Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Re: Tom Harrell/Tommy by Gene Lees and Phil Woods

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

"The [schizophrenia] disorder is such that Tommy's mind can deal with only one thing at a time, be it answering a question, playing a solo, or something as simple as pouring a glass of water.

Tom is perfectly aware of his own con­dition, and is quite droll about it. He is well read, gentle, highly perceptive. And he is held in enormous affection and respect by other musicians.

Phil's evaluation: 'Tom Harrell is the best musician I ever worked with.’

Tom's art remains a thing of beauty, his life an act of courage.”
- Gene Lees, Jazz author

Tommy’s  sense of melodic development is astounding — pure genius.
- Phil Woods, alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader


© -Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I must confess that I was reluctant to meet Tom Harrell. Yet he has emerged as so important a player that I felt he really belonged in the book of photos of jazz people that I am preparing with photographer John Reeves [Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz, 1992].

By now you have surely heard about Harrell. and I hope you have heard him. He is a spectacularly creative trumpeter, with a big tone — he can get low notes that in ensemble passages sound like trombone - wonderfully compositional thinking, and a fluent technique that is, however, always held in restraint and put to the service of a very lyrical style. Since leaving Phil Woods, he has been traveling in various ensembles, sometimes with the excellent Swiss-born alto saxophonist George Robert.

Harrell was born June 16, 1946. in Urbana, Illinois, which makes him forty-five. He grew up in San Francisco, and became known in jazz through his work with Woody Herman, Horace Silver, and Phil Woods, whom he joined in 1983.

But he became known almost as much for his behavior as for his playing. He had, I was told, a way of standing on the bandstand in an almost catatonic stillness, head hung forward, horn dangling from his hand. When it came time for him to solo, he would shuffle to the mike on small steps, burn the room down, and then retreat into that strange motionless silence. He suffered from some severe emotional disorder whose nature nobody seemed able to tell me. Had he been totally non-functional he would have been unremarkable. But this man is an amazingly fine jazz musician.

Furthermore, he is a witty, funny man. and the very strange­ness is manifest in his awareness of his own condition. And, I found, telling Tom Harrell stories is almost a cottage industry among musicians forty-five and under in New York. These stories are always told with affection and admiration. And always the narrators quote him in his stuttering low monotone, which of course I cannot commit to paper. I believe this story is true; nobody could have invented it.

Harrell played a trumpet clinic for Jamey Aebersol. After a brilliant performance, he cracked a note badly toward the end. Aebersol asked him why it had happened. Harrell said, in that slow low unsmiling way of his, ‘Lack of sleep. Lack of motivation. Lack of practice. And I’m an alcoholic.’

In order to photograph Harrell, I sought the intercession of two of his friends, the very capable arranger and saxophonist Bill Kirchner and trumpeter John McNeil, one of Harrell’s closest friends and an outstanding player himself: they have recorded together.

John and I met them at Harrell’s small apartment on the upper West Side. He met us graciously, dressed in a black shirt and black slacks. His face from time to time was contorted by some terrible emotional pain, the deep uncertainty that dogs him. The room was curtained and dimly lit. Glancing over his book-shelves. I noticed that Tom Harrell goes in for some very heavy reading.

I let McNeil do the talking. Harrell laughed at all the jokes, caught all the nuances of the conversation, seated on his haunches, back against the wall. He stayed in that position so long I thought his legs must hurt. I can't remember the context, but Kirchner said, "Did you ever get cut?"

"Well," Tom said, "only by other musicians."

John got our pictures, making the discovery that when Tom relaxes and his face goes into repose, its expression is almost angelic. And make no mistake about his intelligence. It is acute. When we left, I was perhaps even more baffled than when we arrived.

Nobody. I suppose, knows Tom Harrell better than Phil Woods. And so I present you with Phil's essay on Tom. Other than letters, this is Phil's first appearance in the Jazzletter. He promises me that it won't be the last.

Meantime, if you haven't heard Tom Harrell, you're in for a lovely discovery.”

TOMMY by Phil Woods

“It was Tom Harrell’s last gig with my quintet. After six years Tommy felt it was time to move on and form his own band.

We were on our way to the Edmonton Jazz Festival and then the Saskatoon Festival. Edmonton has always had one of the best events in the world. A very friendly town with music and educational events and exhibits all over the nice-sized city. The concert was us and Helen Merrill with the Mike Nock Trio, and the music was first class.

We retired right after the gig in order to make the 7 a.m. flight to Saskatoon, the only direct flight of the day. There were three bands on the flight, and it was a treat to see the Air Canada ground staff deal with the three full-sized basses.

Why do people find a man lugging a huge instrument around the world so amusing? Don't they realize he has dedicated himself to playing quarter notes for the rest of his life? His fingers will always resemble ground chuck and he is forced to stow the leviathan in a huge box called a coffin, for obvious reasons. This is not a person to be taken lightly.

Back when the airlines required you to buy a seat for a bass (only coffins are allowed nowadays), a woman traveler watching Red Mitchell wrestle his bass aboard a flight said to him, ‘I do hope when you finally get to where you are going, they are going to ask you to play!’

Once, when I had the European Rhythm Machine, we did what the Air France people told us to do: we locked the bass in one of the two lavatories on a Caravelle. A man in a white linen suit soiled himself while waiting for the facility to be vacated and left a trail as he squished back to his seat. Quel odor. Quel dummy.

A businessman in South America somewhere refused to sit next to the bass. Claimed it was dangerous. Sir, it's only dangerous on the bandstand and is one of the best seat mates ever devised. It neither smokes nor drinks and doesn't talk much and if you keep your cool you can wangle the meal that goes with the seat, two sets of slippers, and two travel kits.

Why, the bass is your oyster if you are in on the game!

