Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tom Harrell Part 1 - The Interviews

© - Steven A. Cerra, introduction copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Tom Harrell has been called the John Forbes Nash, Jr. of Jazz. Against considerable odds, Harrell has successfully struggled with schizophrenia and become one of the most respected trumpeters and composers of the past 30 years.”

“I like to think of my music as a play of colors over a rhythm” he has said: “it’s like inviting the listeners to visit an art gallery to view an exhibition of various paintings. We express our feelings through timbres and colors within our world of sense, so as to then transcend them and enter the spiritual dimension”.
-Tom Harrell in a press release interview with Francesco Martinelli for the forthcoming 2009 BargaJazz Festival, located in Italy’s Apuan Alps [Tuscany].

One of the reasons why the JazzProfiles editorial staff frequently sources Richard Cook and Brian Morton’sThe Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD is that every once in a while these guys nail it. To wit:

“Anyone who has seen Tom Harrell perform … will understand the transformative power of music. When not playing, he stands slumped and bowed, stock-still in what looks like mute agony. When it comes time to take a solo, it is as if an electric charge has passed through him. Harrell is one of the finest harmonic improvisers in Jazz today, a player with a fierce tone who is also capable of playing the most delicate ballad with almost unbearable feeling. [6th Ed.; p. 666, emphasis mine].

One night in the Spring of 2001, I experienced first-hand Tom Harrell’s powerful sensitivity when soloing on ballads. The venue was the new Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland, California’s Jack London Square.

The occasion was a visit to the club to hear Hammond B-3 organist Joey De Francesco who had augmented his then, standing trio of Paul Bollenback [g] and Byron “Wookie” Landham [d] by bringing in Teddy Edwards on tenor saxophone and Tom on trumpet and flugelhorn.

The ballad in question was I Can’t Get Started and I almost winced when Joey called the tune as a feature for Tom as it had become so de rigueur as a part of every Jazz trumpeter’s repertoire that I usually passed over it in recorded version so as not to be burdened by another boring rendition of it.

Ever since trumpeter Bunny Berigan had made this tune a popular hit in the 1930’s it had become the acid test for all trumpet players in much the same way that Coleman Hawkins’ iconic interpretation of the ballad Body and Soul became the ultimate test for all Jazz tenor saxophonists.

But when Tom had finished three improvised choruses on I Can’t Get Started that beautiful spring night at Yoshi’s and wrapped his arms around his horn, and then his body before slumping into a trance at the corner of the stage, you could have heard a pin drop. When the solo finished, what everyone did hear was the collective exhale of all of us in the audience as a measure of relief from the stunned amazement of what we had just experienced.

In a “former life,” I had three years of personal experience working with adult, paranoid schizophrenic patients and their parents in what was then described as an alternative-to-hospitalization setting based around a milieu therapy treatment program.

In non-clinical terms this meant that we were treating these patients in a more open environment, with less reliance on powerful psychotropic drugs while trying to understand the benefit of social interaction in helping these seriously impaired individuals achieve some degree of stability in their condition.

In many ways, it was the most exhausting three years of my life as the work was always 24/7, the “highs” were gratifying, but they were usually offset by excruciatingly and very disappointing “lows,” and, of course, none of these patients ever got better.

With this as a personal background to measure Tom’s achievement against, what he has accomplished given the demands of performing Jazz at the highest levels is a triumph of simply staggering proportions.

Is it any wonder, then, how often fellow musicians and audiences are always deeply touched by Tom’s playing? Perhaps they both intuitively sense the struggle that Tom has had to undergo and endure to bring to them the beauty, passion and fire in his music.

In order to delve further into the phenomena that is both Tom and what makes he and his music so unique, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has compiled the following, three interviews in an effort to explore how he creates his art in his own words.

The first of these was conducted by Charlie Rose and broadcast on August 20, 2003 during CBS television’s 60 minutes segment entitled A Beautiful Note.

