Eddie Harris: At the Club

Archival interview with the saxophonist from 1979

I was working the overnight shift at a short-lived St. Paul jazz station in 1979 (KTWN FM), a radio gig which had opened the door for some writing opportunities. I went to review a club date by saxophonist Eddie Harris, who was playing a small bar in Minneapolis. I really didn’t know Harris’ music well, just a track here and there. I liked the radical nature of “Compared to What” and I knew several versions of his “Freedom Jazz Dance,” but I’m not sure I connected the tune with Harris.

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I had arranged for an interview and upon arrival was shown to a dreary cellar. Harris was fighting a bad cold that night and, as I look back on it now, I am surprised that he even talked to me, much less showed me as much modified kindness as he mustered. He was scheduled for two shows but, because of the harsh weather, openly wondered if there would much of a crowd at either. We sat at a rickety wooden table; he blew his nose a lot; the room was dim and damp.

Some of the things Eddie Harris said that night have stayed with me for a long time. He talked about the propaganda of press releases, and especially liner notes on albums. “What are they going to say on the back of a record?—‘This is not a good album and you should not buy it’?—I don’t think so.”

Harris had scored a radio hit in 1961 with his arrangement of the theme from the movie Exodus. It had gone to #36 on the Billboard singles charts, which counts as huge success on the jazz scene. The fame of “Exodus” had given him work, but he was frustrated by the limiting elements that this recognizable hit had placed on his career. He was tired of being obligated to play the tune every set during the previous two decades. “It deprives the audience, too,” he explained. “They can’t sit in the club for a couple of sets and enjoy the evening and a variety of styles.”

Interesting guy; he was not what I would call friendly, and he surely wasn’t trying to butter-me-up for a positive review. Just very straightforward. Harris would have been in his mid-40s when I talked with him. He died from cancer in November of 1996 at age 60. That seems sort of young to me now.

What follows is a previously unpublished transcript of our basement conversation on a winter’s night in December 1979. We spoke before his first set, beginning with my question about how much time he spent on the road.

Eddie Harris: How much? Too much. Really, though, I only play about four to five months on the road each year. Many times I’m ghost-writing for people in the television world or ghost-arranging for rock and rhythm-and-blues groups. I’m making records and working on different inventions and books. Many times I’ll be sitting around getting all tied-up with that . . . what I call ‘overtaxing’ work. Then I’ll go out and play a job. I’ll play solo piano; I won’t even play the saxophone.

Tom Wilmeth: When you say ‘ghost-writing and arranging’ you mean work that you don’t take credit for? Your name never appears on any of these arrangements?

That’s right. Someone solicits a job, and in many instances maybe he or she can’t do it. Or maybe they can do it but they have too much work, and they get me. You’ll generally know it’s my music because mine sounds a little funny. Lots of intervals is the way I write.

You were into electronic saxophone very early. Would you consider yourself an innovator as far as writing or playing?

It’s up to others to consider what I am. I’ve been a pioneer in electronics. I’m just an experimentalist, and people have been taking my experiments to heart and they’ve been copying me throughout the world, so . . . I don’t know. I guess you say you’re an innovator when people copy you. Other than that, you’re just a guy that’s experimenting a little different and if nobody copies you then I guess you’re not an innovator.

When you perform, do you prefer a club setting like you are in tonight?

Many of my fellow constituents in the industry tell me they like to play concerts. I’ve never been a concert-like guy because I like to play. But it’s rough on you out here if you start traveling, due to the fact that years ago, you could play the clubs. Consequently I could play three, four, up to six nights in one locale. But what’s happening now, you play one night here, one night there. Many clubs I play, they empty the audience out before the second show. I’m playing concerts in a club! And that bugs me because I like to play a club where I don’t have to play the same thing the second show; I can stretch-out and play. That’s what I got in the music business for -- to play. But when you play concerts, the way I see it, you really have to play the same thing.

