Meet Michael!

Dignified Pet Services presents 'People in the Neighborhood'

The roads to success are as unique as the people traveling them.  For some the trip is smooth and seemingly effortless; for others, the journey has twists and turns that are sometimes treacherous, other times surprising.  In the case of Michael Allen Harrison, successful pianist, composer, teacher, family man, animal lover, and civic leader of a kind, the road to success seemed paved and waiting for him to just get on and drive.

Born and raised in Portland, he is called “Mike” by family, “Harrison” (he says in a gravelly voice) by pals, and Michael or Michael Allen professionally.  “When I’m introduced too quickly,” he says, “which happens two or three times a year, then I’m Michael Allison Harrison.”

Michael graduated from Parkrose High School and Portland State University.  When asked about the trajectory of his career, he says, “I’m a highly sensitive person, and very shy.  I call my career ‘By Request’ — the more I shared the way I played the piano and things I wrote, the more requests I’d get to share them.”  He mimics a typical call:

“Is this Michael Harrison?”


The Michael Harrison who plays piano?”


“We need a pianist to . . . .”

The first such caller was seeking a pianist for morning ballet classes at Jefferson high school.  “I said, sure, I could do that.  Even though I was shy I had enough chutzpah to show up and be brave.  You come into the world with certain tools; some keep them in the box.  Even though I was scared, I did it anyway.”

His fear, by the way, was not about playing piano.  “It was getting in front of people,” he says.  “Piano is easy for me . . .  I have some skills.”

At this moment the conversation is punctuated by the burst of a full-bodied aria.  Turns out Michael is multi-tasking, which he assures, is something he does well.   “I’m just bouncing these tracks and compiling a CD . . . then I’ve got to get them to Super Digital for a little mastering.”

Will it be another hit for this local luminaire?  Those who know his history know that some have been big — because those calls that began early just kept coming — and leading to higher ground.

“From high school ballet classes I got that call again . . .

“Is this Michael Harrison?”


The Michael Harrison who plays piano?”


“We need a pianist to . . . .”

The next gig was for Pacific Ballet Theatre and Portland’s second ballet company, Ballet Oregon.  “This ended up being a regular Monday through Friday gig in the morning,” he says.  “And then came the next call . . .” again he briefly mimics the call that came, time after time.

“One call was to play a piano bar on TV Highway.  Then the Hilton Lobby.  Then the International Club’s Sunday brunch at the Hilton.  Then, ‘Is this Michael Harrison?’ he again mimics an abbreviated version of “the call.” 

“Next there was a happy hour gig, 5-7 Monday through Friday.  Then I got a call from Johnny Jazz, who sang at Hobo’s, a little club on 3rd.  Johnny asked me about jazz.  I didn’t play much jazz, but I said sure”  . . . once again taking him further down the road of his charmed life.

“I’ve had more opportunity than most to share what I create or do,” he says.  “I’m a lucky man.”

The next caller, around 1984, asked if Michael could get a trio together for New Year’s Eve.  This led to him enlisting Israel Annoh, a drummer from Ghana, West Africa (and “one of the coolest guys in the whole world” says Michael), and Peter Ford, a country bass player.  Israel played African drums for tap and jazz classes at Jefferson High School, and Michael “didn’t know he played regular drums.”  The trio ended up being the hottest band at the club for several years running.

By 1988 Michael had developed a signature style reminiscent of “Jeff Warber/early Kenny G/Pat Maheney/and Tom Grant — only in my own style,” he says.  He recorded his first CD and, “at that time KINK [radio] was playing a lot of contemporary jazz.  All of a sudden I was in major rotation!”  Thanks to KINK, Michael was picked up by KKSF, a similar station in San Francisco.  “I was doing a lot of concerts, KINK’s ‘Lights Out’ stuff was happening . . . .”

Michael recorded his first piano solo in ’91; “February’s Child” was his biggest hit.  The song came from a request by Van Brown, a well-known audio man in Portland who’d asked Michael to create a song for his bff, “a woman I think he would have liked to marry,” says Michael.  “He wanted a song to give to her as a Valentine.”

While Michael’s friends never progressed beyond being best friends, which they remain today, that Valentine ended up on ‘Lights Out 3,’ and was featured on many ‘Lights Out’ programs across the country.

Enduring threads appear often in Michael’s stories, which are as fascinating and fun as they are numerous.  Another beautiful thread is vocalist Julianne Johnson, with whom Michael has been friends since age 7.  The pair continues to perform four to five gigs a month, benefits, and has recorded five albums together.

Another inescapable thread of The Michael Allen Harrison Story:  Accomplishment.  He did a show with the Oregon Symphony a few years back that was a two-hour evening of MAH compositions.  His range is vast — with compositions including an African rhapsody, Italian arias, and a full-fledged piano concerto.  His music has been heard at the White House, and aboard a space shuttle.

He is a proud and passionate parent, teacher, performer, and community treasure.  The fundraisers to which he has volunteered his gifts are countless.   And yet he is incredibly easy and a joy to talk to, bright, funny and easygoing. 

The gathering of this story was interrupted midway, as Michael shifted from mixing music to welcoming arriving students.  “Hey!” he said.  “I’m so happy to see you!”  You could hear his smile.

Picking up where he left off after teaching, he endeavored to wrap things up quickly.

So . . . a few closing tidbits: 

Favorite food?  “Steak, baked potato and broccoli.”  But don’t let that fool you.  One of Michael’s signature offerings is “Dinners with Michael,” and yes – there are openings Sept. 26 and 27 at 7pm, and Nov. 2 at 5pm.  Those lucky enough to partake enjoy not only this man’s music, but a little something he’s cultivated in part thanks to spending many breaks Greg Higgins and a sous chef, Mick Dack, learning culinary tricks.  “I spent my breaks during a several-year gig at the Heathman in the kitchen watching the chefs.  I love exotic recipes.  My Cesar Salad recipe was published in The Oregonian by Sarah Perry.”

Favorite musical?  “The Sound of Music is the PERFECT musical!  It’s just got the perfect balance — every song is memorable, moving the story along, and . . . you Hear. Every. Word.  PERFECT.”

Favorite Film?  “Shawshank Redemption — I never get tired of watching that film.  It’s not like you’re watching a movie.  The characters are so compelling, and . . . it’s like you’re experiencing the story.”

And finally, his bucket list.  Top 3, fast.“

One:  I’d like to take my show, 10 Grands, to Jerusalem.  There’s an outdoor amphitheatre outside the city . . . at a certain time of night, it’s just GOLDEN.”

“Two:  I wanna play golf at the Masters in the Pro Am.  But I’ll have to become a little more famous for that . . . I think I need to be a big enough celebrity before they would invite me to play.”

“Three:  I want to be here for my 90th birthday so I can see my youngest daughter at 40.  See her being a realized woman . . . doing what she loves; see her presence with the whole family . . . I want to be there to see that.”

And as we like to do, we asked what shoe could be recognized as so him.  He replied, “comfortable and easy going.”   Just like the man.  

While this segment ends here, there’s so much more to enjoy.  Check out Dinners With Michael,, his holiday shows at The Old Church, and the famous annual program dear to his heart, Ten Grands, The Snowman Foundation, at  Or follow him on Facebook

About our Sponsor

Dignified Pet Services has served the Portland-area community for 13 years.  In addition to their core business of cremation and memorial services, Dignified co-sponsors the beloved annual Service of Remembrance at The Old Church in downtown Portland, as well as serving as wonderful supporters and friends of pets and those working in animal welfare.  Proprietors Michael, Randy and Avani live in Sherwood. 

Kristan Dael is a freelance writer and the alter ego of Jennifer Mccammon. She lives in Portland with her 3-pack, and strives to produce articles that inform, edify, engage and entertain.