We will then move forward to the editorial staff’s transcription of Josh Jackson’s WBGO Village Vanguard interview with Tom Harrell which took place on April 8, 2008, while Tom’s band was appearing at the club, and then conclude by taking a step backward with Like Night and Day, an article about Tom by Jonathan Eig that appeared in Esquire, December 1998 which is based in part on an interview that took place earlier that year.

While chronologically out of order, this sequence for the interviews and the article may provide a more coherent and comprehensive discussion of Tom’s approach to music.

Let’s begin with Charlie Rose’s 2003 interview with Tom.

© Charlie Rose/CBS copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Tom Harrell, named jazz trumpeter of the year three times by Downbeat Magazine, is known for the gorgeous, intricate melodies he composes.

Seeing Harrell play, it's impossible to believe that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia - a mental illness so profound that it institutionalizes many of its victims.

Harrell overcomes it with music. Yet the moment he stops playing, his disorder seizes him. Voices materialize and threaten his sense of reality.

But while Harrell appears in full retreat from the world, the music prevents him from losing his place. And when horn returns to mouth, the voices vanish. It’s the only time you don’t see the signs of his illness. Correspondent Charlie Rose reports.

Take him away from the creative process and Harrell’s behavior changes radically.
In fact, the schizophrenia makes something as ordinary as having our soundman put a microphone on him an ordeal. But soon, the moment passes.

“As long as I take the medicine now, I can stay on an even keel, and then I'm able to function,” says Harrell, who communicates musically, not verbally - which is all his band members need to follow him during performances.

Still, they have all borne witness to his paranoia.

“I think we see it all the time. He doesn't announce it, say, ‘I'm sitting, I'm hearing voices,’ you know. They'll be sudden changes for no apparent reason,” says pianist Xavier Davis.

“But maybe someone mentioned someone or whispered something just out of earshot, and he heard that as something like, ‘Tom, get off the stage. You suck.’ You know, like just something that was never said. And so, maybe he’ll just take a short solo because he thinks people don’t want to hear him play.”

But Harrell wasn't always like this, says his older sister, Sue Abrahamson.

“He was good-spirited, creative,” says Abrahamson. “He had friends that he would do things with and hang out with. And seemed pretty normal.”

Normal, but with a genius IQ, Harrell starting playing the trumpet at the age of eight. When he went off to college at 18, his sister received a call that he had tried to commit suicide.

“That was the first sign that there were problems,” says Abrahamson.How could a seemingly normal little boy with a normal childhood travel from happiness to despair so suddenly?“

"We don't know what causes the illness,” says Dr. Eric Marcus, a New York psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He’s familiar with Harrell's history and is an expert on schizophrenia.

"A paranoid schizophrenic is someone with schizophrenia whose major manifestation of illness is the hallucinated voice and/or belief that people are out to get him - that they are targeting him in some way,” says Marcus.

When Harrell was in his 20s, those voices ordered him to walk through a window after he had some orange juice.

I come in and I see blood all over the rug, and I say, ‘What happened,?’ And he said that when he drank the orange juice, the voices told him to go out the window,” recalls Abrahamson. “And so he had to break the window to get out. So that's how he got cut.”

The glass shattered, but it kept him inside.

Harrell's days are spent practicing and composing. He writes his scores by hand. The notes are neat, logical, orderly - not what you'd expect from someone locked in the vise of schizophrenia.

Because of his disorder, Harrell is tough to interview. But when the topic is music, he takes complexity in stride.

That's beautiful, how you can see the visual art. I mean it's great when the different art forms can influence each other. The visual arts and now the musical arts,” says Harrell, on the crossover between impressionist painting and jazz.

But when the talk turns to Harrell's illness, he becomes uneasy. He takes three medications that stave off depression, reduce panic attacks, and sedate him. Without them, he turns psychotic. Even with them, performing is an act of will.

“If I take the medicine, then the voices … I don't hear anything,” he says.

And if he doesn't take the medicine?

I don't know. It's just better if I do,” he says.

Marcus says it’s astounding that Harrell is able to reach the level of creativity he reaches as a musician.

Astounding, number one. Number two, heroic - in its most true form,” says Marcus. “He has to face demons that you and I can only imagine.”