We have a couple of local performers who point out during their sets that they are playing a wide variety of tunes every night, and that a lot of people on the road in a concert setting play the same dozen numbers night after night. Do you think this is a necessity when you are in a concert tour situation?

Most definitely. That’s why I say I like clubs. If many groups had to play clubs nowadays you’d find out they are not as good as you thought they were.

Because they only have those certain tunes down so cold that they run the risk of falling apart if they try playing tunes other than what they are totally familiar with?

Yes. In other words, you can check them out. If someone appears here at a concert they might next go to Rochester and that night might be near enough for you to go see them, and they’ll have the same show and the same encore. It’s not music then, to me. Then it’s more like a stage play. You’ve seen it once and if it’s good you might see it twice, but more than likely you’re not going to see it three times.

You’re not going to last many years [doing that]. You have to work up a new show to come around when you should be able to just come out and perform. Like many plays on stage – guys could improvise lines; change it up and have people just cracking-up in the audience. You know, it makes you come back to see it five, six times if he was a very good actor or actress.

But applying that to music, would you say that among the big names or well-known players—not everyone is able to do that in performance? You’ve got 800 bootleg recordings of Charlie Parker doing one tune and you can point to differences. That is an extreme case, but would you agree that not many players have that flexibility and are not able to make those numbers come alive in a different way each night?

You’re absolutely correct, because many guys that I would call well-known improvisers, making records under their own name, leaders, are really not leaders. They’re very good musicians who, in many instances, have played [with] other bands and gotten solos and gained recognition and someone decided to record them. But they’re not leaders in the true sense of the word, as an improviser. They take solos, but an improviser can control his audience. He does more than just run up and down his horn. Improvising is just like speaking. There are many people who have a large vocabulary, but that doesn’t mean they’re saying anything!

There are some people who can stand up and speak and they can reach people. They have that inward gift to improvise. That’s improvising verbally. It is the same way when you’re playing music. You’ve got to be an improviser of this nature to be able to control an audience. On records, a lot of times, it’s a little shady because a guy can go over his solos and write them out and learn them. Then you have what you call souped-up backgrounds, enhancement, embellishment, and everything. But in person [at a club] you can tell the truth on him. Where if he’s playing a concert and you only catch it one time, you have mixed emotions. You don’t know whether he’s that good, but he’s gone. But if he had to play a club you can catch him the next show, catch him the next night. Then you can figure out for yourself whether he’s that good or not.

I understand there are riders in some of your contracts concerning the style you can play for a given gig.

Yes. This happens with me quite frequently due to the fact that being [as] diversified as I am, there are places I go where people have what are called “pure jazz clubs,” or I play with orchestras where they say that I won’t play any “funk licks.” I’ll just play straight ahead, legit. Because I’ve played with five orchestras. And if I accept a job, I’ll do that. In fact, I played a job just last week where I was at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase, where I played no electric, no singing, just straight-ahead, hard core jazz.

As far as tonight’s show is concerned, you can play pretty much what you want?

Yes, I really can. But primarily, where a club is situated and knowing the type of acts that pass through here – although I don’t have a specific rider here which states what I should or should not do – but common sense would lead me to believe that this is more-or-less a funk/blues-oriented room and audience. Straight-ahead jazz, like I played last week, wouldn’t go over too well here.

You feel you have to basically play what people expect.

I think everyone does. If he or she doesn’t, I think they won’t have an audience very long regardless of what they play. The people who come to see you like what you’ve done, I gather. That’s why they came to see you. So for you not to play that, you’re really insulting the few people who like you because they took time to spend their hard-earned dollars to see you. Now that doesn’t mean you have to cater to their every whim, you know, [and] try to make it just like the record or play this tune whenever the person hollers it out. I mean you can’t just be arbitrary and say, “Well, I’m not going to play that. I don’t care what you want to hear. I’m going to play what I want to play.”

You’re saying that you can’t just thumb your nose at the audience or you will lose them.

