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Eddie Harris (1935-1996)

 B i o g r a p h y

"Throughout his career, Eddie Harris was a tireless experimenter, a one-of-a-kind, nonconformist, multi-instrumentalist."

Paul de Barros

Eddie Harris was born in Chicago in 1935. He studied piano at home and attended the famous Du Sable High School, under the direction of Capt. Walter Dyett, where he learned to play vibes. He made his professional debut as a pianist, with Gene Ammons. Harris first played in the bop style, but his interest in employing novel methods and reaching larger audiences made itself apparent soon after he finished military service in 1961. His first recording, the theme from the film Exodus, sold more than two million copies and marked the start of a highly prolific and stylistically diverse career. Until 1965 he played mainly conventional, acoustic music; among his recordings was Freedom Jazz Dance, which became a standard after it was recorded by Miles Davis.

In 1966 Harris adopted the electric tenor saxophone; this was a conventional instrument played through a signal processor, the Varitone. Thereafter he recorded on a variety of instruments which were modified by alterations to their structures and often played through amplifiers and signal processors. Harris played the trumpet and trombone fitted with reed mouthpieces, and saxophones fitted with brass mouthpieces. From the late 1960s he worked mostly as the leader of small groups, recording with many distinguished sidemen including Cedar Walton, Ron Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Tete Montoliu.

In 1969 he joined Les McCann's soul-jazz group, with which he gave an acclaimed performance at the Montreux International Jazz Festival. He made his most dramatic and controversial departure from the jazz tradition when he recorded the album Eddie Harris in the UK with the rock musicians Steve Winwood and Jeff Beck. Though in the mid-1970s Harris returned temporarily to a purer bop style, he contined to experiment with unusual instruments into the 1980s.

His work as a theme composer tended to err on the dull side, notably the background music for the Cosby Show. In the early 90s he returned to a more authentic jazz style, but still played on altered instruments. In his later years he produced some fine work with John Scofield and reunited with Les McCann, whom he worked with in the early 60s. In the latter half of his career, Harris incorporated vocals into his act, as well as stand-up comedy. His recorded output was huge, and uneven. He died in Los Angeles in 1996.

MARK GILBERT, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

 A l b u m s

Best of Eddie Harris (Atlantic Records, 1969)