But it's not only music that holds Harrell together. It's Angela Harrell, his wife of 11 years. Angela was researching a documentary for Japanese television on creativity and the brain, which led her to tape an interview with Tom.

“He started to talk. And then he said, ‘I better go back and practice,’ and ‘That tape is making me very nervous,’" recalls Angela. “He asked me to stop the tape. And then he started to get all flustered. And he said, ‘I don't belong in the music business. I better quit. I don't have the personality to be in the music business.’”

But from this unpromising beginning came marriage.

“I think I was drawn to him immediately,” says Angela. “He was intriguing. He was mysterious. And it was sort of like unfolding, you know, petal by petal. I wanted to know this person. But the more I knew about him, the more I got to like him … This purity of spirit. He's a beautiful person. There's nothing not to like about the guy.”

Although their devotion is mutual, getting pictures of them together is hit or miss. Tom wouldn't take a walk with Angela because, he said, somebody might see him.

Was there ever a moment during their courtship when Angela asked herself, “Wait a minute, what am I doing here?”

“I didn't have these thoughts until some of the problems occurred, some of the crises that we've experienced,” admits Angela.

Those crises included sudden disappearances, rapidly changing mood swings, a suicide attempt, and a toxic reaction to a medication that almost killed Harrell.

“Those are times when I've asked myself some of those questions,” says Angela. “But never, ‘What am I doing?’ But always, ‘What can we do, and is there hope?’"
She’s says that she’s always come to the conclusion that you can’t give up. "You just have to keep trying,” she says.

Trying is one thing, but succeeding is another. How to explain the mysterious explosion that blasts through Harrell's illness and transports him to the highest level of his art?

A clue may come from Harrell himself: "I don't know whether I'm playing the music or whether the music is playing me."

Harrell's latest CD will be released this September.

Josh Jackson’s WBGO Village Vanguard interview with Tom Harrell 4.8.2008

© - Steven A. Cerra, transcription is copyright protected; all rights reserved.

John Jackson [WBGO Announcer]: “Tom Harrell, thank you for being a part of our Live at the Village Vanguard Concert Series. It’s a real pleasure. I’m amazed Tom at hearing your music, you’re most recent recording has come out in January [2008], and it’s another recording that’s all Tom Harrell compositions, it’s the quintet that will feature here at the Village Vanguard; it’s the second record that you’ve done with this group in particular, and I just wonder how is it that you are able to churn this music out so consistently and so beautifully?”

Tom Harrell: “I try to keep it up everyday. It’s like anything else, you can achieve a flow if you do it all the time , so it’s like a door that opens everyday that I can turn to for inspiration of the music.”

WBGO: Tom, we should inform our radio listeners who may not be accustomed to hearing you speak that you have been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and you’ve been living with this condition now for nearly four decades. Is that correct?

TOM: Well, yeah, I guess I do have it; the scary part is there are times when it’s difficult to see reality as I have tenuous reality contact. It is a chemical imbalance so I take medicine for it. But the medicine works so I don’t have the extreme fear that I would have from the condition. In a way, it sort of forces me to be by myself because I don’t always know how to approach social situations. Society keeps changing very rapidly and modes of communication are changing, too. So it seems like I’m not always able to fit into social groups, but playing the trumpet itself kind of forces you into solitude in a sense because being an artist imposes a certain amount of solitude on the artist. Although music is probably the most social … [of the arts]. I was going to go into graphic arts but I was frighten by the solitude that was going to impose on me. But then I realized later that this was also the case with music as well, especially if you spend a lot of time composing. … But Ibsen does say that art is a “Garden of Solitude.”

WBGO: And in some sense, the artistic process, as you say, is a lonely one sometimes. It can be a lonely one in terms of being by yourself, but you are not necessarily alone. There’s a difference there, isn’t there?

