Music: Too good to be forgotten

Joe Harriott was one of the great jazz innovators of the Sixties, fit to rank with the heavyweights. So why isn't he as famous as John Coltrane? Because he was invisible.

In Britain's black community, 1998 will be remembered as the year of the Windrush anniversary celebrations. Books, TV programmes and gala performances have all marked 50 years of a Caribbean presence in the UK. Pioneers from sport, education and literature have been duly honoured. Yet some important figures in the immigrant experience have been overlooked.

The name Joe Harriott means little to most black Britons. This is a poignant irony considering that Harriott was one of the greatest jazz musicians the UK has known, and that 1998, the Windrush year, is the 25th anniversary of his death.

Born into poverty in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1928, Harriott was brought up at the famous Alpha orphanage in the city. Run by strict nuns, Alpha became an unofficial music academy of the highest order, producing some of the most important musicians in Jamaican history, including Tommy McCook and Don Drummond of the Skatalites. After leaving Alpha a skilled clarinettist and alto saxophonist, he worked his way into Jamaican big bands such as Ossie Da Costa's, who brought him to in 1951. Harriott made an immediate impact on his arrival, and in 1953 he put his own group together - a racially integrated one featuring the fine St Vincent-born trumpeter, Shake Keane.

The early Fifties was an exciting time in jazz. In the States, the frenetic, rhythmically complex style of bebop was giving way to the nuances of modern jazz. Charlie Parker, the man who had led the bop revolution in the Forties, was entering his twilight and the innovations of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were only half a decade away. Harriott had absorbed Parker's innovations but established his own musical identity.

"He had his particular style," says Coleridge Goode, a Jamaican bassist who played with Stephane Grappelli and Django Rheinhardt before joining Harriott. "He used the music of the times but he gave it his own inflections. He was very forceful, very decisive in his playing." Other musicians were quick to spot his strong personality. "This independent, West Indian streak was very marked in him and contributed to his writing, which is very original," says Michael Garrick, a pianist whose trio shared the bill with Harriott's quintet at the Marquee Club. "Joe's compositions, such as `Coda', `Abstract' or `Beams', these are unique in music, not just jazz. They have a lot of humour as well as a thrusting jazz quality."

So much for Harriott the musician - what of the man? "He was very bright, very argumentative," recalls Garrick, who would later record a series of jazz and poetry albums with Harriott and writers such as Laurie Lee. "He could either be seriously argumentative or have great fun with it - he had an excellent way of twisting words." Harriott had all the pre- requisites of a star: charisma, buoyancy and talent.

In 1960, he confirmed his originality in startling fashion with the album, Freeform, most of which was written from a hospital bed after he contracted tuberculosis. It was a starkly abstract work making little use of set harmonic sequences and came at a time when jazz was in a state of flux, progressive players taking the music into hitherto uncharted territory. In the previous year, Miles Davis had explored the possibilities of modal composition with Kind Of Blue, John Coltrane had given the tenor sax a new emotional intensity with Giant Steps and Ornette Coleman had shocked the jazz establishment with The Shape Of Jazz To Come.

Despite the image that jazz had as a music of free expression, it was shot through with divisions and factions. Traditionalists and modernists didn't mix. Harriott's music was problematic in that it didn't fall into any neat compartments. Not everybody dug it, as Coleridge Goode recalls: "A lot of the musicians would scoff at what we were doing ... Joe had a concept of breaking things up and not playing in a strict tempo. He wanted the music to convey specific feelings, to paint pictures with sound."

The mid-Sixties saw Harriott break more new ground with Calcutta-born John Mayer, a symphonic composer who won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy. Arriving in England in 1952, he worked regularly with classical musicians, then met Dennis Preston, a producer at EMI who suggested his quintet collaborate with Harriott's to develop an innovative fusion of Indian ragas and jazz.

"Joe was the best. The parallel between his ideas and mine were perfect," says Mayer. "Joe was a pioneer in putting forward his freeform jazz. That's the reason he tackled the Indo-Jazz fusions so well - he had already broken away from the structure of the chord sequence."

The musical chemistry between the two was extremely fruitful, but what was Harriott like to work with? "Bloody difficult," laughs Mayer. "He was sometimes very stubborn. We argued about everything: sometimes musical things, then how should we go on the bloody coach to a gig. He was difficult." This is said with affection.

However, despite the critical acclaim lavished on Indo-Jazz Fusions, and its impact on subsequent generations of both rock and jazz musicians, Harriott's profile stayed at a modest level. The BBC's Jazz 625 would always prioritise visiting American players, while, among homegrown musicians, Ronnie Scott, Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth were always more effectively marketed than Harriott, a Jamaican with an uncompromising reputation.

"He was fiercely proud. He wouldn't play the hanging-in game. He wouldn't hang around at Ronnie Scott's to be seen," explains Michael Garrick. "He thought himself above all that, so he didn't make any effort to become one of the lads, and that's very important in British jazz ... you're either in with the crowd or you're not. He was never in."

There was also the question of identity. While African-American musicians were treated like stars, Caribbean players with British citizenship were a different proposition. "If you were John Coltrane, it was `you're an American player, you must be great!'" explains John Mayer. "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."

Harriott had a flat in Clifton Hill, St John's Wood, for most of his life, fond of a drink and known to gamble, but no hellraiser. "He lived very simply," recalls Sharon Atkin, his common-law wife. "There was a record player and records in his flat - mostly Charlie Parker and some Sonny Stitt. He had one photograph in his whole flat - of Charlie Parker. He liked to play bar billiards in the Clifton pub next door. He'd go in there and play piano because they had a room with a fire and an upright. So sometimes I'd drag him in there and make him play." Like his contemporary, Ronnie Scott, he had children by different women and didn't seem to crave the security of a nuclear family.

In the early Seventies, Harriott's career declined. Jazz had lost a great deal of its younger audience to rock. Demoralised and in poor health, Harriott left London to tour. In Southampton, he fell and was admitted to hospital. In October 1972, he was diagnosed with advanced cancer of the spine. He never came out of hospital.

Verve records have just re-issued Indo-Jazz Fusions, Freeform and Abstract. They all provide ample evidence of Harriott's virtuosity and are crucial to British-jazz heritage. But people have known that for years. So why has it taken so long for these re-issues? The thorny issue of Harriott's "invisibility" surfaces again.

When Courtney Pine, the saxophonist of Jamaican descent, emerged as an exciting new voice in British jazz, he frequently dropped Joe Harriott's name as an influence. Yet nobody pushed for his classic albums to be re- promoted. From a marketing point of view, much could have been made of the artistic and cultural continuity between Harriott and Pine. Nothing happened.

With hindsight, it's clear that the music industry never really appreciated his brilliance. In many ways, Joe Harriott was before his time, part of a generation of Caribbean immigrants for whom Britain wasn't ready. Had he made music in the late Seventies or early Eighties, his career would have coincided with the emergence of a distinct Black British identity, and he may have found more receptive audiences and record companies. Instead, he was caught in a post-Empire no man's land and destined for underachievement, despite the reverence of other musicians.

"I have recordings of Joe in people's front rooms, just blowing on standards," comments Michael Garrick. "I play them on summer jazz courses that I teach as a blindfold test and they all say it must be someone as good as Charlie Parker. It is - it's Joe Harriott."

`Freeform', `Abstract' and `Indo-Jazz Fusions' are on Verve Records. `Swingin' High' is on Cadillac

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable