Remembering Cortez Harmon Jr., veteran, jazz musician who performed around the world

Harmon was 72 years old and died at the Here There encampment on Adeline Street.

A memorial for Cortez Harmon Jr. at a community park between Stanford Street and Adeline Avenue in South Berkeley. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Cortez Harmon Jr., who was born in Philadelphia, died at the age of 72 in Berkeley’s “Here, There” encampment the first week of December, according to his family and community members.

Harmon and Harper-El in Berkeley. Credit: Yosef Harper-El

Harmon was a jazz musician who traveled the world to perform, and he served two terms in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, according to his nephew Yosef Harper-El. He described Harmon as a charismatic, outspoken man who loved people and was a “walking newspaper.”

Harmon’s friends, family and community members set up a small memorial for him this weekend at a community park between Adeline Avenue and Stanford Street, where he would often be found drinking a cocktail and talking about music. On a chilly Sunday afternoon, “I Miss You,” a song by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes played from a speaker in the park as his friends danced, ate, drank and celebrated Harmon’s life.

Harmon moved to California after serving in the military and frequently traveled for gigs, including stints in Amsterdam, Germany, and wherever the music would take him. “Sometimes he would get a call and he would take off for two, three months,” Harper-El said.

In a video from the Berkeley World Music Festival in 2005, Harmon is seen in a cream beret and green sweater, singing “Stormy” by Classics IV in a baritone voice, laughing, dancing and jamming with the band.

Harmon last returned to Berkeley about a year and a half before the COVID-19 pandemic began, his nephew said. He had family in the area, but “he was a wanderer” who felt uncomfortable living indoors for long periods of time, which Harper-El said was also influenced by his uncle’s time in the military.

When he wasn’t abroad, he also did local gigs in Berkeley, and often traveled in the U.S., as well. Harper-El said he performed music with famous artists like Stevie Wonder and the Doobie Brothers, and even played the trumpet in the studio for Dr. Dre.

Harmon had the “gift of the gab” and musicians would hear about him through word of mouth, Harper-El said, but he never produced his own album despite backing up several other artists.

Harmon and Harper-El at a cafe. Credit: Yosef Harper-El

“He could perform in front of thousands of people, but when I’d ask him why he didn’t have his own (recording), he’d say ‘I prefer to be on the sidelines,” Harper-El said, describing his uncle as occasionally shy, and very private.

He would check in on the street community and always lent an ear to anyone experiencing difficult times, Harper-El said. He also studied clinical psychology at Laney College and tutored UC Berkeley students in the field.

The Alameda County coroner’s office confirmed that Harmon’s cause of death was an aneurism, and Harper-El said his uncle passed away in his sleep. Harmon is survived by one daughter.

Correction: Harmon was 72 when he died, not 74.

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's homelessness and housing reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: 510-585-8315.