Bill Harris was born in Philadelphia on 28 October 1918, learning to play trumpet, tenor saxophone and piano before he eventually gave them all up for the trombone. He began working as a professional, in Philadelphia, from 1938. For a short time at the beginning of the WWII Bill served in the Merchant Marine and then worked in a defence factory – the dates are not known. He left Philadelphia to join Ray McKinley’s band for a tour in 1942 and eventually travelled to New York with Bob Chester.
Joining Benny Goodman there in 1943, Bill was given his first important exposure as a soloist. Unfortunately this was at a time when no commercial recordings were being made, although Bill can probably be heard on some of the numerous AFRS broadcasts that were recorded at the time. But he did have a prodigious exposure when the Goodman band featured in the Hollywood film Sweet And Lowdown, wherein one of the characters was a trombonist. The actor mimed to Bill Harris’s trombone solos.
Sweet And Lowdown was a film with an outrageously poor plot and terrible acting, most notably from Goodman and James Cardwell (the “trombonist”). Fortunately there was plenty of good music and Harris played several good solos, also appearing on screen when the band played. This is the only decent chance to hear Bill with Benny’s band. I haven’t been able to track down the film or any of the AFRS broadcasts. If anyone can help me to do so, I’d be grateful. Write the editor.
In 1944 Bill led his own sextet at New York’s Café Society Uptown and for most of that summer he worked at Eddie Condon’s, his style readily adaptable to those of Bobby Hackett, Muggsy Spanier, Pee Wee Russell and the other Condon celebrants. He was eventually recruited into the Herman band in July by Chubby Jackson, who’d decided when he heard him with Goodman that Harris was ideal for Woody’s group.
Over the following years he became one of Woody’s closest friends and worked in the band from August 1944 to 1946, and then again from 1948 to 1950, and from 1956 to 1958 and for a spell in 1959. After that he settled in Las Vegas where the gambling industry provided lucrative work for him in a small band led by trumpeter Charlie Teagarden. Towards the end of his life he moved to Miami, where he formed a band with his old friend and Herman colleague Flip Phillips.
But back to his initial appearance with Woody in 1944: He arrived while the band was moving out of a period when it had been devoted to following the Ellington sound. It was now beginning to be influenced, through its young musicians, by the ideas of Parker and Gillespie. Although bop was very much at the root of the young men’s inspiration, the group remained basically a swing band and Harris’s style, although influenced by the new ideas, was so individual as to be beyond category.
His ballad features, notably Everywhere and Mean To Me with the First Herd, remain iconic jazz classics and, prolific though they be, no imitators ever recaptured both the style and the spirit of this, one of music’s great eccentrics
The range of his delivery was huge, with a feathery introspective lightness on ballads and a barking, explosive attack on the faster numbers and sometimes, for dynamic contrast, even on the ballads too. He depended on his use of vibrato more than most soloists, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of it was uncopyable. His ballad features, notably Everywhere and Mean To Me with the First Herd, remain iconic jazz classics and, prolific though they be, no imitators ever recaptured both the style and the spirit of this, one of music’s great eccentrics. It is still a matter for amazement that Bill led the whole band from the first trombone chair. His dominance of the band was total.
The best place to see Bill Harris is in the Norman Granz film Improvisation, where he is paired with Lester Young and gets the chance to take a couple of solos of decent length. As soon as he follows Lester’s solo you can feel him assert his authority and he is effectively leading Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich.
“He led the whole band from the trombone section”, Bobby Lamb told me. “It didn’t matter how loud Woody’s five trumpets played, if Bill thought something should go that way, it went that way!
“We roomed together for a year on the road, and it was like a father-and-son relationship. I was in a daze most of the time, couldn’t believe my ears. He was also an excellent reader and a kind and communicative teacher, despite the fact that he was a shy and retiring man. Not nervous, mind you, but a man who said what he meant and didn’t waste time with niceties. He also had a tremendous sense of humour.”
Stan Kenton, a man who always had the trombone section as the powerful root of his bands, regarded Bill Harris as his ultimate favourite, having reputedly suggested that even his best trombonists fell 10 percent short of fulfilling his wants from them in the way that Bill would have done. He loved the preaching quality of Bill’s improvising.
Kai Winding, a major Harris disciple, was in a Kenton rehearsal using Bill’s method of leading the band from the first trombone seat. The piece wouldn’t go right, and Stan looked enquiringly at Kai.
Kai looked at the other trombones. “For God’s sake”, he said. “Pretend I’m Bill Harris.”
On the only occasion I met Bill he was shy, and I was overwhelmed in the presence of my hero. We stood and looked at each other for a bit, and that was it.
Bobby mentioned that Bill was an excellent reader, but the stories persist of him being fired by Goodman from the 1944 band for his poor reading ability, and of Benny being very irritated by Bill’s suggested lack of this skill when Benny took over Bill’s and Flip Phillips’s band and added Jack Sheldon and Anita O’Day in Florida in 1959.
Trombonist Phil Wilson, who followed Bill into the Herman band 20 years later, didn’t know Bill well, but he did confirm Bill’s reading ability and scotched the story of Bill being fired from Benny’s band for the lack of it.
“I’m sure that Bill would have been a good reader in Bob Chester’s band, long before he joined Goodman. I can see that he and Goodman wouldn’t get along, and it would have been a matter of personalities when he left.”
The 1945 recording of Bijou was a Latin feature for Harris. Woody referred to it as “a stone-age bossa nova”. It was a superb showcase crafted by Ralph Burns and if all the earlier recordings hadn’t done so it displayed the Harris style and confirmed him as the major trombone influence of the 40s, along with the more staccato and less emotional playing of Jay Jay Johnson. Phil Wilson encountered the number in a later Herd.
“Woody used to have the succeeding trombonists play Bijou and both Bob Brookmeyer and I have recorded it with the band. I didn’t like the idea because number one that’s a hard act to follow, and number two, I’m Phil Wilson, not Bill Harris.
“Incidentally”, said Phil, “my history is by ear, which is the best way, and I remember hearing the story that Bill didn’t take up the trombone until he was 22. That’s not correct. The situation was that he actually played many instruments including tenor, piano and drums, but he didn’t decide to specialise on one until then. Of course, he played both slide and valve trombones. Some of those old ballads he used to play, Mean To Me, which he often played on valve, was one, were just mind-boggling, they were so beautiful.”