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Artist Profiles

Will The Real Joe Harriott Please Stand Up?

By Published: April 10, 2012
Joe Harriott GeniusIf that bugbear "neglect" continues to plague us, then the only way to answer it is to refer to the historical record. Here, we find that Harriott had support in important quarters—Chris Barber, Harold Pendleton and the NJF, producer Denis Preston. He was featured in the jazz press of the period, at least to the same extent as other British artists—with the exception of the ubiquitous Tubby Hayes and John Dankworth. More than that, he recorded extensively between 1951-1969, releasing no less than ten LPs under his own name or in concert with others such as John Mayer during the sixties. These were favourably reviewed and Harriott and other members of his quintet featured regularly in the Melody Maker Readers' polls throughout the period. In interviews, Harriott spoke of a positive reaction to his music, including his free form material, noting university audiences as particularly receptive. This smacks less of neglect than of a reasonable and positive response to his music within what was a small section of the music industry then and now. Indeed, one thing that did tax Harriott was the all-too-ready acceptance amongst British fans and critics of the US model over that which he was producing. Again, in this respect, he was not alone amongst British jazz musicians in feeling aggrieved.

It may seem uncomradely to point out the shortcomings of an article by another writer for a publication to which I also contribute. However, Kevin Le Gendre's Jazzwise piece, "First Among Equals," perpetuates many of the myths that dog jazz criticism when it comes to the saxophonist. Le Gendre is a capable and award-winning writer on jazz, and yet here he demonstrates unerringly the pitfalls that await the unwitting, unprepared and uncritical who venture into the world of Joe Harriott.

With no mechanism for revealing the character of Harriott either as a man or as a creative artist, Le Gendre produces a cipher. He wants Harriott to have it both ways. He wants to make him a subject in relation to his art but an object within the world that he inhabits. In effect, Le Gendre relies on a number of myths to present Harriott to us—the neglected, misunderstood artist on the one hand and the troubled genius driven to despair on the other. Worst of all, he denies Harriott the ultimate dignity which is to be allowed to take responsibility for his actions, albeit in a world that is not ultimately of his own creation. He does this by excluding from his account information contained in Robertson's biography about the saxophonist's personality and behavior—and specifically his behavior towards women.

At one point, Le Gendre refers to Harriott favorably as "an original N.W.A." By this, one presumes he means that the saxophonist was an assertive, forthright black male. This is unfortunate because aspects of his subject's behavior might fit with other stereotypes of black men. Harriott failed to take any financial or other responsibility for children he fathered; he was incompetent financially, gambling what money came his way; and was violent towards women. None of this appears in Le Gendre's article and one is forced to wonder why.

One British jazz writer, with whom I discussed these issues, responded that "Joe isn't here to defend himself." This is a poor excuse. At St. Ives Magistrates Court in February 1971, Joe Harriott had the opportunity to defend himself when he appeared on charges of maliciously wounding a young woman. He did so by blaming the victim. Alan Robertson gives other similar examples. In the absence of other information, one must conclude that such an image does not square with the one that Le Gendre wishes to present. Others might describe this as censorship of the historical record. We will merely note the irony that Le Gendre quotes John Mayer in the article as follows:

"Of all the comments made on the saxophonist's sad fate, then the following by John Mayer is particularly resonant, because it evokes the confluence of establishment Great Britain's failure to see its former 'exotic' subjects on their own terms with jazz UK's deference to jazz US. "If you were John Coltrane, it was 'you're an American player, you must be great!' Mayer told me several years before his death. "Joe was just as good as them but he came from the colonies. And in those days the Caribbean and India were still considered British. We'd just got our independence, but it was too soon for us to just be....well, ourselves."

The irony is that Le Gendre is unwilling to allow his "Joe Harriott" to be himself.

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