TOM: Well yes, because you are always aware that you can bring it to other people and that you are doing something with the ultimate goal of sharing it with people so as I think of Buddha sometimes they said that he went into the mountains to meditate and found this beautiful thing within himself. He wanted to share what he found with other people. So musical composition is like doing that too. I think that ultimately it becomes like a religious experience because those idea that you have when you are by yourself come from somewhere beyond yourself that you want to share with others. Sometimes I hear something in my mind and I want to write it down and as I do this I become more and more inspired.

There are moments when you improvising, too, and you become aware of a sensation that Lester Bowie [Chicago Art Ensemble] once described as: “I play the trumpet, but sometimes the trumpet plays me.” Sometimes when I am playing the trumpet I get this magical feeling that the notes are coming from somewhere else. Sometimes when I’m playing, I might aim for something and then something else comes out. It shows the subconscious at work. Too me, I relate psychiatry and psychology to religion, in the sense that the subconscious is a way for God to speak to us, because it is our Life force. Our entire mind is a Life force and in a sense each person is like a universe. But we have what came before from our ancestors which includes all creation: everything from the beginning of the Universe to what we’ve experienced since we were born. Sometimes what we’ve experienced from out environment I have to fight with in order to be creative. Like the Bhagavad-Gita, in a literal sense is built around a battle between two armies, but it is also sometimes thought of as a symbolic representation of the battle that occurs in one’s mind between good and evil. So I am aware that I have an inner battle, but that’s part of shedding some of the negative aspects of your conditioning and try to be positive in your creativity.

WBGO: I’d like to talk about the process. Right now, Tom Harrell, you and I are sitting in a room in your apartment and there’s keyboards, piano, a drum set; what’s a day-in-the-life of you sitting down and writing music?

TOM: Right now [said laughingly], it’s mostly about playing music. Sometimes I have to sacrifice a certain amount of writing and piano playing to practicing the trumpet because it is such a difficult instrument. So I try to practice as much as I can, at least four hours a day, or even more.

If ideas come to me while I’m practicing, I’ll try to write them down, even if it’s only a fragment, but if I’m really working on getting my technique together right before a concert or a series of concerts, I might not even write down everything I hear. The trumpet basically comes first because I’m known mainly as a trumpet player. So I usually spend more time writing when I have long stretches between concerts. I get into a two-day cycle when I stay up all night and sleep in the next day. It takes away from my trumpet chops, but during these long breaks, I do try to write everyday. I have note books that I keep everything from fragments to ideas in.

WBGO: When you write for this quintet, do you write like Duke Ellington would write; do you write the part for that person?

TOM: Yes, I write for each individual. I try to find things that will make them excited. What makes it worthwhile for me is when the music comes alive while we are performing. That’s one of the beautiful things about Duke Ellington was that he wrote for each individual. That’s my basic motivation is to make people happy.

WBGO: That’s Prana. What is Prana?

TOM: It’s a Life Force. Its what keeps our lives basically moving. It’s part of Yoga breathing and I use it as a way to calm myself.

WBGO: I can imagine that for someone seeing you perform for the very first time, there could be a massive misunderstanding if they didn’t know something abput you before they came to the show. Because you seem to be completely engaged when the trumpet is in your mouth, and then when your solo is gone, you sort of move off to the side of the stage and are not making any kind of eye contact with any of the audience or the band members. Do you think that it is a massive mis-characterization to say that you are not engaged at that point?

TOM: I try to keep the engagement when I am playing, but when I’m not playing it is important, too. I mean that’s the whole reason for living. Long ago, I was introduced to the idea of keeping a groove going along with everything else in life that you are trying to do. I’m still trying to apply that idea. Someone once said: even when you are not practicing, you are practicing. While you are going for a walk you are learning about life; or reading a book – same thing. You can learn something everyday that could apply to your life whether it is musical or non-musical. As a musician, I tend to see everything in terms of music. But everything is related to cosmology and related to it.

WBGO: Tom, thanks for joining us.

TOM: Thank you; nice talking to you.

WBGO: We are looking forward now to hearing you and the quintet at The Village Vanguard.

