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Blowing His Horn

A requiem for innovation; inventor, and brilliant stylist Eddie Harris.

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By Neil Tesser

There's a guy

You ought to know

He can really play a saxophone

He's from Chicago...

Eddie Harris

[And the girls sing] Eddie Who?

--from "Eddie Who?"

by Eddie Harris

Leave it to Eddie Harris to write his own eulogy.

Yes, I know: by strict definition, it doesn't really qualify. Harris wrote "Eddie Who?" as a lighthearted autobiographical sketch, with an insidiously irresistible beat and a talking-blues narrative. And he recorded it back in the mid-80s, when he enjoyed both hale health and a dawning stature as one of modern jazz's tribal elders. But in spirit and effect, this song serves as a eulogy nonetheless. It tells you so much of what you need to know about the recently deceased.

In typically complicated fashion, Harris wrote and sang "Eddie Who?" as a combination paean and putdown. On the one hand, he shouts his own praises: "He wrote a song / That had musicians in a trance / Miles Davis recorded it-- / 'Freedom Jazz Dance'" goes one line, and the entire lyric comprises similar descriptive nuggets about his life in music. But each time Harris states his name, he confronts that slightly puzzled, gently mocking female chorus, chiming in with the musical question posed by the title ("Eddie who?")--a humorously humbling realization that he didn't have all the recognition he perhaps deserved, and that he probably never would.

That's what makes it perfect. As the song suggests, Eddie Harris pulled no punches when it came to seeking recognition for his very real contributions to jazz. And as the song suggests, Harris--a wizardly musician, oddball inventor, trash-talking monologuist, and stylistic innovator of the first rank who appeared on more than 50 albums and sold more than two million copies of his first record--remained equally aware that lots of listeners had no idea who he was. (He ends "Eddie Who?" by deflecting a series of compliments from well-intentioned folks confusing him with such other performers as the jazz-blues saxophonist Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and comedian Eddie Murphy.) Neither "Eddie Who?" nor Eddie Harris had any trouble reconciling the poet--fully aware of his accomplishments in the lofty realm of art--with the realist, secure in his relaxed cynicism about life on planet earth.

Eddie Harris, born (1934) and raised in Chicago before moving out to LA in the 1960s, died November 5. His death didn't surprise jazz fans. He had weathered a series of medical miseries for the last couple years, ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome--which temporarily made it too painful for him to execute his conservatory-level technique--to the bone cancer diagnosed last year to the congestive heart failure listed as the official cause of death. The press reported some of them, and the grapevine carried the rest.

But if it didn't surprise us, Harris's death still came as a shock: sick as he had been, most of us figured he would beat it anyway. He had devoted himself to therapies both conventional and experimental. He had adopted a new nutritional regimen. He had sounded much stronger than expected when he appeared at the Jazz Showcase this past spring, and mostly, he was Eddie Harris, too ornery to die--which accounts for some of the shock. The rest comes from the realization that we now live in a world devoid of his astonishing musicianship, his outrageous wit (musical and otherwise), and his funk-sanctified almighty soul.

He's been singin' about money

Luck and overweight too

He's written five books

On what he can do.

He introduced

The electric saxophone

He invented a reed mouthpiece

For the trumpet & the trombone.

All true: in 1966, Eddie (who?) became the first major jazz artist other than guitarists to enter the electric age, plugging his horn into a Varitone signal processor to amplify and modify the sound. Harris himself would never have denied that his motives were mixed. First, he maintained a lifelong penchant for gadgets and the technological horizon; in the 60s, before the commercial popularity of portable synthesizers, this took him to electronic tone manipulation. Not long after, he really did fit a saxophone mouthpiece to both a trumpet and trombone, making it possible to play those instruments without wrecking an oral musculature honed for the saxophone. (These Wile E. Coyote hybrids actually worked, sort of. The reed trumpet allowed Harris to achieve many of the trumpet's idiosyncratic sounds and effects, but the actual tone always fell somewhere between those of the parent instrument--with a definite flavor of plugged-in kazoo.)

