Will The Real Joe Harriott Please Stand Up?
This is the problem with the myths that surround Harriott. They are based on a very partial reading of history. Alan Robertson acknowledges both the prejudice and the conservative attitudes in British society and British jazz in Fire In His Soul, but he balances these with other aspects of Harriott's story and career. These myths of "neglect" and of "the conservatism of the British jazz scene" can be found in a number of placesin George McKay's Circular Breathing (Duke University, 2006), and in fuller, more balanced analyses in books by John Wickes and Hilary Moore. They can also be found in articles and reviews by Kevin Le Gendre and Chris Parker and on the internet under Harriott's Wikipedia entry and in David Taylor's generally reliable site, British modern jazzfrom the 1940s onwards.... In fact, a whole issue of Rubberneck magazine from 1997 was devoted to confronting Harriott's neglect. One can also find that myth and others concerning Harriott called into question in pieces by saxophonists Simon Spillett and Soweto Kinch. Only Robertson, to date, has offered a more complete picture.
The "conservatism" of British jazz argument can be quickly dismissed. It stems, in George McKay's case in particular, from a paucity of listening. It also ignores the differences that marked and still mark jazz as distinct from other contemporary music forms, like pop and rock. The temporal gap between innovation in jazz and its recording has always been far greater in jazz than in other musics. A lot of innovative British jazzfrom Michael Garrick, Mike Taylor and Stan Tracey, for examplehad already taken shape some time before studio time was booked. Other innovative artists, as different as Group Sounds Five and Joseph Holbrook, simply never recorded. As for the music that did make it into the studio, one need only point to John Dankworth, Kenny Graham and Tony Kinsey to find music that was innovative, imaginative and tinged with a distinctly British character. More can be said on this subject but readers will have to wait until the publication of my own history of British jazz by Equinox later in 2012.
The issue of Harriott's neglect is more complex. The last three or four years of Harriott's life were dismal and depressing. He was, for all intents, destitute, often homeless and, like Blanche Dubois in 1951's Streetcar Named Desire, "depended on the kindness of strangers." For whatever reason, but clearly in some measure due to the response of some of his peers, he abandoned his free form music from the release of Movement onwards and hardly composed after that point. It rightly falls to the critic and the biographer to explain this adequately and without resort to myth. Robertson provides hints as to why Harriott's life and career took this road but never answers these questions satisfactorily. Others, such as Kevin Le Gendre in a Jazzwise article from December 2011, answer them with more confidence than attention to evidence.
Once again, that Harriott was hurt by the racism he experienced in wider British society is very clear. This is a sad indictment of a country where even remotely satisfactory legal protection for those of different racial backgrounds living in Britain was not enforced until later in the sixties. That he was also affected by the caustic remarks of other musicians is also apparent, though here one might want to ask what might have happened had other artists like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor been so easily dissuaded. The comments of those that knew him and worked with him cannot be ignored; John Mayer, Denis Preston, bassist Coleridge Goode all express the view that had Harriott been white things might have been different. They each feel or felt that Harriott never received his due recognition. At the same time, no-one seems to have asked the question who it was denied Harriott that support or just what support was lacking. Preston, after all blocked Harriott from performing on the final Indo-Jazz record of that period, this being for a label other than his own. Mayer and Goode have also noted how very difficult and even impossible Harriott could be to work with and Mayer at one point refused to continue their association.