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.
Friday 13 November 1998
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
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