It’s as well the trombonist Bill Harris actually existed, because not even the most imaginative novelist or jazz fan could have made him up. He was most certainly unique, but that word doesn’t quite do him justice; he was “unique” the way 9/11 was “devastating”, as the JFK assassination was “shocking”, like Rob Ford is “dissolute.” And words such as original, individual, colourful and distinctive, while equally applicable, don’t really do it in his case either. In spite of this singularity, he remains somewhat on the sidelines at this point. Very little has been written about him and although he recorded a lot as a sideman, he made just three full LPs as a leader, along with a handful of sporadic sessions, most of them not easy to find. He was certainly admired, even idolized, by many trombonists in his day and exerted an influence on them, but very few sounded like him because he was virtually inimitable.
One of his better-known tunes was “Characteristically B.H.”, but his outstanding characteristic was that he was uncharacteristic of almost everything, in every sense. Jazz is full of colourful characters and voices, but with Harris, there’s such a complex range of contrasts in both the man and his music that he’s a special case. His trombone voice was one-of-a-kind – try to imagine all three of Duke Ellington’s trombonists from the 1930s rolled into one, with Juan Tizol a little more prominent in the mix than the other two – only playing bebop. His playing at least made musical sense, but when taken alongside certain eccentric aspects of his personality and career, the picture becomes one of otherness, gusting toward unreality. There will be more detail later, the following is just an overview of his logic-defying profile:
He was a prodigious virtuoso, yet started on the trombone very late – at age 22 – and was entirely self-taught. He made his first mark playing in Woody Herman’s great big band of 1944-46 (and later editions), yet was by all accounts a poor section player because he didn’t sight-read well and his outsized sound didn’t blend in easily. He was the major soloist with that extremely popular band, yet during the peak of his fame, none of the big labels – Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca, or Capitol – saw fit to record him as a leader. In fact, though musically speaking he was very much an extrovert (even his ballads were muscular), he was seemingly shy of ambition and reluctant when it came to being a leader. He may have preferred the security of numbers provided by a big band, or at least to have a prominent and outgoing co-leader – Flip Phillips, Charlie Ventura, Chubby Jackson – to act as a foil in small groups. His very mild-mannered, avuncular appearance masked a notably outlandish sense of humour. He had all the makings of a star – indeed, he was a poll-winning star for years, yet spent the last decade of his career in the desert – literally, playing in the anonymity of Las Vegas hotels and showrooms, before retiring to a locale equally sleepy and remote from the jazz spotlight, namely Florida. Considering he died at just 56, those years represent a sizable chunk of his career. It just doesn’t quite add up, but that’s Bill Harris and that’s jazz.
These paradoxes make Harris difficult to understand and write about, but luckily this doesn’t prevent one from enjoying him. He’s extremely easy to listen to, his playing is lively, earthy, witty and engaging, the word most often used to describe it is “thrilling”. And though there’s a paucity of records by him as a leader, luckily a lot of great Bill Harris as a sideman has been made available in recent years. His small-group work with Charlie Ventura and Flip Phillips and his recordings with Woody Herman on both Columbia and Capitol have been issued by Mosaic and other labels. A few small and dedicated independent labels have issued unofficial live recordings of Harris in his prime leading small groups in clubs, as well as with Herman’s bands and others. It may be impossible and pointless at this point to decipher or explain Bill Harris, this is more an attempt to bring him out of the shadows into the light a bit, which he richly deserves. As he’s such a big and elusive subject, it might be best to examine him piecemeal under various headings, starting with:
His Life & Career. He was born Willard Palmer Harris on October 28, 1916, in Philadelphia, and as a teen dabbled on trumpet, tenor saxophone and drums. After high school, he worked a variety of jobs – driving truck and reading electric meters – before joining the Merchant Marines in 1935. He returned home in 1937 and married, keeping his day jobs while taking up the trombone in 1938. He must have been a natural, because without any formal instruction he was soon playing high-level professional gigs with Charlie Ventura and Buddy DeFranco. Ventura joined Gene Krupa’s big band in late 1942 and one of the first things he did was to bring his friend Harris into the band. But Harris’s inability to read music on a professional level undermined his stay in this band and a brief one in Charlie Barnet’s; as Harris put it, “I went back in the cellar and studied some more”.
By mid-1943, he’d improved enough in this regard to hold down the solo trombone chair in Bob Chester’s band. Benny Goodman heard Harris on one of Chester’s broadcasts and quickly offered him a featured spot in his band, a key turning point in the trombonist’s career. There was a major recording ban in effect, but the exposure with Goodman proved beneficial nonetheless; the band recorded V-Discs, broadcast regularly and appeared in a Hollywood film about a trombonist (Sweet and Lowdown), which heavily featured Harris. Goodman disbanded early in 1944, but thought highly enough of Harris to arrange for him to lead a small group at one of New York’s smarter clubs, Cafe Society. The promising band included such greats as a very young Zoot Sims (who had also been in the Goodman band), Clyde Hart (whose forward-looking style presaged bebop piano) and Big Sid Catlett, but it fell apart when the engagement was over. Harris returned to Chester’s band briefly before joining Woody Herman’s band in July, 1944.
The move made him a star almost overnight, it was a case of the right guy with the right band at exactly the right time, similar to Ben Webster’s celebrated arrival in Duke Ellington’s band a few years earlier. Like Ellington, Herman was less interested in precision and sight-reading, caring more about the fire, originality and personality that Harris brought.
The big band business was starting to show signs of decline right around this time and many leaders considered disbanding, but Herman’s Thundering Herd proved immune to this. It was an enormous success in both critical and popular terms, its many Columbia recordings were best-sellers and it played to packed houses. The band was riotous, powerful and exciting, combining superb musicianship with showmanship and humour; it had the great spirit and teamwork of a championship ballclub. It also benefitted hugely from the gifts of its young in-house composer-arrangers Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti, who contributed a brilliant series of original charts – “Apple Honey”, Wild Root”, “Goosey Gander”, “The Good Earth”, “Northwest Passage”, “Your Father’s Moustache” (co-written by Harris and Woody) and many others. Along with tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, Harris was the most frequent soloist and he fit the band like a glove, his brilliant sound against the roar of the sections proving irresistible. His features on “Bijou” and his own ballad “Everywhere” garnered a lot of attention and he began topping the polls of magazines like Downbeat and Metronome, as he would until the early 1950s.
Herman disbanded in December, 1946 for personal/domestic reasons and Harris spent most of 1947-8 playing with the earlier tours of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic and co-leading an excellent bop-oriented quintet with his old Philadelphia buddy Charlie Ventura. They played at New York clubs such as The Three Deuces and recorded a session under Ventura’s name for National. This set a pattern in his career, Harris didn’t like to play as the only horn in a small group, preferring to share the front line with big-toned, aggressive tenor players, co-leading bands with Ventura or Phillips and later using tenor men like Lockjaw Davis or Ray Abrams in his own groups.
In the fall of 1947, Herman formed a new band, his “Second Herd”, also known as “The Four Brothers” band, after Jimmy Guiffre’s famous arrangement featuring its Lestorian saxophone section of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward (later Al Cohn) on tenors and Serge Chaloff on baritone. It had the excitement of the earlier Herd, but with even more modern leanings, often playing a unique big band brand of bebop, with arrangements by Burns, Hefti, Al Cohn, Shorty Rogers and others. Harris rejoined the band in late 1948, missing the actual “Four Brothers” recording session, but resuming his role as a featured soloist and remaining until the summer of 1950.
He was the regular trombonist with J.A.T.P. from 1950-54, as that organization really took off and became global, with European and Japanese tours. Harris appeared on a number of Granz’s Jam Session albums, recorded a series of 78s as a leader in 1952 and also played as a sideman on the Granz-produced sessions led by his old Herman crony Flip Phillips, whom he had a very equable musical partnership with. In 1950, Granz filmed a documentary called Improvisation, which can be seen on YouTube. Part Four features Harris and Lester Young playing a medium “Pennies From Heaven”, with a rhythm section of Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich. Ella Fitzgerald, Phillips and Sweets Edison join them for a faster “Blues For Greasy” in Part Five. The horn players look as though they’re actually playing, but the rhythm section gives away the fact that everything is being mimed to a pre-recorded track. Still, it gives a good portrait of what Harris looked and sounded like. He also collaborated off and on with another old Herman cohort, bassist Chubby Jackson, who started his own big band for a time during those years. When not touring with J.A.T.P., Harris freelanced, leading bands at clubs like Birdland and doing whatever recording work came his way. He was still a star and revered by musicians, but his stock with the jazz public started to fall a little after 1954.
Probably for this reason, he again rejoined the Herman fold in 1956, staying through 1958 and doing a special tour in 1959. This was a very good but underrated band, it didn’t quite achieve the level or following of the earlier ones, leading Woody to call it the “Un-Herd” rather than the usual “Third Herd”. During this stay with Herman, Harris recorded his other two full records as a leader, both done in L.A. during 1957. In 1959 he teamed up again with Flip Phillips, co-leading a quintet with him. Benny Goodman co-opted this pair, Jack Sheldon on trumpet and Red Norvo’s sextet to form one of his best medium-sized groups, which did a European tour in 1959. A recording of a concert by this band in Brussels has been issued and all hands sound marvelous on it.
His friend Red Norvo had moved to Las Vegas, attracted by the work opportunities of that burgeoning entertainment centre and Harris joined him in the early ’60s. He worked regularly in Vegas with Norvo, Charlie Teagarden, sometimes leading his own group and working in the various house bands backing headliners. It was a steady pay-cheque without the headaches of the road and many players of Harris’s generation ended up there. Harris did some sporadic recording as a sideman in these years, with Charlie Barnet (1962), Lionel Hampton and Teagarden (1963) and vocalist Mavis Rivers (a 1964 tribute to Mildred Bailey.) In the late ’60s he moved to Florida, perhaps enticed by his old friend Flip Phillips, who had a full-time job there as a property manager but was still actively gigging. Harris did occasional jobs with Flip and his last appearance on record was with Sarah Vaughan and the J.A.T.P. All-Stars from the 1971 Monterey Jazz Festival. He died at 56 on August 21, 1973 in Florida, causes unknown.
Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) : “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson) : “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
It may seem like an odd comparison, but by substituting the term “big bands” for “silent pictures”, this famous quote from Billy Wilder’s 1950 Sunset Boulevard could apply to Bill Harris, who was a major star in the Swing Era and became marginalized in the following one. He came up during a time when everything in jazz was big – the bands, the sounds, the opportunities, the personalities, the coverage – and this formed and marked him. Everything about his playing – his tone, vibrato, ideas, emotion – was equally big, he was just huge. But after The War and with the advent of bebop, the music got smaller – the bands, the sounds, the emotion, personalities – everything became paler, cooler. Harris did a better job than Norma Desmond in adapting to these changes, but the bigness of his overall conception still stood out and didn’t fit into the newer, smaller surroundings, hastening his trip to the sidelines.
Bill Harris was one of the few musicians of his generation whose decline (and early death) were not caused by self-destructive habits, but mostly by forces beyond his control. In Herman’s Second Herd and elsewhere he was surrounded by junkies, but was never a heroin user or addict himself. He liked to drink as much as the average jazz musician – a fair bit, in other words – but was never a problem drinker. Viewed from a distance, his career was odd, but its steady downward trajectory directly followed major trends in both jazz fashion and economics. Besides, he started out at such a height, he had nowhere to go but down. From about 1944-54 Harris was on top of the world, winning jazz polls regularly, he was just about everyone’s favourite trombonist. By the mid-’50s though, J.J. Johnson had taken over, topping polls and recording regularly as a leader, both with Kai Winding (another trombone force) and on his own. Hard-bop was the order of the day and Harris didn’t fit that hole, nor did he want to. J.A.T.P. and Herman’s band provided a home in the ’50s, but both were cases of treading water – big bands were in general decline and Harris’s strong association with them made him seem a thing of the past to some. It was a very youth-oriented, “now-obsessed” time and anyone seen as remotely old-guard was shunted aside to some extent. By about 1960, not only was Harris’s playing going out of fashion, but his instrument was too.
Marginalization overtook the clarinet in jazz during the late 1940s and this began to happen with the trombone a decade later. By the late 1950s, jazz was dominated by piano trios, singers and quintets with a trumpet-saxophone front line. On the modern scene, a trombone might be used as a third horn in a sextet (the Jazztet, Jazz Messengers etc.) but otherwise, work opportunities for trombonists in small groups began to shrink. Stars like Jack Teagarden, Johnson and a few others found work as leaders, but other trombonists had to content themselves by working in trad bands, whatever big bands continued to exist, or in the studios or theatre pits. Apart from jazz recording, Harris never did much freelance studio work because of his reputation as a poor sight-reader and his very strong individuality, not a highly prized trait in a studio player.
Furthermore, by the early ’60s, there were signs that the jazz economy – which had been extremely healthy from 1935-60 – was seriously waning. Tommy Flanagan is an excellent barometer of this. If one uses his discography as a yardstick, Flanagan was incredibly busy as a pianist in New York from his arrival in 1956 until 1962. Things tailed off a bit for him in 1963, but by the end of 1965 the bottom had fallen out and a pianist as great as Flanagan spent the next decade working as the accompanist for either Tony Bennett or Ella Fitzgerald. It was either that or starve and it was the same for many fine musicians then. It was similar with trombonist Curtis Fuller, who made at least fifteen records as a leader between 1957 and 1963 and very, very few after that. Even a trombonist as dominant as J.J. Johnson didn’t do a lot of playing for a long period after 1964, earning most of his living from commercial arranging in those years. Jack Teagarden died in 1964 and thus was spared experiencing first-hand the usurping of his instrument, mostly by the saxophone.
