Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Harrison, Jimmy (James Henry)

Trombonist Jimmy Harrison was the rare instrumentalist who developed a personal vocabulary for jazz which was distinct from, and preceded, the influential approach of trumpeter Louis Armstrong. His fluid improvisation, instrumental range, rhythmic articulation, sense of humor and huge sound earned him wide respect among his peers on the 1920s New York City jazz scene.

Despite only living to the age of 31, Harrison planted the seeds of the jazz trombone aesthetic through his work with Bessie Smith, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Benny Carter and especially Fletcher Henderson.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky on October 17, 1900, Harrison moved to Detrioit, Michigan in 1906. At age fourteen, he dropped out of school to help cook in his father's café; cooking remained a passion of his for the rest of his life. His father bought him a trombone when he was fifteen and he taught himself how to play. He developed an excellent ear, and neglected to learn to read music until much later.

He began playing in local saloons by combining his trombone work with imitations of Bert Williams comedy routines. He was also an excellent baseball player, and played semi-professionally the minor Negro Leagues before deciding to devote his career to music.

He began touring with minstrel shows in 1919, returning to Detroit to play with Hank Duncan's Kentucky Jazz Band later that year. In 1920, the start of Prohibition led Harrison to seek work in Toledo, Ohio, where he played alongside pianist James P. Johnson and cornetist June Clark.

Harrison returned to Detroit less than a year later, where he began to give lessons to future Count Basie star trombonist Dickie Wells, who idolized him. He moved to Louisville in 1921 to play with Howard Jordan, at the insistence of his former bandleader Hank Duncan. The band played large clubs alongside another African-American band that included alto saxophonist Fess Williams.

Williams was then offered a chance to start his own group, and invited Harrison to join him. By then, he had become close friends with June Clark, and convinced Williams to add cornet to their ensemble when he ran into him in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Harrison first heard King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1923, which featured trumpeter Louis Armstrong at the time, and he began to incorporate some of Armstrong's trumpet techniques into his trombone playing.

The group made its New York debut later that year, which bombed. Harrison and Clark, however, decided to stay in New York and began gigs under June Clark and his Creole Orchestra before moving on to play with Charlie Smith at Small's Paradise in Harlem, which became steady gig over the next few years.

Harrison's arrival in New York City from the midwest in 1923 was big news in the jazz community, and a number of "cutting contests" were organized throughout Harlem so that local trombonists, led by Charlie Green, could hear him play. During this time, he earned the nickname "The Toledo Terror," because he outplayed all of them. Harrison met saxophonist Benny Carter at Small's in 1924, and also played with a very young pianist named Bill Basie, before he moved to Kansas City and gained fame as The Count.

By this time, Harrison had developed a reputation as one of the top trombonists in New York, and several bands began to vie for his services, including those led by Charlie Johnson and Duke Ellington. Harrison played a two-week engagement with Ellington's Washingtonians in 1925, but left to join the Elmer Snowden band.

Benny Carter then convinced Harrison to leave Snowden to join him with Billy Fowler's dance orchestra a short time later. He made his first recordings around this time, with Willie "The Lion" Smith: "Santa Claus Blues" and "Keep Your Temper", both of which feature solos. Two other sides recorded with Smith, "Rock, Jenny, Rock" and "It's Right Here For You", feature Harrison prominently -- on "It's Right Here For You," Harrison is able to showcase his upper register technique and wide melodic leaps.

In 1926, he signed a contract to play with Charlie Johnson, one year at $125 per week. Around the same time, bandleader and composer Fletcher Henderson was looking to add a trombonist to his ensemble. He decided to target Harrison to play alongside his current trombonist Benny Morton, and purchased his contract from Johnson in December of 1926. Playing along other greats such as Tommy Ladnier, Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins, it is in Henderson's band that Harrison's playing truly flourished.

It was also with Henderson that Harrison's reputation as a prankster developed. One of his favorite gimmicks was to pretend to be sick and collapse in his chair, only to jump up and blow a perfect solo. Harrison's first stint with Henderson lasted until 1928, when Henderson was involved in an auto accident in Kentucky. Harrison returned to New York to play with Charlie Johnson at Small's for the rest of the year.

Fellow trombonist Jack Teagarden had recently arrived in New York, and the two often joined Coleman Hawkins for jam sessions and partying at Hawkins's apartment. Although Teagarden and Harrison had each developed distincitve styles by that point in their careers, the two admired each others' achievements on the instrument. Another recent arrival to New York, trombonist Trummy Young, had a few encounters with Harrison but claimed that Harrison was usually unresponsive to Young's overtures to discuss his methods of trombone playing.

During Harrison's first engagement with Henderson, the band recorded extensively, including such hits as "Whiteman Stomp" and "Variety Stomp," both of which feature Harrison in the trombone section with Benny Morton.

Harrison was also frequently featured as a soloist with the group, such as his virtuosic break at the beginning of "Fidgety Feet" and his musical conversation with trumpeter Tommy Ladnier on "I'm Coming Virginia." Hawkins said of playing with Harrison, "First there was Louis Armstrong, then there was Harrison, and when you followed solos by those cats you had to blow everything you knew, and more."

When Harrison returned to play with Henderson in December 1928, Benny Morton had been replaced in the band by his longtime rival "Big" Charlie Green. The two engaged in friendly one-upmanship during their time together. Harrison was recognized as the more jazz-oriented soloist, while Green always got the gigs for blues recordings. While both recorded with Bessie Smith, Green was her preferred sideman.

In 1929, Henderson's band was the first to be flown to a gig, and played a number of other high-profile college events such as the Amherst College prom, at the invitation from John Coolidge, President Calvin Coolidge's son.

During this time, Harrison began to lose weight rapidly and became frequently ill; he however refused to see a doctor. At a one-nighter with Henderson in August 1930, he collapsed at a restaurant while eating a bowl of ice cream and was rushed to New York for medical treatment, where he was diagnosed with an advanced ulcerated stomach.

After years of heavy drinking and overeating - Rex Stewart once remembered having a conversation with Harrison during which he ate ten hot dogs - his stomach cancer was too advanced to be removed. Still, he managed to return to playing for a short while, performing with Elmer Snowden at the Nest Club and recording with Chick Webb. He died on July 23, 1931 with his friend Benny Carter at his bedside.

Select Discography

With Willie "The Lion" Smith:

(Classics 662)

With Bessie Smith:

(Classics 870)

With Fletcher Henderson:

Hocus Pocus" (RCA/Bluebird)

A Study in Frustration (CBS)

Developing an American Orchestra, 1923-1937 (Smithsonian/CBS)

With Chick Webb:

Chick Webb 1929-34 (Classics)

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez