a column by
Coleridge Goode, Joe Harriott Photo courtesy of Bill Bond
Jazz history is dotted with what can be called Everest moments, where a musician or group of musicians reach the singular pinnacle that forever distinguishes them from the climbers. If one is lucky, the Everest moment occurs in front of a large receptive crowd with the tape rolling and is soon disseminated worldwide, as was the case when Paul Gonsalves planted his flag with his 27 choruses on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. More often than not, however, Everest moments have few witnesses, not all of whom realize what they’re hearing.
While there are unique factors in each nominally noticed Everest moment, these specifics stem from the same hub, jazz’s ever-weakening bridging of art and commerce. Market conditions infrequently determine what artful jazz is created at any given moment, but they do regularly have a big hand in whether or not an Everest moment has any immediate impact. The marketing of artists as diverse as John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett argue that maximum immediate impact yields lasting legacies. However, this commercial capacity has now all but vanished.
Still, even when it was robust, the jazz market could only capitalize on so many Everest moments; subsequently, winners and neglected geniuses were created. While immediate impact is the common denominator among the celebrated, there are sundry factors in the creation of each artist whose Everest moment came and went. Throughout most of the 20th Century, geography was prominent, if not determinative among these factors. Even Ornette had to come to New York.
When Coleman hoisted his colors at the Five Spot in November 1959, London was figuratively and practically thousands of miles further away from New York than its actual distance. Even though it was climbing out of its post-war malaise, the UK was years away from fully shedding its parochialism. Modern jazz operated on the fringe throughout Europe, but the UK had the added disadvantage of draconian gate-keeping by a powerful musicians union, which all but shut American musicians out of the country. When Coleman was finally allowed to perform in London in 1965, it was through an exemption for classical composers, which explains why his great London concert was divided between his working trio and a performance of his wind quintet, “Sounds and Forms.”
Subsequently, African Americans, while greatly influencing British jazz through recordings, did not have the same in-country impact as they did in Paris, Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. Instead, it was musicians from Commonwealth nations in Africa and the Caribbean who provided the most palpable connection to the music’s African roots at key points in British jazz history. Several Jamaicans gained considerable notoriety on the London scene during the ‘50s, the best known to Americans being trumpeter Dizzy Reece, who immigrated to New York in ‘59, the year of Coleman’s Five Spot stand. Reece made durable records for Blue Note in ‘59-‘60 and for both Bee Hive and Interplay in the late ‘70s (the latter featuring a two-trumpet front line with Ted Curson), but never had anything close to the Everest moment of his countryman, alto saxophonist Joe Harriott, the subject of a new 4-CD retrospective – The Joe Harriott Story (Proper) – and Alan Robertson’s newly expanded biography, Joe Harriott: Fire in his Soul (Northway; London).
England was originally just a stopover for Harriott when he left Jamaica in 1951 with singer and pianist Ozzie Da Costa’s band to play for US servicemen in Germany. Word got to Reece that Harriott was in London, waiting for travel documents to be processed. Both men had gained musical proficiency in the Alpha Boys’ Band at the Sisters of Mercy-run orphanage in Kingston, and, later, regularly crossed paths gigging around the island. The trumpeter had arrived in London in ‘48 and, by the time of Harriott’s arrival, was working constantly, hopping the Channel frequently to tour with Don Byas, Walter Bishop and other Americans. Reece and Harriott made the rounds; while the London scene had already knighted Ronnie Scott and was incubating prodigies like Victor “Kid Krupa” Feldman, the arrival of an alto saxophonist who could withstand comparisons with Charlie Parker made Harriott an instant asset to the scene, making it easy for him to break his commitment to Da Costa and remain in the UK.
Not only did Harriott quickly assert himself as an improviser with a fully-realized voice, but he also demonstrated his independence when he bucked his petulantly dictatorial union in 1952. The union had banned its members’ participation in concerts featuring Lonnie Johnson, Ralph Sutton and other foreigners because its sponsors, the Ministry of Labor and the National Federation of Jazz Organizations, had insufficiently curried the union’s favor. Luckily for Harriott, the union trained its sights on the NFJO instead of the “blacklegs” who crossed the line. Still, coming so soon after Harriott abruptly bailed on Da Costa, who took the loss on the saxophonist’s passage from Jamaica, this incident established a pattern of disregard that would hinder Harriott in both his professional and personal lives.
Despite his initial splash on the London scene, it wasn’t until early 1954 that Harriott waxed his first sides leading a quartet fueled by Phil Seaman. Then Great Britain’s best drummer and the subject of some of the most side-splitting anecdotes ever circulated among jazz musicians and aficionados, Seaman would be stoking Harriott’s push to the summit six years later. Opening the box set, these tracks establish Harriott not as a Parker disciple, but rather as what Anthony Braxton would call a restructuralist. Particularly on “Cherokee,” Harriott gives the bop vernacular a lofting, singing quality while sustaining a fiery edge. This version of “Cherokee” serves as a “before” snap of Harriott, years prior to his ascent. His take on the Ray Noble flag-waver included on Live at Harry’s 1963 (Rare Music) is a revealing “after” shot, its plaintive, even agonized cry indicative of the disillusionment of his post-Everest years, trundling throughout England and Scotland to play with local groups (albeit ones including stellar musicians like drummer Tony Levin on this Leicester club date).
Evidenced by the first two and a half discs of The Joe Harriott Story, Harriott spent several of the intervening years on the treadmill of being a working jazz musician, churning out saleable recordings. His ‘54-55 stint with drummer Tony Kinsey yielded quotidian fare like “Get Happy” and “She’s Funny That Way,” earnestly amiable yet forgettable. As unlikely as it seems, Harriott got on well with trad trombonist Chris Barber; while none of their work together is included in the box set, trumpeter Kenny Baker’s Jazz Today Unit’s lengthy take on “Blues in Threes” showcases this aspect of Harriott’s stylistic pliancy. For a savvy producer like Denis Preston, putting the UK-based saxophonist most closely associated with Charlie Parker in a studio with a string section less than three months after Bird’s death was a no-brainer; however, the syrupy arrangements of sentimental vehicles like “I’ll Remember April,” replete with lush harp, are occasionally cringe-inducing. Even at the helm of his own dates, Harriott sometimes turned to fluff like “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in ‘56, a light-hearted romp expertly whisked by Seaman’s brush work.
Even during the critical historical cusp of 1959 and early 1960, Harriott made only slightly more adventurous recordings, remaining well within the accepted parameters of hard bop with popular tunes like Horace Silver’s “Señor Blues” and original lines. Harriott’s “Southern Horizons” and “Tuesday Morning Swing,” have a goodly share of well-turned phrases and smooth shifts in rhythmic feel, but they cast little to no light, forensically, on the necessary conceptual breakthrough for taking Everest – free form. Unlike Coltrane, who scaled greater peaks with each album, Harriott’s Everest moment came out of the blue with Free Form, recorded in November 1960. It is unclear when Harriott first articulated the idea of “painting with music;” it could have begun with experiments with Reece in ‘58, even though Harriott once said it came to him in 1960, during of one of several lengthy hospitalizations for chronic respiratory ailments.
One possible catalyst was Harriott’s stint as a guest artist for the Modern Jazz Quartet’s 1959 tour of the UK. The timing of the tour is particularly intriguing, commencing just days after Coleman opened at the Five Spot, largely through the efforts of MJQ pianist John Lewis and Gunther Schuller. In The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field (2006; The Mercury Press), David Lee states that “(a)lthough Coleman’s fame was launched by a series of advocates working separately and together, simultaneously and consecutively, John Lewis was possibly the central consecrating figure in the process.” The political expedience of having British guest artists notwithstanding, Lewis personally chose Harriott and baritone saxophonist Ronnie Ross (later the soloist on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wide Side”), both of whom he met during the MJQ’s first UK tour in ‘57.
It is hard to imagine a more pertinent brain for a British jazz musician to pick in late 1959 about how to give jazz concert hall prestige and extend the artistic horizon for jazz than Lewis’. The months leading up to the UK tour had been particularly productive for the pianist-composer. The ‘59 session at the Lenox School of Jazz he co-founded is legend; Bill Evans, Jim Hall and Jimmy Guiffre were on the faculty and, in addition to Coleman and Don Cherry, the student roster included Ran Blake, Steve Kuhn and Perry Robinson. In September, Lewis recorded the groundbreaking “Sketch” with the MJQ and the Beaux Arts String Quartet for Third Stream Music (Atlantic). And then there was Coleman’s Five Spot stand, an instant cause célèbre attracting everyone from James Baldwin to Leonard Bernstein, and Robert Rauschenberg to Norman Mailer. Given that two weeks can be an eternity on the road, there were undoubtedly many opportunities for Lewis and Harriott to discuss current trends in jazz and, subsequently, for Harriott to be inspired to explore new musical territory.
Given the British jazz press’ historical propensity to validate its own – they practically gushed about the addition of Harriott and Ross to the MJQ tour – it’s odd that Robertson’s account of the tour is relatively thin, particularly when it comes to Harriott, who was usually good for a pointed quote. The oft-referenced riposte to a question about Bird that is engraved on Harriott’s tombstone was typical of the props he gave his colleagues and, implicitly, himself: “Parker? There’s them over here can play a few aces too …” The only inkling offered by Robertson that free form was at that time ready for public consumption is his 2003 interview with Barber trumpeter Pat Halcox; in an undated conversation, Harriott told Halcox that he would have liked to have introduced free form on the tour, but was essentially overruled by Lewis. However, this was a conversation that could have happened on any number of occasions between the tour and 1963, when Harriott made his last recordings with the Barber band, leaving open the possibility that Harriott was indulging in historical revisionism.