The other motivation was accessibility--and the money that such access might bring. But while Harris never made any bones about making money, he also never exhibited greed. I know, because he told me, that he made his funk records in the 70s because he knew they would sell; I also know that he never played music only because it would sell. He said much the same thing to his onetime producer Joel Dorn in an interview for the 1993 Rhino anthology of his music titled Artist's Choice, which I highly recommend. Discussing the success of Listen Here--the 1967 album that featured the Varitone sax and sold more than a million records, an extremely rare occurrence in jazz--Harris said that although he suddenly "had gone from being a 'jazz' artist to a 'funk' artist," it hadn't happened by design. "All I ever wanted to do in life was play music, just like a factory worker, make music every day," he continued. "I wanted to do something with my money and have enough peace of mind to just make music. But then I was in the 'hit record' business and found it's not all it's cracked up to be."

Few artists of his accomplishment and stature--Miles Davis comes to mind--maintained such a comfortable relationship with the populist branch of black American culture, from toxically delicious home-fried delicacies to the slipstream of the dance floor to slop-jar humor. Harris and his music both maintained a noteworthy amount of greeziness, a pervasive lubricity: it made his music both instantly accessible and sociologically current. And this stance extended beyond his music to his walk and his talk. The AACM pioneer, saxophonist-poet-sensei Joseph Jarman, once told me that in the 50s he and other young Chicago musicians would wait around after an Eddie Harris gig to watch him leave the club, just so they could better imitate his walk. And in the 70s, Harris's between-songs patter grew to become a major part of his onstage persona, revealing his delightfully skewed sense of humor and a real handle on blue and sometimes filthy comedy--enough so that in 1976 he could issue an album composed entirely of improvised monologues. (The longest and arguably funniest of them was recorded, incongruously enough, at Amazingrace, the long-gone Evanston nightclub known for its well-scrubbed, white-bread image.)

Harris's comedy album--"The Reason Why I'm Talking S--T," if you're haunting the vinyl bins--came in the midst of several funk-jazz dates featuring slickly produced, genuinely funny songs about overeating and underachieving. All of them provided additional support for a critical establishment that already regarded Harris with low esteem, a by-product of his popular successes and unorthodox experiments. But no matter what the idiom or the trappings he employed, Harris most often managed to find room for some serious saxophonics: he really couldn't help it. He remained too faithful to his art, and to his dead-on analysis of his own gifts, to ever ignore these things.

His melodies, played against syncopated accompaniment rhythms, had an almost mathematical precision, which sounded simple in his hands but in fact represented a highly intellectual, almost baroque approach to improvisation. Bursting with short, angular phrases, they found their way into the most unlikely material, such as E.H. in the U.K., his 1973 confab with British rock stars Steve Winwood and Jeff Beck. And even an album like 1977's How Can You Live Like That?--typical of the period, with electric sax, plenty o' funk, and a title tune poking fun at lowlifes--contained a compositional gem in "Ambidextrous," a driving, hard-core blues line that would serve Harris for the next 20 years. The shape and phrasing of his melodies, both composed and improvised, had much to do with the stunning rhythmic impact in his music, as did the sudden upper-register leaps (usually for just a note or two) that punctuated his lines, along with the vocally inflected squeals borrowed from the R & B singers.

Such things made clear that playing funk didn't represent any massive gear shift for Harris, because in a sense he'd been playing funk all along. You could argue that much of what became known as "funk" in the jazz world of the 70s had its roots in the steady eighth-note rhythms and off-kilter melodies of songs like "Freedom Jazz Dance," "Compared to What," and "Listen Here." In addition, by fusing his vibrant, soulful sound to the infectious shuffle-swing that he himself had created, Harris paved the way for fusion jazz and modern house music.

He experimented

With his career.

He started fusion music with a song

Called "Listen Here."

