Obituary: Eddie Harris

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The Independent Online
Most jazz musicians develop an individual sound when they are young and then work at honing it over the rest of their lives: Louis Armstrong, when he died in 1971, had a trumpet style which was irrevocably linked to his eloquent playing of the Twenties. The saxophonist Eddie Harris was almost unique in leaping to fame without ever having a consistent and recognisable sound. He made more noises then a shed full of monkeys and the trouble was that most of them were new and then instantly obsolescent.

On the other hand, he laughed all the way to the bank. His first hit, a version of the theme from the film Exodus, entered the Top 40 and sold a million copies in 1960. Miles Davis stooped down to record Harris's composition "Freedom Jazz Dance", a reasonable post- bebop jazz tune, in 1966 and the recording of "Compared To What?", extracted from the album Swiss Movement which Harris made at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival with its composer pianist, Les McCann, sold another million copies.

Born in Chicago, Harris was based there all his life, despite a successful period in New York and constant tours around the world. He began his career studying piano with a cousin and singing with choirs in Baptist churches. He made his professional debut as pianist with the saxophonist Gene Ammons.

Harris regarded himself as an innovator, starting fashions rather than emulating them. Eclectic is a better word for his bizarre contrivances. He sometimes played a tenor saxophone with a trombone mouthpiece and a similar combination called a reed trumpet, and his eccentricities made him very much a loner within the jazz community. In 1967 he was the first to unleash upon the world the Varitone attachment to his tenor saxophone. This device gave the instrument a completely new range of electronic sounds - at the expense of the individuality of the player. Saddled with one by an unfeeling record company, the trumpeter Clark Terry told me at the time, "I've been working on my trumpet tone all my life until I think it's good and it's what I want. The guy who invented this takes all that away and leaves me as an electronic burble."

When Harris played the tenor saxophone, his main instrument, in an orthodox way, he remained enigmatic. At that time black players were supposed to sound harsh and angular like Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane. Listeners in clubs became disorientated as Harris produced a "white" sound, smooth in the manner of Stan Getz or Al Cohn. For this reason, Harris was never trusted by the jazz aficionado.

"A lot of musicians are suspicious of electronics," he said. "I can understand that because you always have opposition to change. Change breeds contempt because whatever your beliefs are you have to go back and examine them.

"Amplification will add 10 years to your life-span because you don't have to exert yourself as much. The unit I use is a pre-amp unit which can emulate different woodwind sounds. At the press of a button it can sound like a bassoon or a tuba or an oboe or whatever they have concocted on the chassis system."

It is an unfortunate fact that there is a tide of racial preference which constantly ebbs and flows in jazz. During the Sixties and also today, jazz played by black musicians is in the ascendant, making it difficult for individual white musicians of similar talents to get as much work as their black confreres. Harris had an aggressive philosophy in this respect, but also recognised that established white musicians could also create work for blacks.

As long ago as 1967 he said, "I think the jazz scene is finally going to evolve into a going thing again - Don Ellis" (a white trumpeter band- mate of Harris's) "has his big band, and there's Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich. I'm pulling for them, because I consider them the Elvis Presleys and Bobby Darins of jazz - and, once they make it, the coloured musicians will naturally have to make it, too."

One of the best-known of the multitude of Harris's albums was made during a visit to England in 1972 when he recorded Eddie Harris in the UK with the British rock stars Stevie Winwood, Jeff Beck, Zoot Money, Rich Grech and Albert Lee.

Harris continued to record until recently, making a remarkable album in 1992, For You, For Me, For Ever More, the circumstances of which in some ways typified his musical life. He had intended to record a duo session with a pianist and Harris on tenor but, when the pianist didn't show up, Harris recorded all the piano parts first, and then added his tenor sax improvisations. Despite a brave effort, the results were flawed.

Steve Voce

Eddie Harris, tenor saxophonist, pianist, organist, vocalist, composer: born Chicago 20 October 1936; died Los Angeles 5 November 1996.

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