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Joe Harriott. Fire in his Soul

Alan Robertson.
Northway Publications
ISBN 978 0 955090888 5 7
250 pages. £20.00

Joe Harriott. Fire in his Soul - Alan Robertson

The first edition of this book sold out in May 2008. Author Alan Robertson reveals that after publication in 2003, numerous people contacted him to add details and provide a more detailed picture of the saxophonist. How pleasing to learn that a jazz biography has sold out, and that interest in Joe Harriott remains so strong.

Joe Harriott was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1928. He came to London in 1951, sitting in with local bands at every opportunity, not only with the bebop players of the time, but with New Orleans and blues bands as well. Americans visiting Britain - including Paul Gonsalves, Clark Terry and Thad Jones - wanted to play with Harriott when they were in town. Soon afterwards Harriott began to develop his radical musical ideas. Robertson remarks that as early as 1958 Harriott was thinking his way towards something revolutionary. Ellsworth ‘Shake’ Keane (whose love of literature led to his nickname) said that they ‘tried to unscrew the inscrutable’. They speculated on what would happen if you played jazz without chords. Ornette Coleman had yet to appear on the scene. Yet critic Benny Green was unable to understand how such an accomplished musician as Harriott could not perceive the difference between free form and no form at all. At the time, saxophonist Tubby Hayes was also vehemently opposed to free jazz.

Although the outstanding Keane left Britain for Germany, Robertson's view is that ‘with Harriott, self-doubt never had the air to breathe’. There was also no room for self-doubt in Harriott's attitude to drugs. He didn't like what had happened to Charlie Parker, his attitude being reinforced by close-hand experience of the effect of heroin on Phil Seamen and Tubby Hayes.

The Indo-Jazz Fusions, in which Harriott played a role, are dealt with in some detail. According to John Mayer, 'World Music began here. Robertson includes an account of an appearance at Ronnie Scott’s where sitarist Diwan Motihar was late to arrive. Scott's club announcement was in character: ‘Ladies and gentlemen we are sorry we are a few minutes late, but Diwan Motihar couldn't find a baby sitar.’

Shake Keane returned to St Vincent in 1972 to take up a government position as director of culture. By then, Harriott was scuffling for money. Disillusioned, he lost control over his drinking. Joe Harriott died in January 1973, at the age of forty-four.

Robertson's account of Harriott's life is thorough and moving, an important addition to the written history of jazz in Britain.

John Robert Brown

First reviewed in Jazz Journal, September 2011. Used by permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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