Now he's scat-singing

And people don't understand.

It's a mixture of black street talk

And A-fri-can.

Whether or not he "started fusion music," Harris certainly left his mark on the succeeding generations of fusion musicians. One of them, John Scofield, acknowledged his debt and realized a dream by recording an album (Hand Jive) with Harris in 1994 and touring with him the following year. You hear Harris in the music of not only Scofield and his contemporaries but also the acid-jazz players intent on tacking a 90s perspective onto the jazz-funk of the 60s and 70s--the idiom that Harris helped patent with songs like "Freedom Jazz Dance."(Recorded by Harris in 1965, the song was covered by Miles Davis the following year on Miles Smiles, the album that first signaled the changes that would lead Miles to fusion.) "Compared to What," Harris's million-seller recorded at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival with singer-pianist Les McCann, caught the contemporaneous mood of protest, gave it a ghetto-life spin, and became an unexpected pop-jazz phenomenon that reached just about everybody. And you don't have to go any further than the new album by acid-jazz darlings Medeski, Martin & Wood to hear a classic Harris groove like 1967's "Sham Time" transformed for the 90s--in this case, into the tune called "Jelly Belly."

"Sham Time" often gets lost in the shuffle of Harris's work, but then so do a lot of other tunes. He wrote a lot of tunes. Since his death I've spent a fair amount of time listening to many of them. That always seems the thing to do after losing someone in the music world: reel out the discs, relive the sound, remind yourself of the cliched truth that while the musician has departed the music lives on. The other cliche holds that in listening to a man's recordings, you can sort of hear him speaking to you.

But in this case, it has an extra impact, because more than most musicians Eddie Harris talked through his horn. His odd, humorous leaps around the scale mirrored the angular contours of his speech, and both reflected his agile, flirtatious, and restless mind; in the herky-jerky phrasing of his musical lines (both improvised and written) you could find the same cadences as in his spoken sentences.

When it came to singing--and Harris recorded often as a passable and affecting vocalist--the parallels remained. Many jazz musicians, starting with Louis Armstrong, have sung the way they played, and sure enough, Harris's scat melodies and ornamentations followed the contours of his music. But his uniquely saxophonic technique made such a transfer especially difficult. So Harris, the natural gadgeteer, applied his tinkering abilities to his own voice. To match the piercing upper-register exclamation points of his saxophone style, he learned to yodel; to mimic the relentless urgency of his most rhythmic saxophone playing, he began singing in a beat-box style even before the hip-hoppers.

Harris's virtuosity was a thing of beauty in itself. The technical command that permitted him to create and control his unique saxophonic style--with its giddy octave leaps, effortlessly quicksilver lines, varying note attacks, spectacular projection throughout the range of dynamics--revealed an almost stupefying virtuosity. He did without the flying fingers and wasted motion you see on many saxophonists: if you sat 20 yards from the stage, he seemed almost a statue, his fingers barely moving on even the most furious passages. Even the stillness of his mouth belied the pressure needed to produce and rein that slightly pinched, scalpel-edged, never-copied tone. Only his eyes moved.

Such things made it almost impossible to take your ear off his up-tempo solos. And when he turned to ballads or waltzes--a form in which he wrote often and well--he became a crooner par excellence. The falsetto yelps became tender, yearning love cries; the tone got under your skin, the rhythmic complexities fell away, and Eddie Harris simply sang his surprisingly soulful song.

He recorded a song

That made a big fuss

On VJ Records

Called "Exodus"

Eddie Harris

[and the girls sing] Eddie Who?

It took the New York Times four days to get Harris's obituary into print, and even then they got it wrong, stating in the first line that his "compositions brought him early popular success." Not exactly: "Listen Here" came nearly seven years after Harris had unexpectedly scored a hit with the theme for the movie Exodus, a record released in early 1961. Perhaps the Times meant to do him a favor, downplaying the record that made him famous and simultaneously establishing him as a pop poseur with critics and purists. (Perhaps it's just as well that he didn't get to record another movie theme a few years later; Columbia, his record label for a short while in the early 60s, talked him out of covering the theme from Goldfinger, which might have overshadowed even Exodus.)

