My Essential Seven: Michael Allen Harrison

From cheering on the Green Bay Packers to basking in Mexican sunsets, the prolific Portland pianist lives a vibrant and varied life.

For 485 days during the pandemic, Portland piano icon Michael Allen Harrison soothed listeners with his Anti Anxiety Covid-19 Music Channel on YouTube. It was a welcome distraction from dark times, but it didn’t sate his hunger to perform live and in person.

“I’ve been [performing] professionally since 1986,” Harrison says. “And when you’re used to that kind of interaction and, all the sudden, one day they make the announcement that everything is locked down…it leaves a huge hole in your spirit, that’s for sure.”

Harrison hopes to fill that hole with the 31st season of his Christmas at the Old Church concert. He’s reviving the event with collaborators like blues and jazz singer Julianne Johnson and Ghanaian percussionist Israel Annoh—and featuring a sweeping repertoire of songs that includes everything from Little Drummer Boy to Will You Take Me There, a swirling, poignant Harrison original.

While Harrison’s triumphant career encompasses over 60 albums, there’s more to the man than his music. He is a fervent football fan, a discerning tequila collector—tequila, he says, is his eighth essential—and a devotee of Mexican vacation destinations like Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita, where he goes “to reboot, chill out and rest and reignite my soul.”

On the eve of Christmas at the Old Church’s return, Harrison spoke to WW about some of the passions that have defined his life, starting with a family of children whose ages range from 12 to 41.

1. My family

My wife and I met about 16 years ago. I have a child from a previous marriage, she has four and then we had one together. With that many people, the children are a part of our lives and daily conversations—and of course, our own personal love story, and then the love that we have for all these kids, helping them to find their place in the world.

2. My piano

I have a 9-foot Bösendorfer Vienna Concert Grand in my studio that I especially picked out seven years ago. I’ve never before named an inanimate object after somebody in my whole life—I’ve never named a car—but you know how B.B. King named his guitar Lucille? I named my piano Aurora, after my wonderful piano teacher Aurora Underwood, one of my great mentors.

3. Teaching and mentoring

I’ve got a kid who’s 13 years old. His name is William Francis Leonard and he is a boogie woogie, blues and ragtime whiz kid. And I’m excited to present him for the first time at Christmas at the Old Church and to watch him grow and evolve from this experience. He’s never performed for really any kind of an audience ever in his whole life. I love mentoring and I love seeing other people succeed.

4. The Green Bay Packers

That’s something that I shared with my father. When I was 3 years old, I picked out the Green Bay Packers just purely on the colors—I love the green and gold—and started following them. I have all sorts of Green Bay Packers jackets, shirts and pajamas, etc.

5. Chopin

The passion that’s in his music, the storytelling is just on such a high level and I love playing it. I think it was very influential on me and my style. My composition style is also very much influenced by pop music I grew up on, whether it was the Beatles or Three Dog Night or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or the Rolling Stones or Phantom, created by Andrew Lloyd Webber, because I love musicals too.

6. Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita

When I go to Puerto Vallarta, I don’t do any music at all. I walk a lot, especially on the beach. And then late afternoon, around 4 o’clock, I get my beach chair. I have a spot and I sit in that chair until the sun goes down. I just stare out at the ocean. It’s one of the most marvelous things in the whole wide world.

7. Long walks

If I’m going to drop off my car at the shop to get it worked on—it’s about 10 miles away from my house—rather than having to get a ride home, if the weather’s decent, I’ll walk home. It’s just another place for me to go into my own thoughts. And when I’m walking, I’m not on the phone. I’m just with me.

SEE IT: Michael Allen Harrison’s Christmas at the Old Church plays at 1422 SW 11th Ave., 1-800-820-9884, 7:30 pm Monday-Friday; noon, 4 and 7:30 pm Saturday; 2:30 and 7:30 pm Sunday; through Dec. 24. $32.50-$62.50.