So it was little wonder that Bill Harris ended up in Las Vegas, he could read the writing on the wall by 1960 or thereabouts. The only thing Harris could have done to better his lot would have been to be more active as a leader after 1954, but this was simply not in his nature, nor was there much opportunity. His extroverted playing and joke-pulling seemed to indicate a confident, outgoing personality, but this didn’t translate to self-promotion or career boosting. Like some who found fame and success as featured sidemen, Harris never developed a bandleading mentality. Away from the trombone and the jazz fraternity, Harris was a modest, retiring guy with little interest in the responsibilities or hassles of leading a band. Stardom was thrust upon him early, but he had no desire to work at remaining a star, he simply wanted to play the trombone his own way with musicians he was comfortable with. And the executives of record labels seemingly had no idea what to do with such an oddball, didn’t want to go anywhere near someone with such a wildly original style and unmarketable, dull appearance. He just didn’t fit in anywhere after a while, so chose to spend his last years earning a steady pay-cheque, or in semi-retirement. Either way, at least he was warm and comfortable.
The Joker Is Wild. No examination of Bill Harris would be complete without a look at his famously zany sense of humour and its odd contrast with his bland appearance. (Some of the stories below are from Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes and owe a lot to that indispensable book, others were recounted to me by Jake Hanna and Al Cohn.)
Harris was very tall, thin and pale and wore thick spectacles (either horn- or wire-rimmed) and a pencil moustache. He was prematurely bald, which made him look older than he was even as a young man, and what hair remained was wispy and ash-coloured. His dress sense was conservative, he often favoured dark, or charcoal-grey, pin-striped suits and even when dressed casually he didn’t wear anything flashy – short-sleeve shirts and dress trousers. His facial expression was often deadpan and impassive, even dour. (It’s been said that Harris and Al Cohn looked the least like typical jazz musicians, in fact, Harris looked like a stretched-out, goyish version of Cohn, but with lighter-coloured hair and minus the glass eye.) All of the above combined to give Harris a dignified, ascetic appearance, it was often said he looked like an undertaker, bank teller or retired academic. This was in direct and startling contrast to his generally extroverted playing and hid one of the most bizarre senses of humour in jazz. Harris was perhaps second only to Joe Venuti as a prankster, though his practical jokes were usually less elaborate and malicious than Venuti’s and often had a vaudevillean, surreal visual element that poked fun at other musicians or himself.
Chubby Jackson noticed that Harris couldn’t resist the wares of novelty joke stores, he always had to buy something – a squirting lapel-flower, a dribble glass, a handshake buzzer – but he soon invented a few lulus of his own.
One of his best was the “dancing pants” routine. He found some loose-fitting trousers, which he wore with no belt and the fly and waistband undone. He took a long piece of nylon wire, looped it through the waistband button-hole and attached it to the end of his slide. While sitting in the section of Herman’s band the pants were no problem, and when he stood up to take a solo he could keep them up by holding the slide in the middle positions, the wire acting as a suspender. But as soon as he brought the slide in closer to his body to play higher, the wire slackened and the pants dropped to his ankles, revealing some ridiculously loud boxer shorts specially chosen for the occasion. When he moved the slide out to play lower – zoom! – up went the pants again and he could make them dance and jiggle like a fish on a line when he played fast. To keep the element of surprise, Harris only used the gag sporadically and Al Cohn said it was impossible to play backgrounds behind Harris’s solos when his pants were jumping spastically, the laughter was just too convulsive.
He fashioned his own whoopee cushion by stretching a heavy rubber band across a curve of coat-hanger wire and winding a big metal washer on it. He kept it in his pants pocket and learned to control it with a thumb and finger to mimic all sorts of flatulent sounds – loud, soft, high, low, loose, dry – you name it. He was fond of using it in socially awkward situations, like on elevators. When everyone had settled into an uncomfortable silence, Bill would wind it up and let her rip and being taller than most, would look down accusingly at some poor innocent boob and make a prissy Franklin Pangborn face as if to say, “You disgust me.” He also liked using it during live radio interviews or in quiet moments during on-air band broadcasts.
Vibraphonist Red Norvo joined Woody’s band in 1945 and he and Harris became good friends. They bought life-sized dummies from some dancers who used them in their act as props and Bill became quite attached to his. He took it with him on road trips with the band, dressing it in a suit and tie, buying it drinks and consuming them when they remained untouched, sitting it next to him on a chair in the trombone section and chiding it for yet again missing the latest trombone entry. When things got dull during the long days, he and Norvo would dress the dummies in suits, attaching long strings of elastic bands to their belt-loops. They’d place them on the ledge outside the window of a hotel room on a high floor and wait for a crowd of rubberneckers to gather, wondering when the suicidal pair would jump. When enough people gathered around looking up, they’d push the dummies off the ledge as the crowd gasped, only to see them miraculously spring back up. When they eventually tired of the dummies, Harris and Norvo staged a “real” suicide, pushing them off the ledge with no elastic this time, much to the horror of passers-by at street level; it’s a wonder they weren’t arrested and locked up.
Harris was keenly aware of the trombone’s visual comic potential, a fact that may be a key to understanding him, if that’s possible. He took it one step further though, fashioning a right-angle crook of metal tubing which he could slip between his mouthpiece and the rest of the horn, so that the entire assembly was at a 90-degree angle to its normal position, the bell and slide coming out sideways. He became very adept at making this switch quickly and liked to use it live when playing solos and especially obbligatos, literally behind Woody Herman’s occasional vocal features. Woody would be down front singing a ballad like “Laura” and the audience would be cracking up because it looked like Harris’s slide was coming from out of the side of Woody’s head. Harris told section mate Eddie Bert that he wanted to get these crooks for the other trombonists so that they could spell out dirty words when they played section features. Jake Hanna told me that Harris also thought of a crook that made the trombone and slide go straight up or diagonally and that one of his fantasies was to assemble a whole bunch of trombonists in a big hall with these various crooks. He wanted to work out positioning and choreography so that they could spell out all kinds of things with the slides, but it never came off due to the obvious logistical difficulties.
Another one of his comedy schemes never came to fruition for similar reasons. As a kid in Philly he’d seen vaudeville acts using special shoes with cleats on the soles which slotted into metal brackets that were screwed into the stage. By locking their knees, the comedians could lean out at impossible angles. Harris had Woody Herman looking all over Philadelphia for the guy who made the shoes and brackets, but unfortunately he’d died. Harris thought it would be funny to lean out over the audience at crazy angles while playing his lyrical ballad feature “Everywhere”.
Al Cohn said Harris had a rubber face and the unique ability to split it in half. He liked to use this to break his band mates up – especially Chubby Jackson – on his ballad features. During a quiet solo, the side of his face which the audience could see remained deadpan, while the other side went through a hilarious menu of contortions. He’d twitch and roll his eye maniacally and during breaths he stuck out his tongue and rolled it around obscenely. Invariably, Chubby would crack up, leading to complaints from fans that he wasn’t taking Harris’s sensitive playing seriously enough. Cohn said Harris loved to use this on recording sessions, more than once leading to overtime as the other trombonists couldn’t stop laughing long enough to do a take in the allotted time.
On the J.A.T.P. tours, Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown were always playing practical jokes on each other. One night in Tokyo, Peterson loosened the strings on Brown’s bass before the show so that when he started playing, nothing came out but the strings flapping and thwacking. Brown was determined to get back at Oscar and went to a Pachinko parlor during the break and collected a pocketful of the little silver balls used in the game, sprinkling them all over the piano strings. The opening number of the second set was a ballad medley, with Harris leading off by playing “But Beautiful”. Every chord that Oscar played sent the balls jumping off the strings – splank! sploink! sprong! – like prepared piano and as he realized who the culprit was, Oscar reached in to clear handfuls of the balls off the strings, whipping them at Brown. Meanwhile, Harris was out front, trying to play against some pretty iffy piano accompaniment and when he was finished, he walked by Oscar and hissed, “One day, one day.”
