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Book Review: Alan Robertson Joe Harriott: Fire in His Soul

Alan Robertson Joe Harriott: Fire in His Soul
(Northway – New Revised Edition, 250pp., £20. Book Review by Chris Parker)

Much of what I wrote (Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s 147, p. 16) about the first edition of this biography of Jamaica-born saxophonist Joe Harriott still applies to the revised one: Alan Robertson has painstakingly chronicled, via interviews with the likes of Ian Carr, Michael Garrick, Pete King, Tony Kinsey, Coleridge Goode et al., the life of one of the most influential figures on the post-war jazz scene, attempting to dissociate, in the process, the phrases ‘UK-based jazz musician’ and ‘unjustly neglected’/’under-appreciated’.

Harriott’s innovations as a pioneer of both free jazz (he was theorising and experimenting in this area well before Ornette Coleman entered the field in 1959) and what is now termed ‘world’ music (the Indo-Jazz Fusions project with Calcutta-born violinist/composer John Mayer) are documented in great detail and his dealings with the contemporary scene’s movers and shakers (record producer Denis Preston, Ronnie Scott’s club, local jazz promoters and enthusiasts) ditto.

His versatility (he was as at home with the more traditional music of the likes of Chris Barber and Mick Mulligan as he was with cutting-edge developments, but he was also a peerless ballad player and a fiery improviser in the manner of his greatest influence, Charlie Parker) is also emphasised, and there are telling and enlightening insights from drummer Trevor Tomkins (who compares him – favourably – with Albert Ayler) and Barber himself (who draws interesting parallels between New Orleans-style collective improvisation and the approach of Harriott’s most celebrated band, completed by pianist Pat Smythe, trumpeter Shake Keane, bassist Coleridge Goode and drummers Phil Seamen and Bobby Orr).

Harriott’s struggle for proper appreciation and reward in a musical world increasingly dominated by rock and a wider society he regarded as racially prejudiced is also meticulously described, as are his final years battling neglect, poverty and illness, but this edition has added testimony (accurately termed ‘harrowing stories’ by Robertson) from lovers, chief among them Margaret Tynski and Pat Copp, shedding light on the ‘darker, emotionally turbulent side’ of Harriott’s life. From these accounts, Harriott emerges as a troubled, unpredictable, often exploitative and even violent soul, and they sit somewhat uneasily alongside the paeans of praise for his musical prowess.

The resultant portrait is undoubtedly more rounded than that provided by the first edition (although the editorial glitches, such as the incorrect use of quote marks, inconsistencies in hyphenation and capitalisation, the odd misspelling of names such as Lyttelton etc., remain), but more disquieting, too, illuminating areas of controversy still being explored nearly forty years after his death, not only by a recent series of debates involving the contemporary jazz community on Facebook, but also in the plays of Roy Williams and debbie tucker green etc.

In short, although Robertson’s account still (inevitably) raises as many questions as it answers about a seminally important, uniquely gifted talisman in UK jazz history, one who (in the words of Gary Crosby in his Foreword) was a central figure in his time’s attempt to gift to non-American musicians the ‘confidence to play jazz without feeeling inferior to their US counterparts’, it remains a book that (to quote the above-mentioned review of the first edition) ‘should be read by anyone interested in the survival of the artistic impulse in a largely indifferent, sometimes overtly hostile environment’.

A four-CD Properbox box set The Joe Harriott Story has been released to coincide with the biography. The Amazon page has full track listings.

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