“We have been criticized for pointing out that he has battled psychiatric illness for many years. It does not define him, either personally or creatively, but schizophrenia has been a shaping influence for much of his adult life. Schizophrenics never make any bones about it, and Harrell has even been known to joke about his condition, once commenting as he entered a hotel suite that there was a room for each of his personalities.” Richard Cook & Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD [Loc. cit.].
As the years have moved along in Tom’s career, what was once quietly acknowledge and accepted among the community of musicians in which he performed, became a disclosed condition to the public in general through television interviews like the one with Charlie Rose on CBS’ 60 minutes and magazine articles such as the following one entitled Like Night and Day by Jonathan Eig which appeared in Esquire, December 1998.

© copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“TOM HARRELL, dressed all in black, stands in a dark corner of a crowded Chicago nightclub. Sometimes he prefers a closet, but tonight the corner will do. He's clearing the voices from his head, trying to stay cool. Don't worry, he tells himself over and over, be positive...believe in yourself...count your blessings....The banalities don't stick, but they help push aside the voices a bit, and now he is ready to go to work.

Harrell shuffles out of the darkness and onto the stage, where the four members of his band wait, and he begins shaking. His eyebrows twitch. His lips smack. He stares at the ground, trying hard not to make eye contact with his audience. He doesn't want to give the voices or the hallucinations a chance to pop back into his head. "I apologize for my lack of charisma," he once told a club full of people. As he raises his trumpet, the golden spotlight strikes stars on the horn's bell. Even as he puts the cold mouthpiece to his lips, his twitching never quite stops. He takes a deep breath, and for one frozen moment, all is quiet. Tranquility hangs on an unplayed note.

The trumpeter begins to blow, playing silky ribbons of sixteenth notes that rise and fall. Behind him, the band beats a latin-jazz rhythm. Then he tosses in a handful of slower, cloudier notes that curl and fade away.

Harrell is one of the finest jazz trumpeters in the world. He is also schizophrenic. Backstage after the set, he is impossible to talk to. He sits alone on a ragged sofa in a small dressing room. His wife, Angela, ushers me into the room and makes the introduction. I try small talk, but he is unable to speak. His head shakes, and his lips move as if he's trying to release trapped words.

"Jonathan plays the trumpet," Angela tells her husband, trying to break the ice.

I tell him that I would like to interview him at his home in New York.

He tries again to form sounds. Nothing. Fifteen seconds of silence pass, and I am tempted several times to fill the empty space with babble.

"Bring your trumpet," he finally says.

I arrive on a hot Friday afternoon in August, trumpet case slung over my shoulder. Harrell lives in Washington Heights, and his apartment has a gorgeous view of the George Washington Bridge, the Hudson River, and the Palisades. But on the day of my visit, as on most days, the curtains are drawn. The place smells of grilled steak, which Harrell eats, entirely without seasoning, at least once a day. He puts away his dishes and walks slowly out of the kitchen to shake my hand and lead me to a chair. Most of the walls are lined with dark wooden cabinets that hold Harrell's music. Each drawer contains the score for a different composition, and by a quick count, there are at least two hundred drawers.

After saying hello, Harrell vanishes for fifteen minutes, then suddenly joins me at a darkwood dining room table. He appears much as he did in the club: nervous, shaky, and reluctant or unable to communicate. He is dressed all in black, same as always, and he is even taller than I remembered. His shaggy hair and beard have begun turning gray. His lips are purple and moist, like thin slices of raw sirloin, and his pale-blue eyes match almost perfectly the clear sky beyond his curtained windows.

Even though there are no buildings within sight of the apartment, Harrell sometimes believes he is being watched. At other times, he believes his home has been bugged. Quite often, he hears voices. Tom Harrell did this to somebody. Tom Harrell did that to somebody, they say, and those voices sometimes hurl him deep into a ravine of guilt and depression. When the voices speak, or when visual hallucinations beset him, his shaking worsens. Angela advises me not to use a tape recorder during the interview and to be prepared to come back another day if he doesn't want to talk.

