Still Clinging To The Wreckage 06/20, part 1

Steve Voce focuses on that Clark Kent of the jazz trombone, Bill Harris, whose bank-manager exterior concealed a firestorm of musical emotion

We all have our favourite trombonists, and many of us have one that we think to be the greatest in the world – Urbie, J.J., Mark Nightingale, Jack Teagarden. We can’t all be right and the reality is that we are all probably wrong.

But who is the greatest at expressing his emotions through the horn? Surely Bill Harris has to be right at the top – it was a radio announcer during the 40s who described Bill as being “like a burly wrestler who writes delicate poetry”.

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I’m going to find it hard to put into words the exultant effect of Bill’s soloing that so often brings ecstasy to the listener. How can such a volcano of inspiration pour out of a man who looked so much like a city business man? To see him in this role, type “Lester Young and Bill Harris, Pennies From Heaven” into a search engine and you should get a very clear film of the two (with Rich, Brown and Hank Jones), Bill smart, typically motionless while playing, and wearing his best, buttoned-up suit.

He always wore a tie and in the years that Bobby Lamb roomed with him on the road he never saw him drink or smoke

For such an apparent wild man, Bill was enormously fastidious. He always wore a tie, and in the years that Bobby Lamb roomed with him on the road he never saw him drink or smoke. He was happily married with three young boys.

Bill had emerged at the tail of the swing era, but he was already able to match the speed of the boppers on his horn. He had a unique attack that barked, in line with neither Teagarden nor Jay Jay Johnson, and would blister the paint on the walls, but he’d slip easily from it into a gentle, finely tuned legato that was beyond the reach of any of his contemporaries. His use of vibrato covered a sensitive range range not captured by any trombonist before or after, and he’d easily shift gear between his various approaches.

At one point the musical standards of the Herman band had reached an unprecedented low. The drummer was so unsuitable that Herman used to ask if there were any drummers in the house and if so would they like to sit in for a number. The musicians, including men like the fine tenors Richie Kamuca and Bob Hardaway, were similarly dispirited.

One day at this period, when the band was in New York, Bill Harris told Bobby Lamb he was going down to the studios to meet old friends. Bobby jumped at the chance to go with him. The first old friend, met in the bar of the studio, was Don Lamond. “How’s the band these days?” asked Don. The two trombonists gave him the bad news. “I might come down and see you tomorrow night”, said Don, knowing the band had a gig in New York.

He did, and Woody eagerly offered Don the chance to sit in. After a few bars the whole band sat up and became alert, and things tightened up. Jimmy Gannon’s bass playing was instantly restored to its old best and the soloists fired up as the band bloomed again. Gradually the performance rose to a peak and Woody’s perfect instinct told him exactly when to let Bill Harris out for a long solo. After a couple of choruses the audience belonged to Bill and the whole house, including the musicians, were in ecstasy, all fired by the diamond-cutter at the drums.

And, according to accounts from the time, there were tears of emotion in the crowd when Bill followed with his feature on Gloomy Sunday.

If you look at this list of The Greatest Jazz Trombonists Of All Time, you’ll find Bill Harris firmly put in his place at 44th (Carl Fontana manages 4th and Jack Teagarden 6th). The two greatest influences on Bill’s playing, Dickie Wells and Jay C Higginbotham, don’t feature much either, with Jay C coming in at 49 and Dickie not even mentioned. (Good company, though, for Lawrence Brown and Phil Wilson check in at 46th and 47th respectively.)

On another tack, another site devoted to great trombone albums gives the following advice: Jack Teagarden (Dixieland), Tommy Dorsey (swing), and Jay Jay Johnson (bebop) are all very important figures in their respective genres. Other trombonists of note include Bill Watrous, Glen [sic] Miller, Carl Fontana, Wycliffe Gordon, Slide Hampton, Don Sebesky and Jim Pugh.” No room for the Old Bill then.

In practical terms Bill succeeded Jack Teagarden in the 1940s as a major influence on other trombone players. Neither man had striven for this role, nor had the pre-eminent influence of the day, J.J. Johnson.

No matter what apparent contortions of the slide were required, Bill was unique in always being able to instantly return to total stability on the horn

Everyone heard Bill rocketing and racketing through Woody’s First Herd and the records of him doing so were swiftly worn white by the multitude who tried to learn his licks. The truth was that between them Bill, Teagarden and Johnson touched every trombonist in the world, and all remain major influences to this day, with many contemporary players regularly quoting from the three without even realising it.

Bill possessed a deep mine of invention that allowed his mind to sprint freely through the wildest ideas that he could imagine and shout them through the horn. He had the technique to do that too, but not just that. No matter what apparent contortions of the slide were required, Bill was unique in always being able to instantly return to total stability on the horn. Not only did he play with wild slides and smears, he combined his revelling with pinpoint accuracy, and for that he must have been the forlorn envy of everyone who realised what he was doing.

Despite the earlier list, most trombonists knew who was God, as the incident that follows displays.

Bill was away from home most of the time. Bill’s wife and his three sons lived in Miami. On this occasion Woody and the band were playing a gig there before Bill had had a chance to see his wife. He spotted her and the boys in the audience and turned to Bobby Lamb. “Take over”, he said. “I’m out of here.”

Bill crossed the floor to greet his family and Bobby took over his role, taking all of Bill’s trombone solos. At the end of the evening a fan came up to him. “That was terrible”, he said. “You played every solo as Bill Harris would have done.”

Intending a reproof, he couldn’t have realised that he couldn’t possibly have said anything to please Bobby more. Like many others, he’d been working for years to sound like Willard Palmer Harris (Bill’s great sense of humour showed through his playing and his parent must have had the same one when they chose his Christian names).

See part two of this Bill Harris series
See part three of this Bill Harris series
See part four of this Bill Harris series

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