The best evidence that free form was in the early stages of gestation during the MJQ tour is Harriott’s own discography, particularly the April 1960 EP, A Guy Called Joe, which included a benign version of “You Go to My Head” (the session was combined with tracks made in ‘59 to create the Jazzland LP, Southern Horizons). By this time, Harriott had assembled most of his expeditionary quintet. Trumpeter Shake Keane and bassist Coleridge Goode respectively hailed from St. Vincent and Jamaica, making Harriott’s quintet a rare minority-majority unit. Drummer Bobby Orr would soon leave Harriott’s quintet for Ronnie Scott’s; Seaman rejoined the band in mid-November, just before the Free Form session (the album is presented in its entirety on the Proper box), but his notorious unreliability caused Harriott to rehire Orr prior to the spring ‘62 sessions that completed the second free form album, Abstract. Although pianist Harry South was a persuasive bop-oriented soloist on tracks like “Liggin’” from the Guy session, there’s nothing in his playing that suggests he would have any feel for free form like his successor, Pat Smythe.
Additionally, Goode recounts that it was only during an extended club engagement in Frankfurt immediately following the MJQ tour that Harriott began telling his colleagues about his ideas about free form – he often also used the term “abstract music” – leading to the agreement that the quintet would begin experimenting with what the bassist characterized as “various ways of doing that” upon their return to London. Not taking to free form, hard bop-steeped trumpeter Hank Shaw quickly split, allowing for Keane’s recruitment. Neither did South; presumably, the pianist stayed on through April because the parameters of the repertoire for A Guy Called Joe were set. South’s departure paved the way for Smythe, arguably the linchpin that held free form together.
Still, almost eight months elapsed between the Guy session and the all-nighter that yielded Free Form, which speaks to Harriott’s exacting performance standards and, more importantly, to the fact that “free form” is something of a misnomer, as it is an approach that has meticulously planned elements and unstated rules. For starters, Harriott’s written materials were closer to the modern mainstream than Coleman’s. Frequently, they sound like compressed versions of the modernist gambit of creating contrasts in rhythmic feel and key between a composition’s introduction, theme, and bridge. This required a close-order precision quite distinct from the loose-limbed approach of Coleman’s quartet. The radical aspect of free form was its severance of the ensuing improvisations from the written materials. Harriott enforced this separation by deemphasizing melody in the scored passages – there are no memorable tunes, let alone wistful lines like “Lonely Woman” and “Just for You.”
While there are obvious leaps in logic between the notated and the extemporaneous in Harriott’s free form pieces, there is a subtler discontinuity within the notated ensembles. Even when he uses discernibly symmetrical forms, Harriott’s materials function like successive stages of a rocket, propelling the piece outwards, beyond the gravitational pull of jazz conventions. Additionally, the scored elements of free form pieces do not have the emotional pay-off of Coleman tunes like “Peace” and “Congeniality,” even though both Coleman and Harriott frequently employed quickly shifting rhythmic feels and short suspensions of pulse. However, this is not to infer Harriott cranked out sterile, formulaic materials – on the contrary, they are viscerally challenging.
There is also the question of how free the improvisations really were. It is doubtful that the quintet’s improvisations were freely improvised by today’s standard, well articulated by Evan Parker; that decisions about the shape and course of an improvisation are made at the last possible moment before a performance. The quintet’s prolonged shedding process, the remarkably seamless transitions between notated and improvised sections, and how Seaman’s infectious swing was practically a default setting for launching an improvisation, suggest that general parameters for improvisation were in place by the Free Form session. Regardless of the degree of formatting, there is a quality of ensemble interplay that was then unique. Whereas the improvised elements of Coleman’s music – and that of Coltrane, Taylor et al, for that matter – could not erase the composer’s fingerprints, Harriott’s quintet achieved an unprecedented collectivity in their free form improvisations.
This latter quality is a testament to the respective voices Harriott assembled for the ascent. Keane was a well-suited front line foil for the altoist’s serrated-edged lines and keening tone; while Keane could fiercely parry with his full open sound and incisive lines, he could also have something of the cooling effect Booker Little had on Eric Dolphy when Keane deftly shaded his phrasing, particularly on flugelhorn, and conveyed a slight degree of emotional distance. Free form allowed Seaman to occasionally express his affinity for the African bands then playing in London; these Blakeyesque big beats are one reason why free form connected to the degree that it did with the UK audience. Although he wasn’t accorded ample opportunities to solo, Goode seemed to have similar motivations as Charlie Haden, emphasizing gravity and musicality and, for the most part, forgoing the fireworks.