His revenge came a year later at the Rome opera house, which had a fully stocked bar in the lobby. Harris noticed a big metal step-ladder behind the stage curtain and tipped a waiter to bring him a huge tray full of empty glasses and bottles from the bar. On the break, he’d heard Norman Granz ask Oscar to sing a feature in his Nat King Cole style and Oscar said he’d sing the ballad “Tenderly”. Harris loaded the tray on top of the ladder and waited till Oscar sang the word “tenderly”, then shoved the whole thing over, leaving the scene of the crime at a sprint. There was an unholy, crashing din, made more delicious by the stage, which was raked at a downward angle toward the front. The bottles and glasses that hadn’t smashed rolled slowly down the stage to the footlights and continued to clink and rattle around for the whole song. Hearing this, Granz was furious, but Harris had run away so fast he was able to return, the picture of innocence, saying with a straight face, “Norman, you’ve got to tighten up discipline around here. Don’t you realize there are serious artists out there trying to perform?”
Harris took a page from Joe Venuti’s book to exact revenge on a Las Vegas show conductor he particularly loathed. Hours before the gig each night, Harris sawed a fraction of an inch off the conductor’s stool. This went on for weeks, until the victim was literally taken down a notch or two.
His humour certainly found its way into his playing through his use of unusual sounds and shapes, sometimes he did crazy things on the horn. It was a part of his style which he contrasted with moments of brilliance, drama, blues and romance.
His Recordings. To really appreciate Bill Harris, one must hear and fully digest his records with both of Woody Herman’s Herds from the 1940s. Harris was at his absolute peak and it was a match made in heaven, these bands lifted him to great heights and vice versa. His features with the band are too numerous to be mentioned in any detail though, so I’ll confine myself to “Bijou”, “Everywhere” and a brief look at the sides by The Woodchoppers, the small group drawn from the band. Mostly this will be a look at his records as a leader, both official and unofficial. As there is an in-depth analysis of his style still to come, I’ll keep the musical commentary to a minimum.
“Bijou (A Jazz Rhumba)” was composed and arranged by Ralph Burns as a showcase for Harris; Burns really loved and understood the trombonist’s playing and this would mark the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between them which extended to small groups as well. It’s a brilliant, sophisticated arrangement with a latin mood of “El Morocco” exotica. Harris is not much in evidence during the melody, which is mostly stated by muted brass and woodwinds, with Herman’s alto saxophone carrying part of it. At the end of the melody chorus there’s a pause and Harris announces himself with a spine-tingling, dramatic, long single note of claxon intensity, then he goes down low for a second before playing the slippery break to his solo. It’s almost impossible and pointless to describe the solo, it has to be heard to be believed. Suffice it to say that everything about his playing – his sound, the howling vibrato, the quicksilver articulation – is incredibly alive. The world had never heard a trombone player like this before, nor would it again. “Bijou” is surely the most famous solo and recording of his career and made his reputation, much in the way that “Cottontail” made Ben Webster’s. The band recorded three takes of “Bijou” and for those who haven’t heard it, one of the faster versions is available on YouTube, unfortunately with unrelated video.
“Everywhere” is equally great and shows the gentler, more lyric side of Harris, though it’s still quite visceral as ballads go. It’s a beautiful song of his own invention and indicates that he should have written more. The melody is very romantic and spacious, and Neal Hefti’s gorgeous arrangement cushions its simplicity with impressionistic chromaticism. The performance showcases Harris’s incredible control – the high range with an eerie, almost electronic-sounding lustre, massive sustain, sudden staccatos – it’s all quite arresting. With apologies to Tommy Dorsey, Jack Jenney and several others, I think Bill Harris was the greatest of all ballad players on the trombone, and this performance shows why.
The Woodchoppers consisted of nine star players drawn from Herman’s band – Sonny Berman on trumpet (Shorty Rogers was sometimes added), Harris, Woody on clarinet, Flip Phillips on tenor and a rhythm section of Red Norvo on vibes, Jimmy Rowles on piano, Billy Bauer on guitar, Chubby Jackson on bass and Don Lamond on drums – not a bad band. They recorded nine numbers (plus multiple alternates) in May and October of 1946 – “Igor”, “Steps”, “Four Men On A Horse”, “Fan It”, “Nero’s Conception”, “Lost Week-End”, “Pam”, “I Surrender, Dear” and “Someday, Sweetheart” – with Rogers contributing the bulk of the very imaginative and complex writing. These are very exhilarating and original sides, combining great fun with tremendous musicianship and swing. They rival the earlier work of small groups drawn from the bands of Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, while having a special youthful flavour all their own – modern, experimental, boppish and daring. Harris is right at home here and featured extensively. He has many fine moments, but I might single out his solo on the master take of the very fast “Fan It” as classic Harris. He starts out with a short, low burp, a blasting upward gliss, then – bam! – he’s off to the races with some of the most furious, slippery, quick-lined trombone you’ll ever hear.
Harris was one of the four trombones on the May 30, 1944 Keynote session of Benny Morton’s Trombone Choir – the others being Morton, Vic Dickenson and Claude Jones. Their four tunes are lovely and it’s wonderful to hear Harris with men who were both his trombone contemporaries and forbears.
Harris also recorded two sessions as a leader for Keynote, the first with a septet on April 5, 1945 and the second under the name “Bill Harris and His New Music”, done on May 6, 1946. The septet draws from Herman’s band – Pete Candoli, Phillips, Burns, Bauer, Jackson, with Alvin Burroughs subbing on drums for the ailing Dave Tough. They play two up-tempo boppish heads by Harris – the wild “Cross Country” and “Characteristically B.H.” – plus two slower tunes, “Mean To Me” and “She’s Funny That Way”. He’s very warm and soulful on “Mean” and his solo on “Funny” begins in arresting fashion with just a single extended note and seldom has one note meant so much. He varies the volume and tone of the note while sustaining it, it’s literally breathtaking.
“Characteristically B.H.” is a jagged bebop line with almost geometric syncopation, another sign that Harris should have written more. Unlike many early bop heads, it’s not based on the chord changes of another tune, but on original changes that are reminiscent of Thelonious Monk. It uses a series of chords descending in whole steps – F7 – Eb7 / Db7 – C7/ – on the A sections and a chromatic series on the bridge – F7 / Gb7. It echoes Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and also “Well, You Needn’t” but may well pre-date them. Remember, this was written in 1944 or ’45, likely before Harris had heard any of Monk’s songs, as not many of them had been recorded.
The second Keynote session has more of a chamber feeling, with Harris backed by four woodwinds and a rhythm section, arranged by Burns. “Everything Happens To Me” is played slowly with Harris almost literally crying through the horn, it’s one of his most moving ballad performances. Neal Hefti’s “Frustration” is experimental and harmonically eerie; Harris is extraordinary on it, his playing almost atonal.
Discographies and reviews of these Keynote sides all state that Harris played valve trombone on all tracks, except for “Cross Country”, but I beg to differ and so did Rob McConnell (who, as a valve-trombonist and dedicated Harris fan, would have known.) While this mistake seems odd, it seems odder still that Harris would suddenly decide to play valve trombone on some of his earliest sides as a featured leader, when he never did so on any other recordings. Perhaps people couldn’t believe that such articulation and speed were possible on the slide trombone, but it certainly sounds to me like he’s playing slide here.
These early recordings show Harris’s great musical range and potential as a leader. Right then and there, an executive from some label should have grabbed Harris and signed him to a record deal. He could have made dozens of sides like this and they would have sold like hot cakes. That this didn’t happen is absolutely criminal, a major loss.
In 2000, HighNote records released a live recording of the Charlie Ventura-Bill Harris Quintet from the The Three Deuces in 1947. The rhythm section is Ralph Burns, Bob Leninger on bass and Davey Tough on drums. As a finished product, it has flaws – the sound is not ideal, some of the tempos rush a bit at times and Ventura is pretty tasteless in spots, as was his grandstanding wont. But in offering a rare glimpse of Harris, Burns and Tough stretching out at full throttle in a relaxed setting, it’s a priceless, fascinating document. The music is very adventurous and exciting throughout, boppish and experimental, with interesting arranging flourishes (no doubt by Burns) and some wild endings. Harris is superb on the two ballads (“Body and Soul’ and “Everything Happens To Me”), but the key track is a ten-minute version of “Characteristically B.H.” Burns is the first soloist and shows what a remarkably creative and original pianist he was, it’s a great shame he abandoned the piano altogether as his writing career took off. Harris is next and fashions an incredible solo, building in intensity with each chorus, he’s just massive and volcanic, very inventive and uninhibited. After Ventura’s solo, the two horns trade eights and Harris’s first one is jaw-dropping. He fills the whole eight bars with one long, furious cluster of melting sound, the notes bearing no relation to the tonality, the rhythms no relation to the beat, it’s positively avant-garde. If a lesser horn player tried this it would sound stupid or gimmicky, but Harris makes you believe it, his sound convinces you that he means business. It’s hard to say how often he did this sort of thing, or if later trombonists like Roswell Rudd or Grachan Monchur III ever heard it, but Harris here is 15 or 20 years ahead of his time.
There’s some very good Harris to be heard on various sideman appearances throughout the ’50s. He’s on several Gene Krupa sextet dates, and two Flip Phillips records made for Norgran between 1950 and 1952 – all of Flip Wails and the nonet portion of Swinging with Flip. Harris and Phillips had wonderful musical chemistry and they sound particularly outstanding together on “Broadway” and “Sojoro” from Flip Wails. Here’s “Be Be” from Flip Wails:
Harris is heavily featured and takes several hair-raising solos on Billy Ver Planck’s Jazz for Playgirls, recorded in 1958 for Savoy with a marvelous band including Phil Woods, Joe Wilder, Eddie Costa and Seldon Powell. There’s a bunch of good Harris on various live and bootleg recordings with Herman’s later bands, including one done in England in 1959. It features Harris, Woody and Nat Adderley with Woody’s rhythm section, the rest of the big band being fleshed out by good English players like Ronnie Ross, Art Ellefson, Don Rendell, Kenny Wheeler, Ken Wray and others. Reportedly, the English guys were in awe over the amount of sound Harris could produce. Toronto’s Baldwin Street Music, run by Ted Ono, issued some live broadcasts by Harris from Birdland in 1952, part of the Boris Rose archives. Like the HighNote issue, they show Harris in great, free-blowing form with good players such as pianists Don Abney or Horace Silver, bassists Gene Ramey or Chubby Jackson, drummer Ed Shaugnessey and Lockjaw Davis or Ray Abrams on tenor.
Harris recorded a series of 78s for Granz’s Clef label in 1952, which were eventually issued together in 1954 on a Norgran LP called The Bill Harris Herd. It’s the Harris record to have, but, criminally, it’s the hardest to find, being long out of print. I only heard it for the first time several months ago when a friend, knowing I was writing about Harris, made me a dubbed copy. He is showcased throughout on twelve selections with three very different bands, making this his most complete recorded statement as an artist. The earliest session was done on January 15, 1952 with an unusual big band drawn from the ranks of Herman bands, past and present – Ralph Burns (who also did the arrangements), Chubby Jackson and Don Lamond in the rhythm section, four trombones, four reeds with a lot of woodwind-doubling – but no trumpets. The opening tune is the very rousing and kinetic “Bill, Not Phil”, so named because Harris was forever being confused with the comedian Phil Harris. The angular theme is stated by Harris with the other trombones and offers a glimpse of his sound within a trombone section – he stands out rather than blending, but it makes for a full and colourful-sounding section. His soloing here is some of his best at a medium-up tempo – very zesty and acrobatic, yet smooth, his sound like a howitzer. “D’Anjou” is a companion piece to “Bijou”, reworking similar exotic territory, yet it’s fresh and distinctive on its own, as is Harris here. The other two tracks are ballads – “You’re Blase” and “Imagination” – each beautifully arranged by Burns and very soulfully played by Harris.
A trumpet section is added to make a full big band on the second session, again arranged by Burns. They play two up-tempo boppish numbers – “Poggerini” and “Blackstrap”, with Harris unbelievably exuberant on both. “Bijou” is reworked with a new arrangement featuring Harris more in the melody. The highlight of the session though is “Gloomy Sunday (The Hungarian Suicide Song)”, one of the more profound trombone statements on record. Harris plays it straight here and with the dark weight of his sound achieves a frightening, almost macabre gravity in keeping with the song’s mood. Bob Brookmeyer certainly thought so, a decade later he recorded a very similar version as a tribute to Harris, arranged by Eddie Sauter. Here’s “Blackstrap”:
The third session is a loose, blowing sextet date which sounds larger because alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano doubles on baritone during the ensembles and Sonny Truitt plays second trombone, doubling on piano during the solos. Harris does some very relaxed, soulful blowing on “C-Jam Blues” (he was a great blues player) and “Jive At Five”, which also has some nice Pres-inspired tenor from the little-known Harry Johnson. This session closes with “Tutti Frutti” (a bebop novelty tune with a Chubby Jackson vocal praising the joys of ice cream) and “Sue Loves Mabel”, which contains one of Harris’s snakiest solos. All in all, a beautifully varied recital which shows the full range of Harris’s great artistry.
I first became a Bill Harris fan when I chanced to hear him on an obscure Nat Pierce septet date from 1955 called Kansas City Memories. It shows a side of Harris not heard on any of his other recordings and I might never have known about it, but Nat played a tape of it one day when we were hanging out during the Australian leg of a 1985 tour with the Woody Herman All-Stars and I liked it so much he gave me the cassette. I listened to it constantly in my car for a month or two until one day it broke, irretrievably unraveling. For over twenty years I longed to hear this record again and luckily, the Spanish company Fresh Sound Records issued it a few years ago on a 2-CD set, with three other excellent Pierce-led sessons from that period. The K.C. date has ten tunes – some originals and a few standards – all arranged by Pierce in a feathery, tightly-voiced style, highlighting the front line of Harris, Joe Newman on trumpet and Hal McKusick on alto. The rhythm section has Pierce on piano, Freddie Green, Oscar Pettiford and Jo Jones. It’s small-group Basie all the way, but with a few subtle differences – the greater use of Pettiford’s bass in a solo role, and the use of alto instead of tenor giving a more transparent, lighter sound to the ensemble. Maybe it’s the easy enjoyment of fitting into this loose, Basie feel, but this is some of the most relaxed Harris on record. He gets plenty of solo room and his personality shines through as much as ever in his burry sound, but if there’s such a thing as a “contained” Bill Harris, this is it. He even uses mutes several times, something he rarely did and he sounds wonderful with them. This record shows not just some different trombone wares, but what a marvelous all-around musician he was in an ensemble, a true pro among pros.
His final two recordings as a leader were both done in L.A. in 1957. Bill Harris and Friends was recorded in the spring for Fantasy and is a very special record, pairing Harris with another great individualist, Ben Webster, and a top-notch rhythm section of Jimmy Rowles, Red Mitchell and Stan Levey. Harris takes “It Might As Well Be Spring” at a walking ballad tempo as his own feature, but very generously shares the spotlight around, leaving Webster all to himself on “Where Are You?” and featuring just the rhythm section playing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You”. There may be some perverse humour in this, as “Sentimental” is forever associated with trombone great Tommy Dorsey, and the trio take turns playing fragmented parts of the melody – drums, bass, then piano. The whole quintet plays on “Crazy Rhythm”, “I Surrender Dear” and a long “In A Mellotone”. One wishes this band had made five records that day, they sound as though they could have.
Even though opportunities to record as a leader were rare for him, Harris couldn’t resist some comedy here, on the ballad “Just One More Chance”. Webster plays the melody with the rhythm section and Harris enters behind him, playing a really loud obbligato with an exaggerated, maudlin vibrato, like a drunk in a circus band. It’s hilarious and weird all at once and for a while Webster struggles to play through this, eventually giving up and leaving Harris blustering away on his own like Spike Jones. Then you hear this:
Ben : “Bill……….Bill……Biillllllll!” Eventually Harris stops playing and he and Webster get into a mundane conversation about each other’s health, the rhythm section still stirring away, with Webster sounding skeptical of Bill’s repeated assurances that he’s feeling fine. Then Ben asks Harris what he’s been up to lately and Harris answers that he’s still with Woody and Ben asks pointedly, “Woody who?” to which Harris answers, “Oh, ummm, aahh….you know….”.
Then they start playing the tune again, this time with Webster joining in the soap-opera sounds as they fade out. It’s a two-minute trip into the wacky world of Bill Harris and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else on record:
In September, 1957 Harris recorded The Ex-Hermanites featuring Bill Harris for Mode, with vibist Terry Gibbs, pianist Lou Levy, and Mitchell and Levey returning on bass and drums. All of them had played with Herman’s band at some point and the tunes they tackle are all Herman favourites – “Apple Honey”, “Everywhere”, “Your Father’s Moustache”, “Laura”, “Woodchopper’s Ball”, “Lemon Drop”, “Early Autumn” and “Blue Flame”. At first glance, one could be forgiven for dismissing this as another ho-hum reunion effort aimed at rekindling past glories, but the record sounds like anything but. It’s a lively, swinging, well-paced and cohesive date with fine blowing and playing by everybody. All the tracks are good, but the standout is the very fast “Lemon Drop”, George Wallington’s bop line on rhythm changes. As with the Herman record, the tricky head is not played, but scat-sung by the band, with Bob Dorough added here. Harris really stretches out on this one with some of his smoothest and fastest playing, showing his mastery of bebop and fluency over chord changes. This clip from YouTube is unfortunately accompanied by some annoying and unrelated footage from one of those noirish ’50s arty jazz flicks:
And so ended the career of Bill Harris as a recording bandleader, at only 40 and with 16 more years to live. That such a big-timer with so much force of personality recorded so little as a leader remains the central paradox of his career.
His Playing & Style. Harris was most definitely a virtuoso, his playing had tremendous power, authority and drive. Often virtuosity is measured or thought of in terms of speed/agility and Harris could certainly play fast and with acrobatic dexterity. But his technical mastery mostly comes through in other aspects of his playing – his massive, gleaming sound, his enormous range from top to bottom (only Urbie Green rivalled him in this department), his ability to sustain notes seemingly forever and his command of a bewildering variety of attacks on the instrument. Unlike most virtuoso trombonists however, Harris was not at all a “smoothie” who attempted to tame the instrument by putting it on a diet or eschewing the shape-shifting properties of the slide – he gleefully embraced the vocal, slippery, blustery aspects of the slide and its colouristic and expressive possibilities more than any other modern trombonist. He certainly listened to some of the highly individual trombone voices of the 1930s and was most definitely influenced by two of them – J.C. Higginbotham (who had a pugnacious, bluesy delivery and a giant sound) and Dickie Wells (who had a vivid, eccentric imagination as an improviser.) Harris’s playing abounded with the vocalism of 1930s trombone vocabulary, sometimes he sounded like a barn on fire, with all the animals still trapped inside – slurs, burps, huge glisses both upward and downward, yodeling brays, bent, drooping notes, rips, mooing trills, snorts and buzzes, deliberate bluesy dissonances, even elements of tailgate. But Harris’s career intersected with the arrival of bebop and he had the musical command, speed and articulation to tackle the challenges of the new music, managing to do so without limiting himself to that style and without abandoning the gut-bucket expressiveness inherent in the slide. In effect, he played linear bebop while retaining the 1930s trombone soundscape, giving his playing a “new-old” quality that was both anachronistic and futuristic all at once. As to his virtuosity, where it came from remains a mystery, as he began so late, was self-taught and within a few years was doing things on the horn that made other trombonists gasp. He simply must have been born with an extraordinary physical gift to play the instrument.
The central question about Bill Harris as a trombonist is, what made his playing so original and unique? The simple and quite accurate answer is “everything”, but mostly it had to do with the following elements :
Sound. Saxophonist Mike Murley has said that the first thing that people notice about a musician – especially a horn player – is their sound. One notices Bill Harris’s sound sooner than most, it’s huge, molten and electric, coming at the listener with startling velocity and force. There are others in the running – J.C. Higginbotham, Trummy Young, Milt Bernhart (who played the famous trombone solo on Frank Sinatra’s record of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”) – but Harris was surely the loudest trombonist who ever lived. This is misleading, because he didn’t play loud all the time by any means. But when he chose to, say against a raging big band background, he could produce a frightening amount of sound. It wasn’t just a matter of volume, there was tremendous mass, density and weight to his sound, it teemed with life. Jake Hanna, who knew Harris well and heard him play many times, once commented that Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were the only jazz players he ever heard live who could match Harris in terms of making so big a sound. At its loudest, Jake described Harris’s sound as “shaking the chandeliers”. His combining of the massive sound with great speed is one of the most singular aspects of his playing, often the two don’t go together. And he had a way of playing loud without really trying to, which seemed to defy the physics of his horn, or maybe even physics, period. His loud notes just seemed to arrive, they emanated and his dynamics were very protean, shifting very suddenly. While other trombonists would play loud by blasting away from the beginning of a note or phrase, Harris could start off quietly, then grow very loud in the middle of the phrase or note, then tail off. This must have required great breath control and a diaphragm and embrochure each made of steel. His huge range gave his sound a wide array of tone colours, depending on the register he played in or the mood he was trying to project. Up high, it had a luminous quality and in the middle sometimes had the flatter, darker brass sound of a French horn. He could play very, very low notes with a sharp staccato that had the impact of a bass drum and occasionally liked to use a humorous cluster of furious ‘blats’, delivered with great ferocity. In quieter small groups he used a burry, up-the-sleeve sound which, while still big, had the effect of seeming to come at the listener through a veil, or from around a corner, like a periscope.
Vibrato. His use of vibrato was the most defining and distinctive trait of his playing and provided the lubricating link between his huge volume and his speed. During the Swing Era, most brass players used some measure of vibrato and often ended notes or phrases with a faster “terminal” vibrato to achieve a polished finish and tie things up in a bow, so to speak. Vibrato largely went out the window with bebop, when players adopted a more streamlined and uninflected tone to better achieve the speed and agility needed to play that music. Although he came up during the Swing Era but also played elements of bebop, Harris did neither of the above. Alone among modern players of his day, he used a wide, very fast vibrato at almost all times, even when playing quick, angular lines. (The only other trombonist who used a similar vibrato was the exotic Juan Tizol, who played valve trombone with Ellington and, despite his uniqueness is not mentioned nearly as much as his section mates Lawrence Brown and Joe Nanton.) Harris had tremendous command of his vibrato (except when he chose not to for humorous reasons) and again, this must have demanded great breath control and lip strength. The vibrato gave his notes a swelling, pulsing life of their own and imbued his playing with great force and a rubbery, elastic quality which could be funny, dramatic or lyrical, depending on how he used it. Up high, the vibrato gave his sound a lustrous, neon quality almost like a musical saw, the effect not so much humorous as eerie. It allowed Harris to shift sounds and shapes very quickly, giving his playing the jiggliness of gelatin and the kinetic properties of mercury. In the middle registers, it gave his sound a blasting elephant quality of almost martial intensity. He also used his vibrato to bend, smear and stretch notes, effectively melting them together. The vibrato also increased his volume of course, but at quieter levels he used it to give his notes a fluffy roundness, a kind of internal glow of reverb. Harris would contrast the vibrato with his shorter, more staccato notes, often delivered with the force of a mallet on an anvil or as belching asides.
Rhythm & Phrasing. Harris’s playing had tremendous rhythmic impact and swung prodigiously, but some have also described it as being choppy at times. There’s some truth to this, but it’s misleading. Any jerkiness was not the result of rhythmic clumsiness or bad time, as Harris had one of the most stomping ‘beats’ in all of jazz. Part of the choppiness had to do with the sheer size of his sound and vibrato, but a lot of it was the intentional result of his “pan-rhythmic” approach. He used a great variety of contrasting attacks – slurred legato, percussive staccato, short and long notes either accented or slid into – and unusual phrase shapes and lengths, some of them quite jagged or angular, even irrational. He also liked to ride the beat in different ways depending on the tempo; he would play on top of it at fast tempos and liked to stretch it on ballads by playing behind the beat, then catching up. Striving to fit his huge sound and range of ideas into the confines of the beat may have resulted in some choppiness, but one has to think that’s the way Harris wanted it, as he was in utter control of his horn and ideas.
Melody & Harmony. While Harris certainly had a keen and sophisticated enough sense of harmony to deal with bebop, he liked to push against the boundaries of harmonic improvising, stretching chord changes with an unorthodox use of sound and rhythm which harkened back to earlier jazz. He would often bend notes or blur phrases which created arresting and comic dissonance, he would also play with the bar-lines and harmonic rhythm of a song, anticipating chord changes or arriving on them late. He knew his harmony, but was not driven by it as an improviser, being more interested in sound, colour, dynamics and rhythm.
His handling of straight melody was also very interesting. When playing a written jazz or bebop “head” he was extremely accurate in every regard, but liked to play around with the melodies to standards, particularly at slow or medium tempos. He was quite faithful to a melody’s actual notes, but liked to put his stamp on a melody by breaking it up rhythmically, phrasing it across bar lines and gently stretching its contours or fracturing them altogether with displacement. There are many examples, but a good one is his rendition of “It Might As Well Be Spring” from Bill Harris and Friends. The melody is entirely recognizable, but he makes it all his own with his remarkable rubato-in-tempo approach, leaving unexpected spaces and delays, playing hide-and-seek with the beat while investing the melody with a whole range of shaggy inflection.
Emotion. Harris was an extravagantly passionate player who packed a powerful emotional wallop; it’s impossible to hear his sound without having a palpable physical reaction – chills, a shiver down the spine, a flushed face, a thrill. He sometimes leavened his emotionalism with tongue-in-cheek, droll humour and his playing was generally fun and upbeat, giving off a feeling of great zest and energy. Even with all his humour, he knew when not to fool around. He could achieve real gravitas where warranted, as on “Bijou” and his 1952 recording of “Gloomy Sunday”. He was most definitely a ‘hot’ player as opposed to a ‘cool’ one, but amid his gusto there was also subtlety, especially on ballads. Being subtle in jazz is often confused with being ‘restrained’ or ‘quiet’ but Harris was rarely either, he achieved his subtlety through an avoidance of the obvious, which is the true meaning of the word. On ballads he expressed his own eccentric, wry brand of lyricism, rarely sentimental but always moving, even quite hair-raising. And his playing was suffused with the feeling of the blues; he not only excelled at playing on the form, but the blues were at the centre of the unique emotional landscape he created and inhabited.
Risk-Taking. Harris was very much a daring adventurer when it came to improvising, there was nothing safe about his playing. The Mosaic reissues of his 1940s work with Herman contain many alternate takes of pieces featuring him and his solos are usually quite markedly different, often wildly so. This was unusual in the context of a big band at that time, when soloists were often encouraged to play a famous recorded solo the same each time in the interests of “sounding like the record”. Time and time again, Harris seems to take a cavalier delight in pushing against the boundaries of music and his horn by playing himself into a corner, then playing his way out, using not only his technique, but his great imagination and humour as well. His playing valued the element of surprise above all else and seemed to carry the message that boredom and sameness are the great enemy.
So, Harris was a big, wild, stomping and quixotic player who fashioned a highly personal original style so kaleidoscopic in its juxtaposition of disparate elements that it can’t really be called a style at all, he played Bill Harris, period. He certainly resisted pigeon-holing, reportedly he sounded wonderful in ‘Dixieland’ contexts (as with Charlie Teagarden in the 1960s) and enjoyed playing that music, though he was not widely known for this. He loved the setting of big bands, indeed perhaps only a big band could contain him when he was in full roar. He’s often characterized as a Swing or mainstream player and he was certainly comfortable in those settings and with those types of players. But he was also a very creative modernist, a lot of what he played was bebop, or bebop-oriented. While he was not a dyed-in-the-wool bebop trombonist in the same way that J.J. Johnson was, he certainly had the technical and musical wherewithal to play that music with anybody. But he didn’t get hung up in the orthodoxies of any of these genres, he simply saw each playing situation as an opportunity to express his highly individual musical personality, which he did with headlong abandon.
