By Gordon Hughes
A remarkable West Village native passed away on December 25th, Christmas afternoon. He had just wished his granddaughter a Merry Christmas, sat back on his bed, and peacefully slipped away in his apartment on Bleecker Street. Not a bad way to go after an amazing life. I know about this because he lived in the building I live in.
Orville Harrison had just turned 79 years old, and was a Village fixture. There are numerous stories to tell about him but my personal favorite was the night he was standing on Bleecker Street in front of our building kibitzing with two police officers. Many officers knew Orville because he had worked in the New York City corrections system. They loved him and would always stop and swap stories when they saw him on Bleecker Street. That night one of the two cops he was talking to was a rookie and didn’t know Orville. The rookie was not aware of Orville’s background as a jazz musician. Orville told the young officer, “hang on kid.” He then ran into his apartment and came back with an old-fashioned 33 1/3 LP which he had recorded in the ‘70s and gave it to the rookie. The young officer had never seen an LP in his life. Orville had had his own Zanzibar trio back in the day, he explained to the young officer. That’s when I started asking him questions about his life in the Village. That’s when I stopped just saying hi and began to get to know him. What a treat.
I attended Orville’s memorial service and learned so much about him. At the service were West Villagers, corrections officers, police officers, jazz musicians and folks who live in our co-op, and, of course, family. The love in that room was palpable. All who attended had wonderful uplifting stories about this man.
Orville was born in Baltimore in 1940. When he was 11 his family, looking for better economic opportunities, moved to New York City. That’s when Orville began to take off.
In the ‘50s he joined a doo-wop group, the Delphis, and they recorded two hits. It was then that he learned to play the violin and bass (self-taught). He traveled around the country as well as Europe in the ‘60s. He once told my pal Claude that the thing he remembered most about France was the size of their cows! That was Orville. Many years later Claude, being French, sometimes had a hard time understanding Orville’s jazz-hip speech and when he asked her for some “bread” she went and brought back a baguette. Not really what he was looking for.
His landlord remembers fondly that Orville would show up promptly at the beginning of each month to pay his rent in cash, and on one occasion brought along his jazz LP. He signed the cover and to this day the landlord still treasures it. Which takes me back to when Orville became a Village icon. He started his own Orville Harrison Trio and played a number of West Village jazz clubs. He played regularly at La Chaumiere (on West 4th Street), sadly, no longer in existence. He was so popular that Mr. Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood had him do a guest appearance on his show. Through a number of circumstances Orville began helping people with drug addiction. This was based on his own personal experience—one that he overcame. Helping folks led him to a new career, in law enforcement, in which he worked around the city for years. It was said that not only did his fellow officers love him but so did inmates because of the way he talked to them and helped them.
So many attending Orville’s memorial spoke of his most important strengths. First was his sense of humor, which got him through so much and which he passed on to all he met. Second was his style, always the natty dresser. His ever-present friendship, when once encountered, was never forgotten.
He loved to watch the Fourth of July fireworks from the roof of our co-op and those who joined him up there remember his smile as the fireworks cast a glow over the city. For those of us who were lucky enough to have him pass through our lives we will never forget him.
Orville was indeed, as he would say, “a happening part of the West Village scene.”