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Will The Real Joe Harriott Please Stand Up?


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The Jamaican saxophhonist Joe Harriott was, without doubt, one of the most important and innovative jazz musicians to emerge in Britain in the fifties and early sixties. He arrived in Britain in 1951 with Ozzie Da Costa's band, which was en route for an engagement in Germany playing US army bases. Much to his erstwhile boss's dismay, Harriott chose to stay in the UK beginning an association with British jazz that was to prove of mutual benefit, creatively though never financially.

It was not long after his arrival that the saxophonist made his mark on the capital's fledgling bebop scene, first through fellow Jamaican émigré trumpeter Dizzy Reece and then, courtesy of drummer Laurie Morgan, who introduced him to London's Feldman Club at 100 Oxford Street. Over the next seven years following his arrival in Britain, Harriott worked extensively with a number of different bands, including those of drummers Tony Kinsey, Phil Seamen and Tony Crombie and also with the short-lived orchestra led by Ronnie Scott. He recorded with the maverick jazz composer and fellow alto player, Kenny Graham, and played regularly with Chris Barber's traditional jazz ensemble, contributing the delightful "Revival" to the group's book.

In fact, Barber and his business partner Harold Pendleton almost acted as de facto patrons to the Jamaican. When Harriott formed his own quintet in 1958, it was in part through his connection to Barber and Pendleton that he secured a prestigious weekend residency at the famous Marquee club. He also performed from 1961-63 at the National Jazz Federation sponsored National Jazz Festivals until, along with other British jazz artists, he was pushed aside by the rise of the R&B groups. There was also a support slot for his quintet on a Dave Brubeck tour and Harriott, along with baritone saxophonist Ronnie Ross, guested on the 1959 Modern Jazz Quartet British tour, this being at pianist John Lewis' request.

On his instrument, Harriott had a beautiful tone, out of Charlie Parker, perhaps, but with his own individual imprimatur as well. His playing had a natural authority and, like all the greats, he gave each note just the right weight, providing a sense not only of the tune's worth and meaning, but of the artist himself. Someone once remarked that when Harriott played a ballad, it was as if the real Joe Harriott somehow shone through with all the contradictions of his personality removed. Yet, he was more than just a fine musician. He was an innovator, who developed an approach to free jazz in the late fifties that was distinct from and largely uninfluenced by that of fellow altoist Ornette Coleman. In a way, much of the controversy that has courted his life since stems from the sequence of three records Harriott made between 1960-63 in this style—Free Form (Jazzland/Columbia, 1960), Abstract (Columbia, 1962) and Movement (Columbia, 1963)—and the response of musicians, critics and fans to them.

Joe Harriott Fire In His SoulThe recent publication, in a second edition, of Alan Robertson's 2008 biography of Harriott, Fire In His Soul (Northway, 2011) and the release of a four-volume set of recordings on Proper Records, The Joe Harriott Story (2011) provide a fresh opportunity to reflect upon the man's life, career and personality. That said, despite Robertson's sterling research efforts and the clarity of his narrative, the controversies that surround Harriott seem unlikely to go away. The problem for scholars of jazz and for commentators is that somewhere along the line Harriott crossed from being merely an important artist in jazz and became a myth.

Robertson's book certainly has its limitations. Faced with the complex and often contradictory nature of his subject's personality and behavior, the author avoids any real attempt to resolve these contradictions. This is both a strength and a weakness of Fire In His Soul. There is a kind of democracy involved in allowing his readers to make up their own minds about the ways in which the biographical in Harriott's case relates to the nature of his art. The breadth and depth of Robertson's research—he even tracks down one of the teacher-nuns at Harriott's alma mater, the Alpha Boys School in Jamaica—does provide an amazingly rich picture of the man and the artist. If anything, this second edition extends our chances of understanding of Harriott, adding as it does material from interviewees who had previously declined to go on the record and material from others who have approached Robertson since the book first appeared in 2003. Certain aspects of the emerging picture are in fact deeply disturbing.

The downside of Robertson's agnostic approach, of leaving readers to make their own judgments from the evidence he presents is just that. Harriott has become a mythic figure forced to carry in his life more than the facts of it can sustain. Some readers, at least, will simply read the facts into the myth. In fairness, Robertson lacks the critical machinery that would allow him to negotiate the ways in which the biographical might intersect with the social and cultural aspects of Harriott's life and career. In this, he is hardly alone in writing on jazz or other art forms. If so, therefore, he is right to leave well alone.

The simultaneous release of The Joe Harriott Story on Proper Records provides a different route into the subject, though it also presents a whole new range of problems for the fan and student. Since the saxophonist's death from cancer of the spine aged 44 in 1973, his music has been patchily available, plagued in part by issues of copyright. Much of the music, that produced by the legendary Denis Preston for his Lansdowne series, is owned by Universal, which company has been slow in either issuing the music itself or allowing others to do so. When writer Richard Cook was at Polygram, later bought out by Universal, he began a program of releasing key British jazz albums from the sixties owned by the company. Amongst those reissues were Harriott's Free Form, Abstract and the second and third Indo-Jazz Fusions LPs from 1966 and '67, Indo-Jazz Fusions I & II (Redial, 1998)

This left Southern Horizons (Jazzland/Columbia, 1960), Movement, High Spirits (Columbia, 1964), the first Indo-jazz record Indo-Jazz Suite (Columbia, 1965), Personal Portrait (Columbia, 1967) and the lovely Hum Dono (Columbia, 1963), with Goan guitarist Amancio D'Silva still out of the catalogue. Available elsewhere, however, was the original 1967 Melodisc recording, Swings High (Cadillac, 2004), which now features on the Proper box set.

