Still Clinging To The Wreckage 07/20, part 1

Part three of Steve Voce's examination of the mild-mannered musical extremist Bill Harris

Although he had the appearance of a businessman from the city, Harris had an almost schoolboy sense of humour, and would go to any lengths for a good prank.

While Bill was playing a soulful ballad, Chubby Jackson would be roaring laughing. To all appearances Bill’s mien was as serious as the audience expected. But they couldn’t see the other side of Bill’s face which was racked with maniacal grimaces. When he took a breath he’d stick his tongue out at Chubby.

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There are many versions of the story of Bill Harris and the tailor’s dummy. This one came from Bill himself. He bought the dummy man from a theatrical accessory shop. He dressed it in a spare band uniform and whilst Woody was singing at the mike one night when the band played at Tommy Dorsey’s Casino Gardens in Santa Monica, Bill sat the dummy next to him in the section and fixed a spare trombone to its arm so that it suddenly appeared that Woody had a four-trombone section.

Even more satisfying was the result as Bill repeated the ploy in the semi-dark of Birdland when the band played there a few days later. By now he had co-opted his fellow trombonist Ed Kiefer so that the dummy was attached on either side in the section. In the darkness the gap between the dummy’s mouth and the trombone mouthpiece was obscured.

‘We were in Detroit’, said Flip Phillips, ‘and Bill and I were on the 15th floor of the hotel, holding the dummy in a window. The dummy was trying to commit suicide, and Sonny Berman was down in the street. The street filled up with people yelling “Stop!, don’t do it.” We were holding him back’

Leonard Feather was there that night and the next issue of Downbeat sported his review where he wrote “Woody now has a four-piece trombone section. The new guy had few solo chances, but he shows lots of promise.”

“And then Bill would argue with the dummy all night”, Woody recalled. “Every time there were two bars out, Bill was having a terrible beef with this dummy.”

Bill’s dummy came in for endless incident, with Bill insisting it sat next to him when he was driving to jobs, when he would argue endlessly with his seemingly live companion.

“We were in Detroit”, said Flip Phillips, “and Bill and I were on the 15th floor of the hotel, holding the dummy in a window. The dummy was trying to commit suicide, and Sonny Berman was down in the street. The street filled up with people yelling ‘Stop!, don’t do it.’ We were holding him back.

“We threw him out the window, and you should have heard the screams. When he came down – bam, Sonny Berman picked him up and carried him into the hotel. The fire department came, the police came, and we split.”

The dummy met a troubled end. Driving away from New York at two in the morning Bill and his car load of musicians decided it was time to dispose of it. At the side of the road they threw it on the ground and began kicking it. To the alarm of those driving by they appeared to be kicking a man to death. When they’d finished the dummy was hurled into a near-by gully.

But the passers by had reported to the police, and further down the road Bill’s car was intercepted. The story was not believed, so the police returned them to the gully where, in the dark, it proved impossible to get to the bottom. The musicians were incarcerated in the nearest police station until morning when they were returned to the gully and the remains of the dummy were identified.

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The concert stage in front of the packed house had a ramp down the middle. As the band finished North West Passage and the sounds died away, a plastic duck came waddling down the ramp quacking. Property of Willard Palmer Harris.

Bill Harris on record

Norman Granz was always eager to sign his personal favourites to his label, and Bill was an obvious choice on trombone, making a majestic debut with the 1952 sessions that produced Bill Harris Collates. Norman seemingly wanted to use one of his favourite words, for the none of the meanings of “collate” seem to suit the occasion.

Bill hated to do more than one take of any number, and if he could get by with the first one he was happy. This seems to have been the case with Bill Harris Collates, where a notably unfussy Granz would have let Bill choose between any masters. If the tracks are all first takes then this is truly remarkable, and no doubt the arranger and pianist Ralph Burns would have acquiesced.

Key to this Bill Harris Herd was the man at the root of the greatness of the First Herd, Ralph Burns, whose all-embracing arranging talents shaded the fact that he was an inspired and driving improviser on piano. The position of Burns in the chart of piano greats needs adjusting. The nine tracks make up the classic showcase of the Harris style, and Bill didn’t waste the opportunity, Burns’s high-powered charts giving him a familiar platform. Over the next few years the 10-inch LP that held the tracks was to be found in the knapsack of every respectable trombonist and to this day it heads the list of outstanding trombone albums, containing all of Bill’s different moods, from the joyous Bill Not Phil via another exotic Bijou to the well-trodden melancholy of Gloomy Sunday.


But not available.

It’s regrettable that most of Bill’s recordings away from Woody Herman are no longer in the catalogue. A remarkable and magnificent exception is Avid AMSC 1069, a deceptively modest Granz album entitled Gene Krupa – Five Classic Albums Plus. It harbours a dozen tracks with Harris in a front line with Charlie Shavers and Ben Webster or Eddie Davis. Bill is at his pungent best with decent length on every title, most of the tunes serpentine creations of the very on-form Charlie Shavers. For a showman drummer, Krupa doesn’t put a foot or hand wrong, and leaves the stage to the horns and a typically tasteful Teddy Wilson.

Bill Harris Collates was most recently included in an extraordinary double CD called Bill Harris The Complete Fifties Sessions on Lonehill Jazz LHJ 10252, deleted with all the rest of the desirable Lonehill catalogue. If you can search out a second-hand copy you’ll be rewarded also with the four tracks of the Granz Jackson-Harris Herd (incorrect personnel given on this album – Charlie Mariano was Bill’s main partner) and Bill Harris and Friends.

The latter, from 1957 and pairing Bill with his long-term pal Ben Wester is still available on its own on Fantasy OJCCD-083 (you’ll find this and a couple of Bill’s live albums on Amazon). Here Bill gives Crazy Rhythm a serious poking and there are some beautiful ballad performances from everyone. Also there from the same year is the much-renamed group with Bill, Terry Gibbs and Lou Levy which gives Bill loads of room and ferments a good alliance between vibes and trombone.

If you dig around the JATP collections you can still find Bill’s long and exciting solos on Perdido/Mordido/Endido and one of the finest of his captured live performances, Ghost Of A Chance, where even his inspired solo is trumped by a sermon on the mount from Lester Young. There is a balance between overkill and inexpensive cost in the JATP set entitled Milestones Of Legend and available in individual volumes at Amazon.

Mention must be made of two of Bill’s very best big band appearances away from Woody – in fact they are better than a lot of his Herman appearances. Jazz Beat 512 includes two LPs from Argo on one CD by the Chubby Jackson Big Band, I’m Entitled To You and Chubby’s Back.

This features the very accomplished big band that Chubby led in Chicago, supercharged by Bill Harris and Don Lamond flying in to join them for a day’s recording. The event was repeated for the second album in November. Almost as indispensable is a double CD on Fresh Sounds FSR-CD 934 by the big band of a Bill Harris copyist called Billy Ver Planck. This was recorded in 1957-8, and Billy had the good sense to use Bill as the main soloist, with other solos from Phil Woods and Joe Wilder amongst others. Bill is on tremendous form for his features. Again, it’s vital to any Harris collection, and is still available. Good value at about £13.00.

There’s a collection of everything on Keynote that includes eight tracks featuring Harris on Fresh Sounds FSR-CD 815.

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

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