When asked to describe his musical style, singer and songwriter Kemp Harris says, “Someone once described it as swamp gospel. I don’t know what that means, but I play a mix of blues, jazz, folk and R&B. The best way I can put it is if Joni Mitchell and [jazz, blues, soul, and gospel singer] Donnie Hathaway had a kid.”
Harris will be bringing that unique blend to the Vineyard this Sunday when he plays with his band at Alex’s Place at the YMCA.
Harris has been writing and performing around the Boston area and elsewhere for decades. His style was born of his many experiences. His mother sang in a gospel choir, and he started playing piano and singing as early as age 5. “Music is just part of my DNA,” he says.
Harris played his first gig as a teenager in a Boston coffeehouse in the early 1970s. “The whole protest era was right up my alley,” he says.”The music was tinged by folk, rock, R&B, and gospel. I think part of the artist’s job is to shine light on what is happening in our world — not preach, but make commentary.”
That first show led to a long career in music. “From then on I just kept working,” says Harris. I got into a couple of different bands. I went through a rock/blues phase.”
No stranger to the rock, soul, jazz, and R&B genres, Harris has shared a stage with such legendary musicians as Taj Mahal, Gil Scott-Heron, and Koko Taylor. With his band, Harris has performed at Joe’s Pub and the Mercury Lounge in New York City, at numerous Boston-area clubs and at venues around Massachusetts.
As a songwriter, Harris’ versatility is in evidence in some of the commissions he has undertaken, including writing a piece for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, music for a WGBH documentary, and the theme song for the “Ralph Nader Radio Hour.”
As well as a musician, Harris is also a storyteller and actor. He performs regularly on WGBH’s “Stories from the Stage,” and has also written a children’s book. He regularly appears as a storyteller and musician at festivals, schools, and libraries across the country, performing a variety of programs for kids and adults that incorporate music with African folk tales, traditional tales, and original stories, music, and audience participation.
Harris’ acting résumé includes a lot of musical theater as well as numerous television appearances, and small roles in the films “Next Stop Wonderland,” “Beacon Hill,” and others.
While accomplishing all that, Harris taught kindergarten and first grade in the Boston school system for 40 years. He still subs a couple of days a week.
A press release for the upcoming Vineyard show describes Harris’ songwriting as reflecting “a mature artist willing to fuse diverse elements in the search for a more modern and timely blues, with lyrics that are socially aware and intensely soulful.”
“It’s going to be a festival of blues, swamp, and folk,” promises Harris.
Kemp Harris and his band will perform a concert to commemorate the life of Elijah Pilat. Alex’s Place, Sunday, Sept. 16, at 8 pm. Tickets are $10 to $20. Funds from the concert help create a scholarship fund for Camp Jabberwocky and Newton Athletes Unlimited.