It was supposed to have been a program for the ages—back-to-back concerts of German and Russian Romanticism, served up by the then-fledgling Syracuse Symphony Orchestra (SSO). On the podium was none other than the great Leopold Stokowski, making his SSO debut.
But the tall, imperious maestro who had shot to fame in Disney’s Fantasia decades earlier, seemed preoccupied, according to principal trombonist William “Bill” Harris ’65, G’79.
“Stowkie was pretty old and cranky,” says Harris, recalling the ailing conductor’s visit in March 1971. “At one rehearsal, he got so mad at us that he stormed offstage, demanding someone call him a cab. Out of nowhere, Calvin Custer ’65, who played French horn, barked, ‘Okay, you’re a cab.’”
The orchestra was in hysterics. “I never laughed so hard in my life,” continues Harris, speaking by phone from his 19th-century home in the Village of Fayetteville. “I don’t remember much about the concerts, but that rehearsal was pretty good.”
By then, Harris was a local celebrity. His buttery-warm personality and humble demeanor have since endeared him to nearly everyone—from students at Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College (OCC), where he has taught trombone and low brass for more than 50 years; to his colleagues in the now-defunct SSO, from which he retired in 2009 as a charter member; to his neighbors in Fayetteville, where he and his college bride, Karen ’65, are grandparents.
Never mind that Harris is a storyteller of the highest degree, a humorist with a self-described streak of “Irish diplomacy.” To paraphrase Ralphie in A Christmas Story , Harris works in irony the way other artists might work in oils or clay. A master.
Almost any conversation with “The Bear” (as Harris’ students affectionately call him) yields a torrent of jabs and one-liners, interspersed with the occasional warm-and-fuzzy.
Like the one about Arthur Fiedler, the legendary Boston Pops conductor. It was the spring of 1972, and the 77-year-old “Pops Potentate” was squeezing in a 12-day run with the SSO, amid trips to New York City and Chicago.
“Offstage, Fiedler wanted to talk about everything but music. He was really into firetrucks and food,” Harris says.
Proof of Fiedler’s epicurean tendencies could be found in the mundane. Harris recalls how the conductor kept a sponge damper pad on his music stand. “Fiedler would press his finger on the sponge, lick it and then turn the page of his score. We found out later that the sponge was soaked with gin,” Harris laughs. “Talk about finger lickin’ good.’”
Reflecting on his 49 years with the SSO, Harris says that Fiedler giving him a thumbs up after a particular jazz solo remains a highlight.
Other standouts include premiering Dexter Morrill’s Trombone Concerto and soloing in Ravel’s Bolero and Mahler’s Third Symphony. “Bill’s performance of the Mahler left me awestruck,” says retired music educator Bill Palange, drawing comparisons to Denis Wick’s definitive recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. “It’s one of my most treasured musical moments.”
Many agree that the classic lineup of Harris, Doug Courtright and Fred Boyd during the SSO’s salad days made for some exceptional slide work. “Bill and the rest of the brass section were heroic figures to us, larger than life,” explains former student Joe Catania ’82. “That’s where ‘The Bear’ reference comes from. Bill was such an imposing presence, but also a positive role model, like a father figure.”
The eldest of five kids, Harris sought refuge in music at an early age, often playing piano and singing. “I’ve always wanted to sing in the worst way—and I have,” jokes the 79-year-old Syracuse native. His real love, however, was the trombone. Summers in Hancock, New York, playing in a fireman’s band, and lessons with Syracuse fave John Iannotta ’55 and the Eastman School of Music’s fabled Emory Remington fueled his desire.
“I was a small-town kid who bled Orange,” says Harris, adding that, at one point, his mother dated another local trombonist with University ties: Don Waful ’37, G’39, who was like an uncle to him. “Majoring in music at Syracuse University was a forgone conclusion.”
I was a small-town kid who bled Orange. Majoring in music at Syracuse University was a forgone conclusion.
Harris recalls his college days with fondness—performing at the 1960 Cotton Bowl; picking up an Orange Key Award with football great Ernie Davis ’62 (“a gentleman and a gentle man”); volunteering for the Goon Squad; and pledging Phi Gamma Delta, where he met Karen at a Gamma Phi Beta mixer. “I wasn’t a Big Man on Campus, but Karen made me feel like a million bucks. Still does,” says Harris, reflecting on 55 years of marriage.
When not encamped in one of the University’s practice rooms, Harris performed several nights a week. The Three Rivers Inn, then the area’s hottest nightspot, was his go-to. “Calvin Custer called it ‘Three Rivers Out’ because the club was located in Phoenix [New York], out in the middle of nowhere,” Harris says.
At Three Rivers, Harris worked with such A-listers as Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Temptations. For a “legit” musician interested in jazz and vice versa, the experience was transformative. And educational. “I encountered some wonderful role models, such as Nat ‘King’ Cole, who was a real gentleman,” Harris explains. “Years later, when I played with his daughter Natalie at the Syracuse Jazz Fest, we had a good cry afterward, recalling what an amazing person he was.”
Following a stint in the West Point Band, Harris returned home in 1966 for good. He reclaimed his SSO post and, before the decade was out, joined the faculties of the Setnor School of Music in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) and the Department of Music at OCC. Today, he remains a steady presence on both campuses.
Colleagues and former students attest to Harris’ brilliance—“a gentle, nuanced and soloistic player” (Eastman Professor Mark Kellogg); “a true mentor” (Homer Band Director David DiGennaro ’90); and “a patient, enthusiastic and motivational teacher” (freelance trombonist Mark Anderson G’18).
Justin Clark ’03, bass trombonist of the Bern Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland, notes Harris’ lyrical, singing approach to technique. “He often sang during our lessons. I’m sure he would’ve been a good tenor, if the trombone wasn’t his main focus,” Clark says.
Melissa Gardiner, an award-winning bandleader and recording artist, recalls how she won a scholarship in high school to study with Harris. When funds ran out and her parents could no longer afford lessons, he taught her anyway. Later, Harris managed to secure Gardiner a shiny, new instrument on “permanent loan” from Buffet Crampon in Paris. “I can’t imagine being a professional trombonist without his contributions to my [musical] foundation,” she says.
Since retiring from the SSO, Harris has been anything but idle. Much of his time is spent teaching in VPA and at OCC; playing with various groups, including the Bare Bones trombone quartet and the 24-piece Bones East trombone ensemble, which he co-directs; and serving as vice president of the local musicians union. He also plays a lot of golf.
Apart from serving as a marshal of the Syracuse St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Harris is widely known for his alter ego—that of a decorated volunteer firefighter. The opportunity fell in his lap in 1992, during an SSO shutdown. “A friend of mine, who was a member of the Fayetteville Fire Department, figured I had time on my hands, so he encouraged me to join. I’ve loved it ever since,” Harris says.
Harris rose through the ranks, becoming a fire police captain at the Fayetteville Fire Department in 2002. While temporarily furloughed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he is known for providing crowd and traffic control as well as police assistance during emergencies.
“Bill has a Jekyll and Hyde personality,” says Fayetteville Fire Chief Paul Hildreth. “He likes to cut up around the firehouse, but when a call comes in, he takes his job very seriously.”
Harris relishes the compliment, saying that his musical training gives him a “sixth sense.” “I’m always aware of my surroundings and can tell when someone is in need,” he concludes. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is help.”