We Remember Saxophonist Eddie Harris

Photo: eddieharris.com.

This week on All Night Jazz, we featured music from saxophonist, Eddie Harris, an innovative but “long underrated” musician, who was born this week in jazz history, October 20, 1934.

WUSF’s Carson Rodriguez Bugarin has more:

Born in Chicago, Harris’ musical career began like many jazz musicians, in the church. Initially a singer in his church’s choir, Harris would soon learn to play hymns on the piano by ear.

He would continue his musical training, mostly on the piano, under the tutelage of the legendary Walter Dyett at DuSable High School on Chicago’s South Side. Dyett taught many future jazz legends, including Johnny Griffin and Nat King Cole.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Harris was drafted into the United States Army and stationed in Europe. It was here that he was accepted into the Seventh Army Infantry Band, where he proved skilled on the piano, vibraphone, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and bassoon.

He ended up playing saxophone with the Seventh Army Symphony.

Upon his return to the United States, Harris signed with Vee Jay Records, which was known for its R&B and blues styles. It was during his stint, that Harris became a notable tenor sax player with the debut of his first album, “Exodus to Jazz,” which was based on the main theme for the movie, “Exodus,” composed by Ernest Gold.

The album became the first gold-selling jazz record in history, launching Harris to new heights of popularity with fans.However, this commercial success earned Harris rebuke from critics who saw him as “too mainstream.” As a result, Harris refused to play his hit, “Exodus,” for many years.

From 1964 to 1965, Harris was signed to Columbia Records before joining Atlantic Records.

In August of 1965, Harris released, “The In Sound,” which featured his composition, “Freedom Jazz Dance.” The song would be covered by Miles Davis in 1966 on his album, “Miles Smiles.”

Harris’ own 1966 albums, “Mean Greens” and “The Tender Storm,” marked his debut on both the electric piano and electric varitone sax, which featured a groundbreaking amplified mouthpiece.

It became Harris’ primary instrument moving forward.

The 1967 album, “The Electrifying Eddie Harris,” reached number 2 on the R&B charts, marking the debut of Harris’ distinctive bluesy, funk-infused style, and the album’s hit, “Listen Here,” would later be released as a single, rating No. 11 on the R&B charts and No. 45 on the Hot 100.

 

Eddie Harris’ album “The Electrifying Eddie Harris” featured Harris using a “varitone sax” that had an innovative amplified mouthpiece.

 

During this same period, Harris earned the reputation for being an extremely versatile and experimental artist with his albums featuring R&B, blues, bop, and rock and funk infused styles. Harris continued to modify instruments by switching out brass and reed mouthpieces creating a reed trumpet (a trumpet with a sax mouthpiece) and he also played a sax with a trombone mouthpiece.

In 1969, Eddie Harris performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival alongside pianist Les McCann.

The recording, released as the album, “The Swiss Movement,”  became one of the biggest-selling jazz albums of all time, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard’s Jazz Album chart, No. 2 on the R&B chart, and No. 29 on the LP Chart, as well as being nominated for a Grammy award in the category of “Best Jazz Performance, Small Group.”

Even more astounding is the fact that the McCann and Harris had no time to rehearse, and the performance was mostly improvised.

Following the success of, “The Swiss Movement,” Harris continued to release experimental albums including, 1972’s, “Eddie Harris Sings the Blues,” wherein he sings blues tracks into his horn and his rock-infused jazz album, “E.H. In the U.K.”

The 1975 album, “The Reason Why I’m Talking S**t,” which primarily featured Harris performing adult stand-up comedy with occasional jazz musical interludes, alienated some audiences and critics.

But Harris continued to perform jazz off-and-on for the next two decades before passing away of heart failure on November 5, 1996. Reflecting on his career, Harris once said, “It takes a dream to get started, desire to keep going, and determination to finish.”

Regardless of how critics may have viewed Harris or wrote him off as “a sell-out” due to his commercial success and experimentation with contemporary styles, Harris continued to do what he loved to the end.

Taking a longer view of his legacy, critic Steve Huey wrote on allmusic.com that Eddie Harris has been “long underrated in the pantheon of jazz greats.”

 

Read: We Remember Trumpeter Roy Hargrove.