Rich Harney, a widely respected pianist, composer and recording artist who was an integral part of Austin’s jazz community for decades, died Sunday evening in Kyle. He was 65.
Harney had been scheduled to perform at the Elephant Room on Sunday night but wasn’t feeling well and was taken by his wife to a Kyle hospital, where his heart stopped, friend and fellow musician Elias Haslanger said Monday.
Harney, who was born June 7, 1954, began making music in Austin in the 1970s, frequently with saxophonist Alex Coke, who became a lifelong musical collaborator. The two teamed up over the years in outfits including the Worthy Constituents and Countenance, recognized in a 1990 Musician magazine contest seeking the nation’s best unsigned bands.
Harney also was a longtime presence in the music ensemble at First Presbyterian Church in Northwest Hills, where he played his last gig on Sunday morning. He was part of its long-running holiday performance of the Dylan Thomas short story "A Child’s Christmas in Wales." Singer Suzi Stern, who also appeared in that holiday show, shared fond memories of Harney on Monday in a public post to social media.
"My first ‘real’ gig in Austin was with Rich and Alex Coke about 43 years ago," she wrote. "We played too many gigs together to count. He played at my wedding and I sang at his, we were honored by the mayor together at City Hall, we did over a decade of Dylan Thomas' ‘A Child's Christmas In Wales’ performances together every December with Alex, and we were planning next year’s reunion performances. He will be so missed."
Harney played piano onstage and on record with countless local artists. He also issued several records of his own, including 1983’s "The Promise," 2008’s "Where Love Begins" and 2012’s "Solitaire" as well as albums with singer Beth Ullman in the 1990s.
A fixture at the Elephant Room, Austin’s longtime haven for local jazz musicians, Harney also was a familiar sight in recent years playing piano for country guitarist Redd Volkaert’s Saturday afternoon shows at the Continental Club.
Harney helped to mentor Haslanger when the young saxophonist was just beginning his career in jazz. "Some of my earliest memories of trying to play jazz were with Rich," he said Monday. "Through the years we developed a close personal friendship and musical relationship.
"He was a brilliant musician and a lovely person. It’s going to be a huge hole in the community for us."