By Alan Robertson
Northway Publications

Known — if at all — by North Americans as sort of a British Ornette Coleman who did some free form experiments in the early 1960s, the career of Jamaican-born alto saxophonist Joe Harriott demonstrates one of the failings of an Americentric view of jazz.

For, as this book by first-time biographer Alan Robertson demonstrates, Harriott (1928-1973) was an entirely different breed of cat than Coleman. He was one whose triumphs, and likely his final disappointments before his death of tuberculosis and cancer of the spine at 44, were related to shape and size of the somewhat insular British jazz scene of the 1950s and 1960s.

More versatile than Coleman, who revolutionized the jazz scene of the 1960s with his own music, Harriott’s closest American parallel was probably multi-woodwind player Eric Dolphy, who worked in non-avant-garde settings as well as with Charles Mingus — a Harriott admirer — and John Coltrane.

Like Dolphy, Harriott was another Charlie Parker disciple obsessed by music and little else. By his early twenties the alto saxophonist realized that the Caribbean was too small an area in which to make a reputation. With Jamaica part of the British Commonwealth, immigration to Great Britain was an option. Thus in 1951, Harriott became part of a wave of Commonwealth musicians who brought new talents and ideas to the United Kingdom. Interestingly enough, many of the most prominent ones — including trumpeters Dizzy Reece from Jamaica and Shake Keene from St. Vincent; composer/violinist John Mayer from India and guitarist Amancio D’Silva from Goa — worked with the reedist over the years.

A thoroughgoing professional who could as easily play with dance bands, West African High Life groups and Chris Barber’s popular Trad Jazz combo as with beboppers, the alto man first recorded under his own name in 1954 — at a time when Texan Coleman was still an elevator operator in a Los Angeles. Harriott thrived during the 1950s, cutting ballad and bebop, big band and the inevitable “with strings” sessions, was featured in concert with visiting American heavies, and involved himself in the burgeoning jazz and poetry movement.

FREE FORM and ABSTRACT, the Harriott quintet’s two avant-garde LPs had the misfortunate to be released in the United Kingdom and North America chronologically after Coleman’s groundbreaking first LPs had already gained worldwide attention. Harriott insisted with veracity that he had been thinking about similar ways of improvising years before and his conception of the entire band playing free through broken time signatures and mood changes was far different then the Texan’s. But the public imagination only had room for one bearded alto sax experimentalist.

In truth, while Harriott allowed his rhythm section more freedom than Coleman did his, the concept was still based on compositions and standard forms. Today we’d call it freebop. Freebop or not, faced with indifference from the then-conservative British scene, Harriott soon reverted to playing and recording in a modified Horace Silver style.

Then in 1965, Mayer, a Calcutta-born, classically trained violinist had the idea of combining traditional ragas and jazz-oriented freeform playing. Liberated attitudes of the 1960s enabled him to record a few albums and tour to middling enthusiasm with a mixture of Indian, classical and jazz players as Indo-Jazz Fusion featuring Harriott as chief soloist. But characterized by the conciliatory Mayer as “bloody difficult” to work with, the alto man eventually parted company with the Fusion band.

Things got progressively worse from then until his premature death. Moving from town to town like a West Indian Sonny Stitt, playing one-offs with local rhythm sections, Harriott took any jazz-oriented work he could. Overindulgence in booze soon joined excessive smoking and gambling as his vices of choice, adding to a checkered reputation as someone whose chip on the shoulder was the size of a telephone pole, according to drummer Phil Seamen, a well-regarded contemporary. Harriott ended up so down on his luck that just before his demise he was mooching accommodations for days and weeks at a time from different acquaintances. Ignominiously, his final recording session was “playing a few minutes of repetitive riff” on an LP by theatrical rock band The Nice.

Raised in an orphanage, close-mouthed except when it came to improvisation, and a proud black Jamaican in a then-disproportionately white Britain, the reedist was distant from nearly everyone, even band members. So Robertson has done a superior job of creating a picture of a man described by more than one associate as self-controlled and self-reliant. A loner, who had few, if any, close friends, Harriott was however popular with the ladies and fathered children by at least four different women.

Robertson, who exhaustively interviewed almost everyone who came in contact with the reedist, only comes up short when he falls into the first time biographer’s desire to include as much information as possible, although that is somewhat excused by the little previously known about Harriott. Still too many stories about the altoist’s aloofness and especially his skill as an improviser and idea man are repetitive. Harriott was almost universally acknowledged as a superior jazzman, so including so many stories in the book about his sight reading ability and improvisational ability merely gilds the lily.

As for the supposition that Harriott would have had a more auspicious career had he been white and native-born, Robertson presents the argument without coming down on one side or the other. The reedman was a notoriously prickly character whose sense of self-worth and musical importance was apparently even more pronounced than that of the combative Free Improv drummer John Stevens. Yet almost without exception musicians of color ascribe a portion of Harriott’s hard time and downfall to an undercurrent of racism. White associates Robertson interviewed don’t see it that way. However it’s worth noting that Seamen, who was as talented as the altoman, yet a cunning junkie, who was so unreliable that he even lost his employer Harriott a couple of gigs, is remembered with more affection that then stiff-backed reedist.

Thirty years after his death Harriott’s importance is now acknowledged. His pioneering free form and Indo-Jazz fusion albums have been re-released to new acclaim. His name has been added to the Jamaican Jazz Hall of Fame. Trumpeter Keane led a Joe Harriott Memorial Quintet for a time and Chicago reedist Ken Vandermark recorded a tribute CD as the Joe Harriott Project.

Now there’s this well-researched, lively volume. It’s essential reading for anyone even remotely interested in Harriott and/or British Jazz of the 1950s and 1960s.

— Ken Waxman