Wayne Harris: Bringing music and stories to The Marsh

Wayne Harris will be at The Marsh on Friday in a performance dedicated to the late Paul van Wageningen

Wayne Harris isn’t your typical happy hour act. Recently awarded Best of SF Fringe for his blues-steeped show “Tyrone ‘Shortleg’ Johnson And Some White Boys,” the vocalist, actor and raconteur has been holding forth Fridays at the Marsh Arts Center, accompanied by a series of musical guests.

Part of a recent effort by the Marsh’s artistic director Stephanie Weisman to attract street traffic and offer entertainment before events in the Marsh’s theater, the happy hour shows are held in the space that was formerly Anna’s Jazz Island, Berkeley’s last bona fide jazz club. Harris return on Friday with a jazz quintet and special guest Kat Parra on vocals. He closes out his run on Nov. 30 with potent East Bay R&B combo The Intones.

“It’s changed every week,” Harris says. “The difference between what I’m doing a usual happy hour show is that I’m a storyteller, and in between songs there are monologues. I’m predominantly a blues singer, but I’ve gotten very interested in the poetry of Langston Hughes, so there’s some improvisation around that. It’s loose-knit ‘Prairie Home Companion’ for the Berkeley set.”

Part of what sets Friday’s show apart is that Parra is dedicating the performance to Paul van Wageningen, the beloved Bay Area drummer who passed away earlier this month at the age of 57 after a two-year struggle with brain cancer. He played a central role in her recent evolution from salsa vocalist to a jazz visionary with a singular repertoire of Sephardic songs from medieval Spain set to an array of Latin American rhythms. Equally at home playing in straight ahead and Latin jazz settings, van Wageningen played with dozens of heavyweights, including Pete Escovedo, Andy Narell, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Paquito D’Rivera, the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet, and Mark Levine and the Latin Tinge.


“Paul was involved in my project from the get go in 2005, dedicating myself to developing the Sephardic repertoire,” Parra says. “He helped shape the sound we created. I was so incredibly honored he wanted to play with me. He plays with all the top guys.”

Born in Amsterdam, Paul and his younger brother, Albany bassist Marc van Wageningen were introduced to jazz by their father, an enthusiast who befriended numerous musicians and became a noted photographer documenting the Dutch scene. While studying at the Amsterdam Conservatory he connected with several touring American jazz musicians, and in 1976 the VW brothers came to New York City, ostensibly on vacation.

“I was going to travel around with our father, who was living in Canada at the time, and Paul was going to visit some American guys he’d played with and the come back to Holland as well,” Marc van Wageningen recalls. “But his friends convinced him to stay in New York.”

Paul landed a gig with an Off-Broadway show, the quintessential 1970s sexual liberation production “Let My People Come,” and when the San Francisco show stiffed the band he decided to stay in the Bay Area. Connecting with rising artists like guitarist Ray Obiedo and percussionist Coke Escovedo, he quickly became an essential part of the Bay Area scene. He performed countless gigs and recorded dozens of albums with percussionist Michael Spiro and bassists Peter Barshay and David Belove.


“Growing up we had records by Ray Barretto and the Fania All Stars, and right from the beginning he learned how to play with percussionists and leave space for them,” Marc says. “That was one of Paul’s strengths, though he was so capable in so many different styles of music.”

Parra won’t be singing the Sephardic material Friday at the Marsh. For her guest turn with Harris she’ll be focusing on torch songs and standards, material she rarely gets a chance to perform these days.

“I’m thinking of singing ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ for Paul,” Parra says. “It’s very open ended because Wayne is that way. I’m going to go in and do some standards and blues. He’s an amazing storyteller and it’ll be fun no matter what we end up doing.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.