Sunday, June 4, 1995
The Beat Heard Around the World:
Joe Harris’ immaculate drum skills have taken him
By Peter B. King
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
When Joe Harris’ name is mentioned during a phone call to
Sonny Rollins, the legendary saxophonist replies: “THE Joe
Harris?” Which should give some indication of the esteem
the drummer enjoys among his colleagues, if not among the
public at large.
Now 68, Harris leads a semi-retired life in Manchester:
golf and tennis punctuated by trips abroad to visit his
daughter in Sweden or to study the music of Kenya, Brazil
or Trinidad. Then there are the gigs with his Global Jazz
Revue — including one at the Pittsburgh Public Theater June
15 at 8 p.m. The show is part of the Mellon Jazz Festival,
for which Harris has been named the 1995 Honoree.
Though Harris never became a star, jazz has given him a
head-over-heels ride; he’s lived in Sweden, Germany and
Japan, taught at the University of Pittsburgh and played
with a long list of greats — Rollins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy
Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday,
Billy Eckstine, Stan Getz ... whew.
“There’s too much, brother,” he tells a reporter in one of
his characteristic bursts of exuberance. “You can’t get me
all in one lifetime.”
Harris’ lifetime began in 1926 on the North Side. By the
age of 14, he’d gotten serious about the drums, and he
never looked back.
He studied with Bill Hammond, one of the best parade-style
drummers in the country, who gave Harris a solid foundation
in technique and — even more important — in reading music.
This was the era of live entertainment, when the big bands
roared in the Stanley Theater Downtown and at the Roosevelt
in the Hill. Harris remembers often sitting through two
shows on a Saturday at the Stanley, thrilling to Ellington,
Basie and Goodman.
When he was 15 or 16, Harris began playing with pianist
Carl Arter, in a Basie-style big band and then with two of
his bebop peers, Ray Brown and Walt Harper.
Still a teenager, Harris left Pittsburgh in 1944 to play
with his buddy Brown in Snookum Russell’s band down South.
Harris was working in California when Brown, who by then
was bassist in Dizzy Gillespie’s pioneering 1946 bop big
band, wrote and told Harris that Kenny Clarke — another
Pittsburgher and Gillespie’s drummer — might be leaving.
Harris moved back to Pittsburgh to be closer to New York if
a call came. It did; Harris auditioned and got the job.
Gillespie and Harris shared a fascination with the sounds
of other lands; the drummer learned much about Latin
rhythms from Gillespie’s brilliant percussionist Chano
Pozo. Vibraphonist Milt Jackson and Harris struck up a
friendship that’s lasted till this day. Harris can be heard
on some of the band’s classic sides on “Dizzy Gillespie:
The Complete RCA Victor Recordings.”
In 1947, Harris played one of his most memorable gigs — an
engagement at Carnegie Hall with Dizzy’s big band, Ella
Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker. The lines stretched around
the block, he recalls. For Harris, the evening’s high point
was his performance of a set in a small group with Parker
and Gillespie — a performance preserved on the “Bird Meets
But Harris suffered a setback when he was fired from
Gillespie’s band in 1947 after he demanded in front of the
whole group that Gillespie pay overtime for a rehearsal.
Years later, in 1986, Harris saw Gillespie perform in
Pittsburgh. Gillespie invited Harris up to jam; later they
hung out at Gillespie’s hotel. Harris mentioned the
overtime incident, “and Dizzy became embarrassed. And he
said I was right. I said I was wrong in the way I did it.
Because I was young. You just don’t do it that way, man.
Not in public.”
Though Gillespie no longer needed his services, others did.
He worked steadily in New York with Fitzgerald, Vaughan,
Holiday, James Moody, Dinah Washington, Eddie Jefferson,
Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and more.
He was in demand, he says, partly because “in those days I
was somewhat of a phenomenon. ‘Cause I was a jazz drummer
who could read. And I knew a lot of different rhythms. I
knew the difference between a mambo and a rhumba. Whereas
most jazz drummers, they had one beat that they played for
all the Latin tunes.”
With his sight-reading skills, he would have been perfect
for the radio-TV industry in New York City. But, he says,
African-Americans hadn’t yet knocked down that particular
wall. Not that he dwells on racism. “You can’t live in
hate, man,” he explains. “Hate destroys your own life.”
In any case, Harris’ life was about to change radically. In
1956, he got a call to do a two-month tour of Sweden with a
small group. During the tour, Harris met Marianne, the
Swedish woman who would become his wife and give birth to
his daughter, Malou. After the tour, he was offered work
with the nation’s highest-paying band. He lived there
almost five years.
Sweden blew him away, he says, “because there was no racism
at all. So for a so-called black or Afro-American, it was
heaven on earth. And there was lots of work, and the women
were all very pretty and nice,” he says with a laugh.
In Sweden, Harris became close friends with Jimmy Woode,
the Philadelphia-born bassist who played with Duke
Ellington before moving to Sweden a few years after Harris.
“Joe is one of my favorite drummers, swing-wise and
technically,” Woode said recently in his room at the
Pittsburgh Hilton, where he performed with Harris during
last month’s International Duke Ellington Conference. “As a
matter of fact, the late, great Kenny Clarke gave Joe the
nickname ‘Prof.’ Because he would give Joe the music — and
if there was no drum part simply give him the score,
whatever — and he could read it right down, and swing it.”
