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Artist Profiles

Will The Real Joe Harriott Please Stand Up?

By Published: April 10, 2012
Alan Robertson's overview of Harriott's music is one of the most appealing aspects of his book. He covers both Harriott's albums made under his own name, as well as those where he appears as a sideman. Fire In The Soul gives important space to a number of discs made with pianist Michael Garrick
Michael Garrick
Michael Garrick
1933 - 2011
piano
, a long-standing champion of the Jamaican saxophonist, and, as Robertson notes, Harriott's playing is one of the joys of Garrick records such as October Woman. There is perhaps a greater emphasis on artistic continuity in Robertson's approach, where at times discontinuity—in particular, with High Spirits, Personal Portrait and even Swings High—seems more apparent. However, Robertson never shirks critical comment where this is due. Once again, his book is well-balanced and thoughtful in this regard as in others.

Yet his best efforts may do little to challenge the mythology that has grown up around Harriott. The myths that surround the saxophonist centre on issues around his "neglect" by the jazz and wider music communities of the fifties, sixties and beyond. The causes ascribed to this neglect vary from racism and envy to misunderstanding and conservatism. For those who would mythologize Harriott, he is a "misunderstood genius," "ahead of his time," a "black man whose career was blighted by racism" and, finally, "a black artist, whose neglect reveals the inherent conservatism of British jazz of the period."

These myths stem in part from attempts to make Harriott representative of the generation of Caribbean migrants who came to Britain in the early fifties and later. In one sense, he is just that and his contribution to the British scene, alongside that of other musicians settling in Britain, has been of great significance. But the danger is that in seeking to make him representational in this way, aspects of his personality, behavior and beliefs become exorcised and our sense of the whole individual is lost.

It is hard to specify when this process of "mythification" began. One suspects, however, that it started in the mid-eighties, a period which saw a resurgence of interest in jazz and in Britain the emergence of a new generation of musicians, including a substantial number from Caribbean backgrounds. Like many British musicians of the fifties and sixties, Harriott was not often considered or remarked upon thereafter. His records, like others, had long been deleted. He was, in some respects, a forgotten artist from an era that had passed playing a music that had gone largely ignored at the time—at least when considered against the sales of pop, beat and rock releases of the same period.

Joe Harriott Killer JoeThe resurgence of jazz in Britain—short-lived though it was—made it possible to rediscover the music's past and it was understandably important for young black musicians to identify with earlier figures in British jazz as role models. They were, after all, coming into the scene from a point of view of some isolation themselves, both within the black community, where reggae and soul were the musical reference points, and in relation to a scene that was, with only one or two exceptions, white. For these young musicians, as well as for some of the newer jazz writers (white in the main) a need emerged to explain Harriott's early demise and neglect.

There is no doubt that Harriott suffered racism during his 22 years in Britain. Certainly, some British jazz musicians of the sixties were dismissive of Harriott's free form experiments. Some might even have been motivated by racial prejudices. That there were conservative elements in British jazz is evident. Just read, if you will, articles by British musician-critics Steve Race
Steve Race
b.1921
or Benny Green
Benny Green
Benny Green
b.1963
piano
, or those in Melody Maker by Bob Dawbarn. When John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
toured with a quintet that included Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
1928 - 1964
reeds
in 1961, many in the British jazz community (including incidentally Tubby Hayes) were shocked by the music 'Trane presented. However, as has been written elsewhere, some who heard the music on that tour got it immediately, others (like Hayes) got it later and some, like Steve Race, never did.


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