Part of the difficulty in assessing Harriott's work lies in its unavailability and, in particular, the fact that without access to the increasingly rare and collectable vinyl copies it was often only glimpsed from afar. With the exception of the saxophonist Tubby Hayes, some of whose records were released on Mole Jazz in the eighties, Harriott was not unique in that respect amongst that generation of British musicians, black or white.

The Joe Harriott Story goes some small way to rectifying this. The first two of its four CDs focus on early material, which has been available before on the Proper label. Sadly, there is much from that era that is still missing in action, including six tracks recorded with Tony Kinsey's group in 1957, four from that same year with Allan Ganley, four from 1954 with Kenny Graham's Afro-Cubists, an EP's worth of material from Harriott's 1955 quartet and several other cuts with different ensembles. This does not detract from the value of the release but it is certainly not a comprehensive survey. The real importance of The Joe Harriott Story really lies in its restoration to the catalogue of Free Form and, for the first time on CD, Southern Horizons. The remaining material is from the Melodisc 1967 session.

Joe Harriott Swings HighWith the exception of Swings High, these recordings are now in the public domain and hopefully a Volume II will follow in a few years time, adding Abstract, Movement and, in due course, the later albums as well. The difficulty remains, however, that it is hard for those who do not have access to the later material to understand both the importance of Harriott's contribution to British jazz but also, in relation to the Indo-jazz albums and Hum Dono, that his involvement here was that of an admittedly important soloist and group member. He was neither the architect nor the initiator of these projects and first credit for their achievements must go to composer/violinist John Mayer for the Indo-Jazz Fusions and to Amancio D'Silva for Hum Dono.

Further to that, not everything that Harriott touched turned to gold—the tunes on High Spirits, taken from the musical of that name, are not really worthy of his or his group's talents, whilst Personal Portrait is patchily engaging to say the least. Once again, in a way, this release fosters first the myth and allows only a partial appraisal of Harriott's work. That said, Southern Horizons, taken from two 1959/1960 EP sessions, is a fine, flowing set, if also one that fails to prepare us for the beautiful, fractured music that follows on Free Form. This, and the music that followed on his next two records, marked the distinctive and highly personalized art that grew from Harriott's own creative world-view and, perhaps, at some level most clearly reflected his biography.

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, 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 or Benny Green, or those in Melody Maker by Bob Dawbarn. When John Coltrane toured with a quintet that included Eric Dolphy 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.

Joe Harriott AbstractsThis 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 places—in 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 jazz—from 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 jazz—from Michael Garrick, Mike Taylor and Stan Tracey, for example—had already taken shape some time before studio time was booked. Other innovative artists, as different as Group Sounds Five and Joseph Holbrooke, 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.

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.

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 and, more obliquely, 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

Carr, I. 2008 The Music Outside Northway London
Dawbarn, B. The Four Altos Of Joe Harriott Melody Maker August 8th, 1964 p. 10
Farbey, R. 2010 The Music Of Ian Carr—A Critical Discography Farbey London
Goode, C. And Cotterell, R. 2003 Bass Lines Northway, London
Grimes, K. 1979 Jazz At Ronnie Scott's Robert Hale London
Hancock, B. Joe Harriott: A Restless Soul All About Jazz 18/1/04
Houston, B. Harriott In High Spirits Melody Maker February 22nd, 1965 p.14
Houston, B. Another Fruitful Trip Down That Old Indo-Jazz Trail Melody Maker April 15th, 1967 p.14
Houston, B. We're Getting There Says Joe Harriott Melody Maker February 23rd, 1963 p.15
Kinch, S. Holding out for a hero: Soweto Kinch on Joe Harriott Guardian Film & Music July 22nd, 2011 p.19
Jones, M. Harriott Yielding Ground To The East Melody Maker April 2nd, 1966 p.4
Jones, N. Joe Harriott—Free Form and Abstract All About Jazz 25/11/03
Le Gendre, K. First Among Equals Jazzwise Issue 159 Dec 2011/Jan2012 p. 26-31
Martin, T.E. Joe Harriott Jazz Monthly January 1965 p.2-4
Moore, H. 2007 Inside British Jazz—Crossing Borders of Race, Nation and Class Ashgate, Farnham
McKay, G. 2005 Circular Breathing—the Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain Duke Durham and London
Phillips, M. & T. 1999 Windrush—The Irresistible Rise Of Multi-Racial Britain Harper Collins London
Robertson, A. 2003 Fire in his Soul Northway, London
Robertson, A. 2011 Fire in his Soul Northway, London
Spillett, S. 2004 Yellow Birds—West Indian Jazz Musicians in London in the 1950's and 1960's jazzscript.co.uk. 2004
Wastell, M. 1998 Unsung Hero Paul Rutherford Avant Issue 5, Winter 1998
Wickes, J. 1999 Innovations In British Jazz Volume One 1960-1980 Future Music Chelmsford
Wilmer, V. 1992 Blue Bogey Jazz FM Issue 10

Photo Credit

Page 3: David Redfern



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