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Will The Real Joe Harriott Please Stand Up?

Will The Real Joe Harriott Please Stand Up?
Duncan Heining By

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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.

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