Joe Harriott - Tracing his life and times 

Alan Robertson may have found an alternative to painting the Forth Bridge as a euphemism for a never-ending job. The Edinburgh-based author has just published an updated version of the book he wrote about jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott, Fire in His Soul, and rather than drawing a line under this pioneering musician’s life, he is finding that more and more stories about Harriott are coming to light as time goes by.

The Jamaican-born Harriott died in 1973, if not forgotten then certainly a neglected, major contributor to jazz’s development. An alto saxophonist who could bear scrutiny alongside accepted masters such as Charlie Parker, Harriott was also in at the very beginning of free jazz. His revolutionary ideas were formulated on this side of the Atlantic at the same time as, but independently to Ornette Coleman’s radical approach in America.

Yet, as Robertson discovered in his research, Harriott could also touch on mainstream entertainment. Among the album sessions he played on was one with Lita Roza, whose best known moment came with the novelty hit, How Much is that Doggie in the Window and who remembered Harriott as being “so mellifluous”. And although Harriott didn’t appear on the track itself, Acka Raga (which was written for trad jazz clarinet star Acker Bilk) enticed more than one young music fan into checking out the Indo Jazz Fusions band that Harriott co-led with violinist John Mayer when it appeared in living rooms around the country every week as the theme tune to BBC Television’s Ask the Family.

Robertson, who recently retired from primary school teaching, began to think about writing a book on Harriott when the saxophonist’s Free Form and Abstract albums were re-issued in 1998.

“I have to be honest and say that, although I was listening to music at the time, I wasn’t really aware of Joe when he died,” says Robertson who is also a musician – he plays flute. “The jazz I’d be listening to would have been jazz-rock, like Ian Carr’s Nucleus, which I loved, and it wasn’t really until I moved up to Edinburgh from the Borders, when I started going to gigs at the Queen’s Hall and the Tron, that I really began to appreciate things that I might previously have disregarded as unlistenable. But I think that’s the way jazz works: things that you like immediately don’t necessarily sustain your interest and things that you might have hated at first slowly get their hooks into you and you end up loving them.”

Through hearing and falling in love with pianist Stan Tracey’s music and discovering, belatedly, Thelonous Monk, he became more and more adventurous, so when Free Form and Abstract came into his orbit he was ready to appreciate them.

“I thought they were fabulous and Joe’s playing in particular really got to me,” he says. “I’d been guided towards Joe, and Phil Seamen, the brilliant drummer, by Ian Carr’s survey of British jazz, Music Outside, which is a terrific read. In it Ian Carr mentioned that Joe and Phil had both died young, Phil through drug abuse and Joe through being beaten down by the system and neglected. After buying the albums, I had to find out more. When I discovered that Joe’s pianist, Pat Smythe, had come from Edinburgh, that made me even more interested, and I then arranged to meet Joe’s drummer, Bobby Orr, another Scot, who told me some stories about Joe.”

An exchange of letters with the obvious source of information, Valerie Wilmer, the unrivalled expert on black music and Caribbean musicians in the UK, almost stopped Robertson’s book before it started. Wilmer told him that she couldn’t help because she was writing about Harriott herself, although it turns out that this was as part of an anthology rather than a book specifically about Harriott.

“As soon as I started digging, information and stories started to come my way,” says Robertson, who befriended one of Harriott’s associates from his final days in Southampton, jazz promoter Skip Conway, and was thus introduced to a veritable jazz librarian, Derek Martin, who supplied innumerable photocopies of Harriott-related articles from back numbers of Melody Maker and Jazz Journal.

Giving himself the target of publishing the book in 2003, the thirtieth anniversary of Harriott’s death, Robertson set to work in his spare time and during school holidays. He tracked down and spoke to Harriott’s sister Velma in Jamaica and his brother Ivanhoe in Chicago, and at the second attempt he managed to speak with Sister Ignatius Davies, who had been a seventeen-year-old novice nun when Harriott entered the Alpha Boys’ School in Kingston after his mother died and who remembered Harriott well as someone who ‘was very taken with his instrument.’ The Alpha school is well known for producing musicians.

From knowing nothing about him, Robertson was rapidly reaching the stage where corralling all the information he’d gathered about Harriott into a readable narrative would be quite a challenge. It’s one he met with great style. Fire in His Soul is the sort of book that will inspire people to either go back and listen to Harriott again or buy all the albums that are available.

“I’d heard that Joe wasn’t an easy guy to get on with: he could be arrogant and rude, even brusque if he decided he didn’t like people, and he had a reputation for treating women badly,” says Robertson. “But that may have been because from the age of ten he didn’t know what it was like to have a warm family around him. It also didn’t stop people sharing their experiences of him. Right across the jazz scene, people including Humphrey Lyttelton, George Melly and Chris Barber helped me with comments and contacts, and ninety-nine percent of the people I spoke with were only too happy to share their memories of Joe. And for all his ill-treatment of them, the women in his life still seemed to love him.”

Having launched the book’s first edition at London Jazz Festival in 2003, Robertson almost immediately found that there was more to be revealed about Harriott. Even now that the updated version has been published people are still getting in touch with memories of Harriott and Robertson has become the go-to guy when an authority on Harriott is required. On the day we met up he’d just recorded a podcast for Proper Music, who earlier this month issued The Joe Harriott Story, a four CD box that covers the various stages of Harriott’s musical career and development.

For Robertson, his Joe Harriott story may yet need further updating.

“I certainly wouldn’t rule that out, maybe in a few years,” he says. “It’s been a terrific experience getting to know Joe through people who actually knew him. When I arranged to visit Joe’s bass player, Coleridge Goode, because he’s getting on in years and was going to give a better interview face to face rather than by telephone, I arrived to find he’d arranged a surprise: he’d invited Bobby Orr round and they sat, with Joe’s music playing in the background, and chatted about Joe all afternoon. You can’t buy experiences like that.”

Joe Harriott: Fire in His Soul by Alan Robertson is published by Northway Publications; The Joe Harriott Story is out now on Proper Records.


From The Herald, November 10, 2011.


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