Such episodes, along with the normal slights accorded a black intellectual in white America, were exacerbated by his failure to elicit more understanding from music critics (despite the fact that his facility with words made him more comfortable than most musicians when it came to conversing with writers). All these things made him sometimes caustic but rarely bitter.

Mostly, they fed his sharp and delicious wit, allowing him to write a song like "Eddie Who?" and never angering him enough to restrict his panoramic interests. Typical episode: the Nice jazz festival, or more accurately, le Grande Parade du Jazz de Nice, mid-July of 1988. Harris had finished his set with Les McCann, part of a reunion tour celebrating their European successes of 20 years earlier, and as he and I stood in a central clearing in the ancient Roman olive groves that served as the festival grounds, he expounded--Harris could always expound--on the French festival foods for sale; on the deficiencies in the technique of a then-young, now-respected bassist; on the yin and yang of his musical relationship with McCann; and on American politics and the nature of Western democracy. (He had plenty of complaints, and while I won't reconstruct the details, I found it fitting that Harris actually died on Election Day 1996--the culmination of a campaign that epitomized the kind of hypocrisy he hated. A suitably grand abstention, I figure.)

Did he document stuff that you'd noway-nohow praise or admire in later years? You bet. So did Picasso--who, like Harris, kept trying on new styles, most of his own invention, to see how they'd fit. (I don't mean to suggest Harris as Picasso's artistic equal, but I will use Picasso as an example of Harris's process.) And in the same manner as the great painter, Harris spent his last years returning to a comparatively mainstream idiom, punctuated with fully integrated flashbacks of his past experimentations. In the early 80s, starting with an obscure LP called Sounds Incredible and a follow-up (still available) called Steps Up, Harris's music seemed designed to awaken those oblivious to his place among the best and most original saxophonists of his time. Mostly acoustic, these albums starred unimpeachable mainstream players--including pianists Tete Montoliu, Kenny Barron, and Jacky Terrasson--in support of Harris's increasingly impressive solos, which became more resilient and expressive as the years progressed. But unwilling to abandon a significant part of his history, he could still funk it up, as his album with John Scofield proved, and as you can hear on a new CD from his last recording date. The album, under drummer Bernard Purdie's name, is appropriately titled Soul to Jazz (on the relatively small German label ACT). The session, which took place this past March, also yielded a duo track between Harris and keyboardist Gil Goldstein; this track, along with tapes from a German concert the following night, will compose the last Eddie Harris album, due in early 1997.

The last time I saw Harris--besides his funeral service in Chicago, where he was buried after a previous service had taken place in Los Angeles--was when he appeared at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1995, performing with John Scofield's band. In good spirits despite his poor health, he spent time with a gaggle of hometown friends and family, and I watched him as Scofield explained his excitement at getting to work with one of his boyhood heroes. The success of the collaboration brought me back to a night a dozen years earlier at the Jazz Showcase, when Harris played a week with John Campbell's trio backing him up. It was Sunday, the last night of the gig, and Harris put his accompanists through some paces, and they responded: he knew he had behind him three spectacular musicians able to veer off in any direction he took them, and he just kept driving. He changed keys and shifted tempos in ways they'd clearly never rehearsed, and the excitement bounced off the stage and into the audience. "He could get a group to sound a certain way, the way he would like it to sound, without saying a word," that trio's drummer, Joel Spencer, recently recalled. True enough: this best of self-contained trios sounded like Eddie Harris's quartet that evening, and the not-so-huge Sunday-night crowd went home thanking the stars for whatever in their schedule had kept them from attending before that night.

These days, I'm thankful for the chance to miss Eddie Harris.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marc PoKemper.

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