Well, yes. But you may develop a new audience following . . . but I’d like to clarify that. I don’t believe an audience should dictate to you [about] when and what you should play. You should have control over that. But when a guy comes in and he’s a singer, well maybe he don’t feel like singing. Let’s face it, he was supposed to sing because that’s what got him there. So he should sing one or two numbers if he’s going to gig that night. If he’s that sick or something, he shouldn’t have shown-up that night.

But what I’m trying to explain is that there are many artists who say, “I’m into a new bag and I’m not going to anything of the old bag.” Well, until your new bag catches-on you have to infiltrate it with the old bag because you can’t just come out with your new bag and say, “I’m into this now.” You’ve known groups who’ve come-in and said, “I’ve changed personnel. This is what I’m doing now.” And they have a current record out that didn’t do anything, and their other record has gotten them there and was the old bag. So you don’t make a total switch like that on a tour. That’s kind of rough.

There are a lot of good players who are not able to play what they want. You’ve been in the business a long time and are on a different level from someone just starting in the field, but do you ultimately feel fortunate that you are usually able to present your music to an audience in the style you want?

Well, you hit upon a very key phrase. There are a lot of “good musicians” who can’t present their music in the way they want. But they have to stop and realize that they are not exceptional musicians. They are good. And when they are good they have to understand that they are good. Consequently they can go around and be good. See, what is happening in this country, I’ve found after living abroad for several years, is that people can’t accept the fact many times that they are just good; and that’s an achievement within yourself, being good. But here everyone wants to be exceptional. It’s like a very attractive woman, very pretty; she don’t get as many dates as a nice looking woman. Everyone assumes she’s got a date, so she sits home on Saturday night.

Guys look at me and say, “Hey, you can play what you want.” I paid dues. I’ve been playing since ’49. Guys don’t even call me. Guys used to have sessions. They say, “Let everybody play. Don’t let Harris. He sounds too weird.” If you read the life story of Charlie Parker and all these different guys . . . Coltrane, Bud Powell . . . they were the worst before they were accepted. Billie Holiday. “Aw, she can’t sing. Looks like she’s out of tune.” People were giving her trouble in the big bands. But many guys don’t stop to realize that I was the worst before I am now considered one of the best. Do you understand what I’m saying?

It’s like criticizing Miles Davis because he doesn’t always hit a straight note.

That’s correct. They used to talk about him, be on his case. There are guys who’ve been good since they were teenagers, but I was always different, wasn’t good. Then all of a sudden they say, “Hey, listen to what he’s doing there. Before it was too weird; it didn’t sound right.” So that’s what I’m saying when guys [complain], “I can’t get my music across and I’m good.” They should think about the guy that’s exceptional that can’t even get a job!

There are guys who work frequently and they want to be geniuses in music, but they don’t really have anything different to say. But they are very good. And that’s what is happening in the music business – they are pushing everybody as individuals and saying that the other guys are copying them. I don’t want to name the names to prejudice people’s minds, but all they have to do is go around and listen. Then start looking at the dates on the records and they’ll see where guys are getting their material from.

Speaking of recordings, looking back through your catalogue of albums, could you point to any specific one that you are most proud of? [A long silence.] Or maybe a few of your albums that particularly stand out to you?

No, not really, because I have a lot of work out there and, you know, I have many different facets of works. If I’d been doing the same thing since I did “Exodus” then sure, I could say, “This one is the best.” But because I tend to delve into a lot of different areas, how can I say good, better, best? I’m playing bop, I’m playing funk, experimental, avant-garde, electric. I’m going into singing the blues, singing the pop, I do antics with my voice, yodeling, growl-singing . . . so how can I compare it?

I just hope people get an opportunity to hear the different facets of my music, where I play very fast, then play very pretty, very funky, then play abstract, then sing. I even have a comedy album out. I want people to know that I attempt all these things. Some of them, people probably won’t like. Some of them I don’t like, but I only do them because I didn’t know I didn’t like them at the time I was doing them.

So you are ready to try anything to test the water to see how you’ll like something new?

Well, that’s what music is about. If I wanted to be safe I would just continue to play “Exodus.”

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