Eventually, Harris formed his own band, consisting entirely
of Swedes. A publicity shot of Harris with his young,
blond, eager-looking disciples says it all. “See what I
mean, that Sweden is very nice? Here I am, the bandleader,
over these white Swedish people!”
While in Stockholm, he played a couple of trio gigs with
Sonny Rollins that have just been released on a CD called
“St. Thomas: Sonny Rollins Trio in Stockholm, 1959.”
It was, Harris says, a fine life, as his scrapbook
suggests, with its scenes of dense groves of trees, rocky
shores and shimmering lakes, with friends and family of
different colors whacking golfballs or fishing or playing
with the kids.
But the marriage ultimately foundered; Harris left Sweden,
and he hasn’t seen his wife in more than 30 years. To this
day, he says, their separation is one of the few events in
his life he regrets.
Harris’ ticket away from his personal troubles was a
year-long tour of Europe with a Quincy Jones-led big band
that starred in Harold Arlen’s “blues opera” “Free and
Easy,” and then a few months working in America with Lena
But then a call to join the state-run big band at Radio
Free Berlin took him to the then-divided city for five and
a half years.
Besides playing with the big band, Harris was a presence in
Berlin’s clubs. At one of them, a young saxophonist named
Nathan Davis — still in the 298th Army Band — would sit in.
When Davis was discharged, he joined Harris at a club
called the Safari. Harris’ sister, Barbara Randall, sang
with the group; she now lives on the bottom floor of his
“Joe’s a great drummer,” Davis declares. “There’s no doubt
During his time in Berlin, Harris played frequent gigs with
the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland big band. He was also
involved in the historic “Americans in Europe” concert in
Koblenz, Germany, with a host of American expatriates
including Bud Powell, Don Byas, Davis and Woode. Parts of
the concert are available on the “Americans in Europe” CD.
In 1966, Harris moved back to the United States, hearing
that there were opportunities in Los Angeles, but he was
marooned in Pittsburgh for a year and a half caring for his
mother, who was dying of cancer. When she passed, he moved
The scene wasn’t quite what he had hoped, although he found
work at the Playboy Club and performed in the Jane Fonda
movie about marathon dancing, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t
In 1970, Harris returned to Germany — this time to Munich
to join the Max Greger television orchestra. This was more
show biz than jazz, Harris remembers — another scrapbook
photo shows the band in modish yellow outfits and long
sideburns, on a set that looks like something out of
Harris and Woode roomed together in Woode’s Munich digs.
“When he was living at my residence, I found him often into
books which had no relation whatsoever to music,” Woode
remembers. “He’s curious about all things. He wants to
In 1972, Harris came back to Pittsburgh. Davis — by then
heading up jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh —
hired Harris to teach. Harris taught jazz history for 14
years until, Davis says, a tight budget forced Harris out
in 1986. Harris also taught jazz drums at Pitt for several
years, but he didn’t feel the students were serious enough.
“He came to me and said, ‘Davis, I think I’m gonna let that
(drum teaching) go, because the students aren’t living up
to my standard.’ He set a very high standard. And sometimes
I’ll be honest, I feel that way too. This stuff is as
serious to us as studying nuclear physics or surgery, so if
somebody doesn’t have that same kind of dedication, that’s
In 1983, Harris got a grant to study in Japan for a year;
he also visited China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Sinagapore and
Thailand. The trip helped stimulate his interest in the
folk music of other cultures. Since he left Pitt, Harris
has been to Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, India, Nepal, Brazil,
Alaska and the Caribbean.
In 1992, Harris starred in “Clean Drums,” a play based on
his life that was written by Rob Penny and staged by the
Kuntu Repertory Theatre.
Mementoes from Harris’ travels clutter his house. Sitting
on the futon with the Japanese calligraphy in his living
room, Harris surveys Coke and Pepsi bottles from Morocco
and Japan, African wall hangings made from banana plant and
a copy of an erotic stone carving from India. Instruments
take up more space — a West African talking drum and
miniature replicas of stringed instruments from Asia.
He incorporates the instruments and the knowledge he
gathers on his travels into his Global Jazz Revue. The
group includes James Johnson, piano; Kenny Powell, sax and
flute; Bruce Wallace, bass; Norma Jean Barnes, dancer; Suli
Man, African drums and vocals; and Wu Ben, pipa.
Harris lives modestly, which helps him to finance his
trips; he owns a bike instead of a car. “I’m on Social
Security. I’m a senior citizen. I have a bus pass. I’m not
a drinker or a doper, so I live a moderate life.”
His sense of wonder is obvious. Looking out a car window
recently at a full moon in a daytime sky, he says: “Look at
that moon. Isn’t that beautiful? Every day is different.
And every day is great. God is great.”
With his dancing pale-green eyes and his buoyant laugh, he
is, as Jimmy Woode notes, a charmer.
Woode, who now lives in Bern, Switzerland, remembers dining
with Harris there not long ago. “And I had to excuse
myself, briefly, and I left. And when I came back, Joe was
deeply engrossed in conversation in German with this
couple. And he explained to them, “I’m a talker, I’m a
traveler, I enjoy talking to people.” And we continued on
for another good 45 minutes or an hour or so. Joseph
Allison Harris charming the people — it’s always been that