I find the bass to be helpful when I'm a little down and need a laugh. I go to the boarding area before the other cats and groove to the reactions of our fellow travelers when they see Steve Gilmore and his full-size axe.

‘Why don't you get a piccolo?’ wins hands down as the most abused bass clichĂ©, closely followed by, ‘That won't fit under your seat, son.’ And ‘My, that sure is a big cello.’

So, considering the three basses on our flight to Saskatoon, everything went smoothly at check-in, and we were at the gate, boarding passes in hand with time to spare. We were looking forward to breakfast and more sleep after the short flight. As the three bands took coffee and chatted, we happened to look out a window and there goes Tommy, out for a walk five minutes to boarding time. And we watch as he disappears into the rolling hills surrounding the airport, his three cabin bags clutched firmly in hand.

I asked him at one point what he had in his cabin bag that made it weigh a ton. ‘The Real Book in every key.’ he responded quickly and clearly.

Steve Gilmore once got a peek inside the other two and said they were full of Dippety-Doo and other aerosol-dispensed notions, along with the largest pharmaceutical kit since Serge Chaloff. Hal Galper named Tommy ‘Dwayne’ in honor of Duane Reed, one of the biggest east-coast pharmacy chains.

Sure enough. Tommy missed the flight and spent the day inching his way to Saskatoon by way of Calgary. Vancouver, and Nova Scotia. The jazz folks in all the*e places responded to his problem and at all stops he was met and aided. He got to the hotel in Saskatoon just in time for one of our infrequent sound checks. He does it the hard way, but he always makes it. In six years with my band he did not miss a gig.

When Tommy first joined the band, people would invariably ask, ‘What's wrong with your trumpet player?’ I would try to be diplomatic and reply with a question myself, ‘What's wrong with your ears?’

Tommy is a disabled person. He was diagnosed as schizophre­nic in 1961 after the first of several nervous breakdowns. He has been taking stelazine, a powerful psychotropic drug, ever since. He has also suffered from a series of collapsed lung incidents and alcoholism. He no longer drinks.

Schizophrenia is a disorder characterized by loss of contact with one's environment, a deterioration in the ability to function in everyday life, and a disintegration of personality.

The medications that Tommy has to take to control the chemical imbalance that triggers this disorder have side effects that include muscular weakness and his lethargic appearance.

The disorder is such that Tommy's mind can deal with only one thing at a time, be it answering a question, playing a solo, or something as simple as pouring a glass of water.

When Tommy first joined my band and we would play the head, he would solo first. As he finished, and I was starting my solo, I could see all eyes following Tommy as he shuffled off to stage left. I felt like yelling, "Hey, it's my turn! Look at me! I'm playing my little sax!"

When we played a huge sports palace in Madrid, where bicycle races were a big draw, Tommy suggested we open with In a Velo Drome.

Somebody came up to Hal Galper and me at the bar before a gig and asked if Tommy had a speech problem. Without a rehearsal Galper and I replied, in unison, ‘W-w-w-well I-I-I-I d-d-d-don't th-th-th-think s-s-so.’

While doing a solo gig in Canada, Tommy was late to the opening night first set. He announced to the politely waiting crowd, ‘I'm sorry I'm late and I would like to apologize for my lack of charisma.’

This of course was a charismatic thing to do and he received a standing ovation.
Chet [Baker] loved Tommy. So do Dizzy, Clark Terry, Nat Adderley, and most of the older guys. And some of the younger trumpet players exhibit a bit of insecurity when Tommy’s name is mentioned.

I once said in a Down Beat profile on Tommy that he was the best improviser on his instrument I had ever heard. One trumpet player I loved called me on it. He said it wasn't about being the best. The hell it ain't. It's all very well for the O.K. players to prop each other up. I know. I'm an O.K. player but I ain't no Tommy Harrell, and if you can't tell the difference your ears are on crooked. His sense of melodic development is astounding — pure genius.

When he first joined the band, he told my wife he was sorry and didn't want to tarnish my reputation. He would come off the bandstand and start his weird stuff: ‘I’m not worthy to be in the band. Everybody hates me and my life is a joke. I have to talk to you about this. Phil!’

I finally blew up and told him the next time he was unworthy and had to quit, I wanted it in writing. I didn't want to hear any of this, especially after he had just got through carving my ass into hamburger helper.

While traveling through Holland by bus, Tommy bought what he thought was a bar of maple syrup candy. He bit into it with gusto to find out it was soap. He was foaming, and sick to his stomach, and we made an emergency stop. But we were hysterical with laughter and puns like ‘cleanest trumpet man in the biz.,’ ‘Lava back up to me,’ and other really funny mature stuff like that.

There was a trumpet summit in Scandinavia under Clark Terry's general direction. When Tommy arrived, Clark told him it had been decided that each of them should sing a number. He asked Tommy what tune he wanted to sing. Tommy said, ‘W-w-w-welL it'll have to be The Impossible Dream.' Clark is still telling the story.

Tommy said he was going to join Amnesiacs Anonymous as soon as he could remember where the meetings were.

When it came time for Tommy to make his move, he handed me a ratty piece of manuscript paper as he struggled down the aisle of a crowded 727 with his three bags of Dippety-Doo and stuff. It read:

To Whom it May Concern:
I have to quit the band.   I am sorry.
Tom Harrell

My new name for the next few weeks was Towhom Dubois.

We love and miss Tommy very much.

His new group and recordings are knocking everyone's socks off, as I knew they would.

Bravo Front Line!

- PW”

You can hear Tommy with Phil Woods' quintet on the following video:


  1. Thanks for this post! And thanks for tracking down the original Jazzletter!

  2. Outstanding work as usual. Thanks for these informative, entrertaining blogs.


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