Tom Harrell was born in 1946 in Urbana, Illinois, and grew up in Los Altos, California. His father taught business psychology at Stanford, and his mother worked as a statistician. Tom topped his father's IQ of 146, and he early on showed extraordinary talent in music and art. By the time he was eight, he was writing and illustrating his own children's books, which revealed the work of a precocious, original mind. In one book, young Tom told the story of a little boy who goes to a doctor for treatment of a mosquito bite and gets diagnosed with 'scissor-birds, dog-turtles' and other animal hybrids that he invented.

It was his father's constant whistling and his impressive jazz record collection that inspired Tom to begin playing the trumpet. By the time he turned thirteen, he was jamming with professional bands around the Bay Area. When he was seventeen, he went off to Stanford, and it was at about that time that his parents and sister began to notice that the buoyancy was draining from his personality. He became surly and aloof, a social misfit, and, at one very low point, he tried to kill himself.

When he was in his early twenties, Harrell was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, which combines the paranoia of schizophrenia with the wild mood swings of manic depression, and he was given drugs to help control the condition. The medication slowed his speech, gave him headaches, and robbed him of sleep, but he was able to carry on as a professional musician, working his way from band to band.

Only in the world of jazz, where abnormal behavior has always been the tradition, could Harrell fit so nicely. After all, Charles Mingus spent time in the mental ward at Bellevue, Bud Powell did his own tour of psychiatric hospitals, the great Sun Ra thought he came from another planet, and Thelonious Monk probably did.

Harrell has recorded a dozen albums for small record companies. But in the past two years, since he signed a contract with the RCA Victor label, he's begun to gain recognition outside the hardcore group of fans who had previously followed his work. The readers of Down Beat recently voted him the world's best trumpet player. With his major-label releases, most recently The Art of Rhythm, even the mainstream press has begun to take note.

"Pure melodic genius," declared one discerning newsmagazine.

And the melodies are the genius's own. Harrell prefers his original compositions to standards, He warns listeners to work as they listen, to attempt to understand the feelings behind his songs.

The musicians who have worked with Harrell report some odd moments as well as magical ones. In an airport, if the hustle and bustle become too much for him, he might wander off to a quiet spot in a parking garage and blow his trumpet until the noises in his head hush. Sometimes he will hear a chord in the hum of the refrigerator or the engine of a passing jet and work the rest of the day writing a composition based on what he has heard. Once, on a cab ride in Los Angeles with bandmate Gregory Tardy, Harrell began weeping uncontrollably because he was struck by the beauty of a tune on the cabbies radio. Tardy can't remember the song, but he says it was some Top Forty pop number he had heard a hundred times and never paid attention to before.

Angela travels with Harrell and helps keep him from getting distracted. His need for intense periods of quiet concentration guides almost every moment of his life. When he has a gig, he won't leave his apartment or his hotel room until it is time to play. He sends Angela to do the sound check and bring him food. Harrell says he feels awfully alone at times. He sometimes thinks life would be easier if he were to work full-time as a composer and arranger, because he wouldn't have to face the pressures of travel and three-set-a-night gigs. But Angela and his band-mates account for almost all the human companionship he's got, and he can't stand the thought of being isolated.

Once, a few years ago, after his medicine caused a toxic reaction and nearly killed him, Harrell stopped taking it. The results were fascinating and frightening. His moods changed more quickly and furiously than ever, from happy to sad, confident to insecure. His posture improved, his tremors vanished, and he became something close to affable. He would buy bags of groceries and leave them in front of his neighbors' doors as anonymous gifts. On the bandstand, when his turn came to solo, he would stun his audiences by scat singing in falsetto. His emergent personality was wonderful, and it was terrifying. He would go for five-hour walks in the middle of the night, and he would frequently leave all the taps in the apartment running, in tribute, he said, to the Water God.

Harrell never quite looks me in the eye. He stares at his lap, hops quickly from one thought to the next, and raises his eyelids only briefly. At one point, he says he doesn't think he should go on speaking to me, because he feels tremendous guilt for not having been born black. Jazz is black music, he says, and it seems unfair for a white man to be celebrated for his work. He can't separate himself from these thoughts, and all my attempts to change the subject are in vain. He begins to cry, and he lets the tears roll into his beard. He excuses himself, and twenty minutes later he returns with a tall glass of milk and acts as if nothing had happened. He glances at my trumpet case and a book of music paper I have with me. "Do you compose?" he asks.

"No," I say. "But my teacher wants me to write a new melody based on the chords to 'Night and Day.' "

He looks at my weak attempt.

"Oh, this is really nice," he says. His voice is high and pinched in the throat, and my mind scrambles from one television cartoon character to another, trying to place it. "You have some nice ideas here,"

He is incapable of criticizing, except when it applies to himself, but we are off and running, at least, talking about flat nines and flat flat nines and some other nines I pretend to understand. He is most comfortable on the subject of music, about the lovely way Louis Armstrong used scat singing to show that words were not needed to communicate feelings, about how Miles Davis played many of the same rhythms as Armstrong yet cast them in darker colors, and about Charlie Parker's belief that great music is born when musicians forget their long hours of study at the moment of creation.

"You merge with the infinite and transcend your ego," he says, describing how it feels to play. He takes a long, shaky pause. "Sometimes it seems to flow without any conscious effort."

All music has the human cry at its base, he says, and even the saddest songs can lead people out of the darkness of depression. "I think the more emotion you experience, the more you can bring to the music," he says. "Some people say you don't have to suffer to play music...." He takes another long pause. "I don't know, but, umm..." His eyebrows begin leaping wildly, his mouth moves in silence, and his head shakes side to side so much I begin to think he's stable now and the whole room is moving behind him. "That's a really difficult question. You don't want to be self-destructive. At the same time, sadness is a part of everyone's life, and music can express the sadness people are feeling and bring them together. You shouldn't hide from your feelings.

"Sometimes, I guess when I get paranoid, it can make me distracted," he continues. "But sometimes, if I feel really depressed, it can give me humility, which makes it sometimes easier to concentrate, which makes it easier to transcend my ego. I may be drawn to worrying because it's a form of excitement."
When Harrell runs out of words, he takes me into his music studio, a sound-proof extra bedroom with double-paned windows and closed curtains. There are dozens of tubes of lip balm and hundreds of sheets of handwritten music scattered about. He sits at his keyboard and stares at a work in progress for trumpet and strings.

"Play it," Angela gently requests.

The opening chords are very sad. The music moves slowly, by half steps and subtle shades. The key signature is in a constant state of flux, like a chameleon moving from plant to wall, sunlight to shade. Harrell's spine curls into a question mark. He stares straight ahead at the lightly penciled notes, concentrating intensely as his milk-white fingers move slowly over the keys. I hear dark holes without bottom and chaos brought barely under the control of the composer's hand. This is the source of the strength in Harrell's music. He shows us the darkness and confusion, and he makes beauty from it.

Harrell is at peace now. When he finishes, he looks at me and holds his gaze.

"That was so sad," I say.

He smiles, for the first time.

"Thanks," he says. He takes a long pause. The twitching has almost vanished.

"Wanna do 'Night and Day'?" he asks.”

To be continued in Tom Harrell Part 2 – A Retrospective and The Recordings


  1. I love your blogg. I need advice; I'm working on the skill building of my company, with schizophrenics and bipolars. Some of our clients are very interested in music.I would like to know who Do I need to contact to ask for some donation of some musical instruments,like saxophone and drums?They were very excited,but the problem no money to buy it.


  2. This is amazing. Thank you so much for posting.

  3. People HAVE schizophrenia, bipolar, etc. They ARE NOT schizophrenics, bipolars, etc. People are complex creations--they are NOT solely defined by their diagnosis. Tom Harrell is an excellent case in point. Let's use person-first language please--it's one small step in dismantling the stigma against those of us who live with a mental health diagnosis.

  4. This interview is fantastic. I've seen Mr Harrell play a few times and have several of his recordings. I have family members and friends who struggle with various forms of mental illness. Mr Harrell serves as an inspiration for all of us. Thank you for this posting and keep practicing!


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