These descriptions of Harris’s maverick “style” could give the mistaken impression that he was a disorganized show-off or thrill-seeker, that his solos were a chaotic mess of jokes, gimmicks or musical effects delivered willy-nilly, like a three-ring circus. Nothing could be further from the truth. His playing has real content and hangs together beautifully on its own very original terms; it’s fresh, sincere, extremely compelling and registers with listeners as such. It simply wasn’t in his makeup to construct a style that was homogeneous or symmetrical, that kept to merely logical lines, he left that to others. Like all great improvisers, his solos always told a story, it’s just that his narrative style was stream of consciousness rather than conventionally linear.
Loren Schoenberg is a very accomplished saxophonist, arranger and jazz commentator who wrote the liner notes to the 1947 Bill Harris/Charlie Ventura live recording from The Three Deuces. His very thoughtful notes amount to an essay and were quite helpful in the preparation of this piece. He comments that, “Harris belongs, along with one of his influences Dickie Wells, Rex Stewart, Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young and Art Tatum, as one of the prime abstractionists of the era”. This is very perceptive and I would agree, but I might take it a step further with Harris. His playing was abstract, but because of the stark clarity brought by his extreme technical assurance and also considering his outre humour, I think of him as being more of a surrealist; I often see Salvador Dali’s melting clocks when listening to one of his solos. And not to stretch the point, but his juxtaposition of the old and new effectively bent time and pointed to the future.
The key to understanding Bill Harris lies in the very nature of the trombone itself, it’s impossible to imagine him playing any other horn. It’s often been said that of all the instruments, the trombone is the closest to the human voice. Various famous composers (I’m afraid I don’t remember which ones) referred to it as the “royalty of the orchestra” and “the voice of God”. But along with its nobility, the trombone also has a comic, barnyard aspect, it’s associated with clowns, circuses, fire halls and marching bands. Among the horns used in jazz, it stands out as the only one where notes are formed with a slide mechanism, as opposed to valves (in the case of the other brass instruments), or keys (with reed instruments). But the slide giveth and the slide taketh away. The slide makes the trombone very vocal, elastic and colourful, but also makes it difficult to play with much grace, speed or precision. The horn can be majestic yet absurd, poetic but vulgar, profound or bathetic, it’s an exercise in contrasts. As jazz trombone playing progressed technically, many key players tried to “civilize” the horn and make it behave more like the others, with greater speed, smoothness and accuracy, some degree of suavity. Not Harris though. Whether by design or not, he fully embraced the schizoid nature of the trombone, running the sonic/emotional gamut from the gutter to the sublime and points between, using the full spectrum of the horn and what it had to offer perhaps more than any other trombonist in the history of jazz.
“When I began playing trombone in 1943, the selection of people with distinct personalities that you could slice like bread were legion. Dickie Wells, Vic Dickenson, Trummy Young (what a player!), Jack Teagarden, Lawrence Brown and my hero, Bill Harris. These are only a few – there were many. On hearing Bill, chills went down my back – a physical shiver. The last time we met was 1963, in Las Vegas, where he was playing a 6 a.m. gig with Charlie Teagarden. He and I hung for an hour, then he got on the bandstand, and – at the very first note – sent chills down the back of a jaded, successful and angry 33-year-old male child. Now THAT’S communication, personality, ta-dum, ta-dum, whatever. That illustrates the possibility of establishing a living relationship with the generation before me…”grandfathering” I think it has been called. There was someone that I could grow FROM.” – Bob Brookmeyer
I’ve read these words by Bob Brookmeyer on Bill Harris in several places, and they lead off Loren Schoenberg’s liner notes. They very eloquently describe the thrilling emotional impact of Harris’s playing, but also address his role as an influence. The specifics of his style were largely inimitable, but Harris exerted a general influence on trombonists as an inspiration and example. Brookmeyer is the one player who sounds remotely anything like Harris, albeit while playing valve-trombone. They share a “pan-historic” approach combining the old and the new, rife with piquant dissonance, adventure, the blues and other colours. Unlike Harris, Brookmeyer had a bandleader mentality and used the added dimension of his composing/arranging to forge a versatile and successful career out of Harris’s inspiration, though Brookmeyer too would founder by the mid-60s. Oddly enough, another valve-trombonist and gifted arranger, Rob McConnell, was also inspired by Harris. Rob spoke of him with much reverence and recorded a wonderful version of “Everywhere” in a duet with guitarist Ed Bickert. Roswell Rudd was another, he recorded some solo trombone variations on “Everywhere” and though he played in a completely different style, Rudd made sounds on the trombone which come directly from Harris, using them in his own very original manner. Certainly any trombonist who followed Harris in Woody Herman’s band knew he was being measured against him and I hear Harris in two of these – Urbie Green and Carl Fontana – mostly in their exuberance and bravura technique. Though he was very quiet, I came to know Urbie pretty well during several stints of playing with him and he spoke of Harris with a mixture of affection, awe and disbelief.
General commentary on Harris mentions that he was a key figure in the trombone’s transition from Swing to bebop and that he was the only trombonist of his generation not to be influenced by J.J. Johnson. Both these statements contain some truth, but give Harris short shrift. The one about Johnson places the cart in front of the horse. Harris’s style was largely formed by 1944, when Johnson was just getting his feet wet and still relatively unknown, it’s hard to see how Harris could have been influenced by J.J. As to Harris being a Swing-to-bop transitional figure….Well, fair enough, but this implies that Harris was somehow not a modern player, which he very clearly was. In fact, I think the adventuresome mosaic of the traditional and modern in his style showed trombonists a way of getting through bebop and coming out the other side, with some colour and expressivity intact, a case of back to the future.
The contemporary trombonist Ron Westray is also quoted in Schoenberg’s notes, as follows: “Bill Harris has excellent control of his ideas and at the same time he is a player who seems to delight in taking musical risks, which is a crucial quality. Not only does he take the risks but he always pulls them off. These solos are timeless in terms of musicality and the complexity and the nature of what he is playing is just as modern as anything that you can play on the trombone in the year 2000.” This applies equally in the year 2014.
At the beginning of this piece, I rejected the word “unique” and other similar ones as insufficient to describe Harris. No single word can summarize a musician of such personality, but if I were forced to choose one for Harris, it would be “fantastic”, in both its senses. The more common one, meaning “great”, “terrific”, “remarkable” – he was certainly all of those. But even more so the rarer, more literal sense of “fantastic”, as in “not of this world”, or “beyond belief.” His playing is very, very real, but also almost unbelievable, and so it is surreal.
The highest achievement for any jazz musician is to create a voice so original that it’s unmistakable and Harris certainly managed this, and then some. There was only one Bill Harris and jazz will never hear the likes of him again. He played the trombone like a man who suddenly finds himself in a darkened room and lights a torch to guide the way, only to discover – too late – that he’s standing in a fireworks depot. All we can do is stand back at a safe distance and enjoy the pyrotechnics.
© 2014 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.