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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.

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.
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