Sources: Eddie's own bio sheet in his book, Astrology and Numerology Information for Musicians , as well as an online obit by Stephen K. Peeples at Rhino Records , an obit in Jet magazine of November 25th, 1996; an obit by Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune; an obit by Lloyd Sachs in the Chicago Sun-Times of November 6th, 1996; and on obit by Peter Watrous in the New York Times of November 9th, 1996.
Eddie Harris was born on October 20th, 1934 in Chicago, Illinois. He began his career as a singer in various Baptist churches around Chicago, and started appearing at these churches from the age of five. Eddie started playing the piano and began playing very well by ear. He was mainly playing just church songs at the time. A few years later, Eddie's cousin began teaching him how to read musical notation.
Eddie Harris went to John Farren Elementary School and to Burke Elementary. He went to Du Sable High School and Hyde Park High School. He continued his education at Illinois University Navy Pier, Roosevelt University and the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied classical saxophone.
Eddie first started playing the vibraphone while attending Du Sable High School, under the guidance of the formidable Capt. Walter Dyette, the music teacher who was mentor to many future jazz greats. "Chafing under the strict discipline of Capt. Dyette," (writes Lloyd Sachs) Eddie transferred to Hyde Park High School.
Eddie turned down an athletic scholarship to study music at Roosevelt College, where he met jazz promoter Joe Segal, who hired him to sit in with such immortals as Charlie Parker and Lester Young.
Eddie was drafted into the Army, at which time they put him into electronics. He later joined an Airborne unit and soon became disgusted with seeing many of the soldiers being injured, so he auditioned for, and made, the talent-laden 7th Army Jazz Band, which performed and toured extensively.
After leaving the Army, Eddie lived in New York, where he worked all the time, from pit bands to jazz bands, to small combos and playing piano in the late afternoon at a dance studio. Due to an illness in the family, Eddie returned to Chicago in 1960. He married Sarah Elizabeth Turner, and they had two daughters, Lolita Maria and Yvonne Marie.
Eddie was signed as a pianist by Vee-Jay Records, but he got to play tenor on his own arrangement of the theme from the movie "Exodus." The album was called Exodus to Jazz , and the single cut Exodus was released as a 45 RPM. It was the first jazz record to score a "Gold Record" certification, and made the Billboard Top 40 as a pop single. The record sold more than 2 million copies -- unheard of from a jazz artiste at that time. "Wounded by accusations of selling out, Eddie didn't perform 'Exodus' for years," writes Lloyd Sachs. After two years, Eddie left Vee-Jay Records and began recording for Columbia. In 1965 he released an album called The In Sound which included the song Freedom Jazz Dance, which has been recorded by many other artistes including Miles Davis. In 1967, his album The Electrifying Eddie Harris featured the song Listen Here which also became a hit. In June 1969, Eddie recorded an album at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Les McCann's group, which included Leroy Vinnegar on bass. It was called Swiss Movement , went to #29 on the Billboard pop album chart, and included the song Compared To What.
Eddie's December 1969 album Free Speech is "considered by many jazz aficionados as one of the first, if not THE first, jazz fusion album," writes Stephen K. Peeples. "He further demonstrated his willingness to stretch the boundaries of jazz" (writes Peter Watrous) when he recorded Eddie Harris in the U.K. which included rock musicians Stevie Winwood and Jeff Beck.
From 1969 to 1971, Eddie also wrote the music for "The Bill Cosby Show." He also invented several unique hybrid instruments, such as the "saxobone," which was essentially a tenor fitted with a trombone mouthpiece. He also frequently sang and worked comedy routines into his performances. Eddie even released a comedy album called Why Does This Always Happen To Me? and another one called The Reason Why I'm Talking Shit . Good luck trying to find a copy!
Here's how Eddie Harris got an album on Flying Heart: Around 1993, I got a form letter in the mail, addressed to "Ms. Jan Phelps," which is aparently how I'm listed in some directory, saying in effect: "World famous jazz great Eddie Harris is available to record a project, are you interested?" I wrote back saying in effect: "Hell, yeah." Then a couple of meetings took place here in Portland. Eddie came with his daughter, Lolita. Our negotiations were honest and straightforward. When I made my first offer, he got up and left the table, I was like, "wait, jeez, dude, let's talk." We totally reached a deal. He would give me an all-new album of jazz -- not funk or electronic or anything else. Jazz it was, that was what I wanted. He said, "Jazz is dead, you know" with a knowing smile; I smiled, too. Thereupon he mailed me the charts to ten new songs, I handed them out to the players. Eddie knew each of the players already from beforehand or by reputation, so we were in agreement as to the line-up. I did kind of have to go to bat for Janice Scroggins, we settled on her doing about half the piano tracks and Peter Boe doing the other half. There was a rehearsal at the Jazz Club, for which Eddie flew up from L.A. - then we got right to work at the studio, which was Musicon in Wilsonville, with Drew Canulette engineering. Nailed it in two sessions. Went for that "Atlantic Records in the 1950s" sound.
For me personally, this was a chance to work closely and personally with an undisputed great. He made a big impression on me. I got to drive him from his hotel in Portland to the studio in Wilsonville, back and forth several times, and so we had a series of totally private conversations in the car, just him and me. One morning when I came to pick him up, he was practising his long notes and octaves in his hotel room. Here's a major master of the instrument in top form, and he practices his long notes like a middle school student! Aha -- never say good-bye to the fundamentals. Down in the lobby, he addressed the receptionist by name, telling her he remembered her from a previous visit, and that although he "never did learn to read so good," he could never forget a face. The man has three different degrees in Music, and tells someone he can barely read, and she believes it at face value! I asked him about that in the car, he smiled and said, "You caught that." Cracked me up. Plus, the man thanked me for not trying to jive talk and pretend I was super-hip. I appreciated that. He also had some very astute remarks concerning the factors that separate Los Angeles jazz musicians from Portland jazz musicians, even as we were doing a project with the finest of Oregon's talent pool: Thara Memory on trumpet, Phil Baker on bass, Ron Steen on drums, Peter Boe and/or Janice Scroggins on piano.
Eddie was a tireless performer, composer and innovator. He published numerous books of interest to jazz students and musicians, including The Eddie Harris Fake Book; Jazz Licks; Skips; Fusionary Jazz Duets and several others. He recorded albums on numerous labels large and small, including MCA, Virgin, Blue Note, Atlantic, Flying Heart, Moonwalker, Enja, Steeplechase, RCA and more. He continued to practice daily and placed great value on it. He held musicians to a rigorous standard, and continued performing until he was disabled by disease. In his obit in the Chicago Tribune, Howard Reich writes:
"Though medical treatments in the last year left him thin and weak, Harris played a weeklong engagement in May (1996) at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. Short on wind and barely able to stand, he nevertheless summoned the strength to produce an extremely moving performance. What he had lost in technical facility he counterbalanced with the urgency and melodic appeal of his work."
Eddie Harris died on November 5th, 1996 at USC/University Hospital in Los Angeles, California. He was 62.
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Last updated February 16th, 2009 by Jan Chciuk-Celt