WUSF All Night Jazz Focus Artist of the Week: Eddie Harris

Photo: eddieharris.com

This week on All Night Jazz we’ll also focus on the inventive tenor saxophonist, Eddie Harris. Born on October 20, 1934, in Chicago, IL, Harris, like many other jazz artists, started in the church singing in the choir. Harris was exposed to reed instruments in grade school and later performed in the U.S. Army Band and Symphony while in Germany.

Harris worked briefly in New York before returning to his home in Chicago where he signed with Vee Jay Records. His first recording for them, a 45 RPM single, was the “Theme From Exodus,” which sold in the millions and launched Eddie’s career. It was the first jazz record to be certified “gold.”

Harris often returned to movie themes, such as “The Shadow of Your Smile,” but it was really his innovations on the saxophone that led to further fame. Among his inventions were the reed trumpet, a trumpet played with a sax mouthpiece, the saxobone, a similar contrivance only with a trombone, but most notably the Varitone mouthpiece which allowed his saxophone to become electric and amplified. His funk tune “Listen Here” made good use of the mouthpiece, making the top 20 on the Billboard chart and garnering him the nickname of  “The Electrifying Eddie Harris.”

In 1969 Harris teamed with keyboardist Les McCann at the then fledgling Montreux Jazz Festival for what became the iconic “Swiss Movement” recording, containing yet another two jazz hits, “Cold Duck Time” and “Compared to What.” The recording was one of the best-selling jazz recordings of the era, received a Grammy nomination, also achieved “gold” status and helped establish the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Towards the end of his career, Harris said he wanted to play more saxophone, but claimed that would mean playing more funk songs, so instead, he opted to go back to his church roots and begin singing again and also dabbled in comedy. Critics and fans were not accommodating. Harris then returned to the hard bop scene but never approached the zenith of his earlier career. After a move to L.A., he became a studio musician helping create the music for the Bill Cosby Show and others.

Harris passed away at the age of 62 from congestive heart failure in 1996.

We’ll hear the inventive Eddie Harris all this week on All Night Jazz