Smythe’s role in this aspect of the quintet’s music can’t be overstated. He had given up a secure, if staid existence as a lawyer to play jazz full time just prior to signing on with Harriott; while there is nothing naïve about how Smythe establishes an independent space for the piano within the quintet, his reveling in the possibilities afforded by free form is palpable on each of the album’s eight tracks. Free form allowed him to tap his classical training and, in a roundabout way, his affinity for Bill Evans, while stepping out of the roles of conventional accompanist and tertiary, form-abiding soloist. Harvey Pekar had it right in his five-star Down Beat review of Abstract, Harriott’s second free form album when he said Smythe “listens and responds to the alto and trumpet rather than trying to make them play his way … he adds a wider range of color and textural possibilities to (the group’s) palette.” On the one hand, Smythe used extended lines and large blocks of sound to offsetting effect; he could also use the same gambits to make quick and vivid idiomatic associations that whetted the interest of their more well-versed listeners.
The work of Smythe, Harriott and the others reflected the same innate sense that demonstrating a thorough grounding in jazz idioms was necessary to legitimize free form. Whether or not this was an articulated part of Harriott’s agenda is a matter of speculation, albeit speculation that just happens to be supported by the case Harriott made to the press. After all, who do you tell that you’ve just climbed Everest? And, how do you confirm the distance travelled without reference to your starting point? It’s like putting early blues recordings into a deep space probe. Harriott’s approach to the UK press is sly, as he makes the case for immediate recognition of free form by proffering its long-term historical significance. “I know this music has no commercial appeal,” Harriott told Jazz News in late ‘61, “but I think in the next five years, maybe longer, it will take over, become the thing. There are pointers that way.” As diligent as any musician in sidestepping the j word, Harriott sought to link “abstract music” to a broader, presumably more profound artistic sensibility: “Though we are concerned with swinging, I am not thinking of jazz at all, not in the known sense. I’m thinking of an artist, a musician, free to paint sounds, colours and effects as the ideas come to him.”
However, it wasn’t just the conservative wing of the UK jazz press that had problems with Harriott’s new music, even though critics like Benny Green slammed free form for “not acknowledging the existence of melody in music. It is hard to believe that a jazz musician as accomplished as (Harriott) cannot perceive the difference between free form and no form at all.” The more damning indictments came from Harriott supporters like Steve Race. Reviewing a stop on the Harriott quintet’s ‘61 tour opening for Dave Brubeck’s quartet, Race likened the set to “watching a film in which all the dialogue is in Swahili: one has difficulty following the story. I found myself in sympathy with the Ancient Mariner – entirely surrounded by water, but unable to slake my thirst.” Still, the strongest gesture that the establishment was far from sold on free form was made by the BBC, who immediately wiped the video tape of a half-hour free form performance recorded for Jazz 625.
While Robertson relates numerous anecdotes of enthusiastic audience reactions to free form at prestigious venues like London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, presenters presumably also weighed in, for Harriott soon started mixing free form pieces with his prior repertoire in clubs and elsewhere. After opening a set with a few bebop numbers, Harriott would introduce a free form piece and let the audience’s reaction determine the direction of the remainder of the set. This had to get under Harriott’s skin, given that, on the basis of Abstract, the quintet’s approach to ensemble improvisation was becoming more sophisticated, and their individual statements reflected real ease and fluency with free form. It’s therefore hard what to make of the inclusion of “Oleo” on Abstract. Within a historical context, the inclusion of the Sonny Rollins tune can be interpreted as signaling a strategic retreat; after all, free form pieces were outnumbered by audience-friendly fare on the last album to feature Harriott’s groundbreaking methods – Movement, recorded for Columbia in ‘63 and never issued on CD (We have Richard Cook to thank for the first CD issues of Free Form and Abstract, centerpieces of his 1990s Redial series for Universal in the UK). However, “interpolation” doesn’t quite approximate what the quintet does with the Rollins classic. It does provide a different and valuable vantage for understanding Harriott’s methods.
Although free form did not secure the high ground in the intermediate term as Harriott predicted, its effective demise did not prevent Harriott from having a second act in the long and winding drama that is British jazz history. Beginning in 1965, Harriott collaborated with composer-violinist John Mayer to create one of the more consequential fusions of jazz and Indian music with a double quintet split between jazz players including Goode, Smythe and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and a contingent of Indian musicians playing traditional instruments. Although they refined their innovative concept over the course of three critically well-received recordings – Indo-Jazz Suite (released on Atlantic in ‘66 and reissued by Koch Jazz in ‘99) and Indo-Jazz Fusions I and II (recorded in ‘66 and ‘67 respectively; reissued on Redial in ‘98) – Harriott did not achieve another Everest moment. More like a K2 moment.