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Artist Profiles

Will The Real Joe Harriott Please Stand Up?

By Published: April 10, 2012
Relating the biographical to the artistic product and to the wider social and cultural milieu is not easy. It is often done clumsily at best by critics working within a liberal tradition of arts criticism. The individual artist is the primary focus and, where they or their work are examined in terms of wider social-historical factors, this is most frequently in terms of being exemplars of artistic trends or movements or as an expression of some zeitgeist or other essentially idealistic manifestation of collective consciousness. Le Gendre's article, like George McKay's Circular Breathing, falls into this mire. Both fail to realize that moving between the individual and the wider group requires some kind of mediation or negotiation. What applies at one level does not apply unmodified at the next. There are ways through this dilemma. My own preference is a more obviously systemic, theoretical approach that allows different elements to be related to each other dynamically and dialectically. Each element does not, therefore, need to be resolved into another. A simpler way is to allow the contradictions between artist and art, individual and image to exist and persist and, at his best, Alan Robertson has done just that.

Harriott could be a charming, witty and attractive companion, in particular with women, but he was also a person who had great difficulty in sustaining relationships. He loved children and children loved him but he took little or no part in the upbringing and support of the children he fathered by different relationships. He was a man of vision and artistic commitment, who had a profound belief in his own vision of jazz. And yet, he gave that up due to its rejection by the jazz establishment, despite the fact that some sections of his audience clearly supported his innovations. He constantly frustrated those he worked with and was clearly a difficult and often arrogant associate, who used the first person singular pronoun for bandstand announcements, but rarely the first person plural.

A picture of a deeply troubled individual emerges. Perhaps we can allow that at his centre lay a sense of his art that was transcendent and that his music expresses something of what he as an individual, as an artist and as a man might have been. That he struggled with frustrations of the world, and not just those that related to prejudice and envy, is also very clear. He was finally, and like so many of us, a flawed human being and one whose music, in some senses, probably grew out of these personal contradictions. If so, we owe it to his very real achievements to be honest about his legacy, his career and his life. Perhaps, in the end and like so many difficult individuals, he just wore out his welcome and ultimately we may have to agree with Aristotle that, "Men may be bad in many ways, but good in one alone."

It is also questionable what or who Joe Harriott represented in life other than himself. Hilary Moore is particularly insightful on this issue when she suggests that Harriott's free form approach might have been born of a search for a communal way of making music and for a sense of community in his own world, something that was otherwise absent. She is also correct when she suggests that it is hard to find Harriott's legacy in the free jazz that emerged slightly later in Britain, though it can be argued that the role played by drummer Phil Seamen in his groups did influence both John Stevens
John Stevens
and, more obliquely, Paul Rutherford
Paul Rutherford
Paul Rutherford
's approach to rhythm in the drummer-less Iskra 1903.

Maybe we are only just beginning to fully appreciate the importance of these records and that worn-out phrase "better late than never" does need to be qualified by an "only just." If so, and thanks to Alan Robertson's biography of the man, we can begin to rectify that. Will the real Joe Harriott please stand up? Well, he hasn't yet but Alan Robertson's Fire In His Soul gives us more than a glimpse of what he might look like.

Selected Discography

Joe Harriott, The Joe Harriott Story (Proper, 2011)

Joe Harriott, Killer Joe: Birth of a Legend (Giant Steps, 2007)

Joe Harriott Quintet, Abstract (Columbia 1961; Universal 1998)
Joe Harriott—Amancio D'Silva Hum Dono (Columbia 1969)
Joe Harriott / John Mayer Double QuintetIndo-Jazz Fusions II (Columbia 1967)
Joe Harriott, Personal Portrait (Columbia 1967)
Joe Harriott Quintet, Swings High (Melodisc 1967)
Joe Harriott / John Mayer Double Quintet Indo-Jazz Fusions (Columbia 1966)
Joe Harriott / John Mayer Double Quintet Indo-Jazz Suite (Columbia 1965)
Michael Garrick Quintet, October Woman (Argo 1964)
Joe Harriott Quintet, High Spirits (Columbia 1964)
Joe Harriott Quintet, Movement (Columbia 1963)

Joe Harriott Quintet, Southern Horizons (Jazzland/Columbia 1960)
Joe Harriott Quintet, Free Form (Jazzland/Columbia 1960)

Selected Bibliography

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