next Thursday performing,” he laughed.
Of course, John Harmon is not only admired for his friendship and gifts to the community; his piano skills and compositional talents are widely acknowledged. The Oshkosh native earned an esteemed JAZZIZ magazine award in 1998 for his composition “Soliloquy” and a Wisconsin Artist Fellowship in 2001. Lawrence awarded him with an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts last June. Harmon founded and directed the Department of Jazz Studies at Lawrence from 1970-74. He also co-founded the Jazz nonet Matrix in 1974. He has composed over 200 works, including 100 choral pieces, and released several solo and collaborative albums.
Other than Harmon himself, one star of the show was one of Harmon’s old friends from his army band days, Fred “Soulful Si'” Simon, who had the audience on their feet after his rendition of “Old Man River” with Harmon at the piano.
On stage, Harmon sat hunched over the piano, head slowly shaking and fingers moving over the piano as if the keys were water, leaving tones hanging, glistening in the air. His passion for jazz was contagious. Before beginning the last song, “Doctor Feelgood,” Harmon reminisced, “We used to play at this place and on breaks we’d say ‘Doctor,’ who was our bartender, ‘make me feel good!'” Well, John, you’ve sure made a lot of people feel good in your life. Happy Birthday!