Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Playwright Bill Harris
Last Saturday, playwright Bill Harris and I hung out in Ann Arbor. We spent the afternoon shopping for jazz albums. We had lunch at an Indian restaurant where I asked the playwrights about his interest in jazz music, and how it has influenced his writing. Harris has written several plays that have jazz themes. The most acclaimed is “Coda”. His latest work is “Cool Blues” about the life of bebop icon Charlie Parker
--Charles L. Latimer

I Dig Jazz: In all the years that I’ve known you, as many concerts that we’ve attended together, and all the records that you’ve loaned me I never asked you how you got interested in jazz music.

Bill Harris: When it really hit for me I was 13 or 14. Dave Garroway had a radio show from Chicago, and pianist Marian McPharland had an record called at the Hickory House” This was when they had EP’s before there were albums. This program was on at night. I heard McPharland play Friday night, and Saturday morning I went to Sears in Highland Park to look for the record. It was on three EP’s which back then constituted an album.

IDJ: What was it about McPharland that struck you?

BH: I don’t know if it was what she said about jazz or how she played on the album. Whatever it was somehow it stuck with me.

IDJ: Were there other jazz albums that piqued your interest?

BH: Around that time my mother lived in a two family flat. She was down stairs, and it was these girls that lived upstairs. I was interested in the girls that lived upstairs. There mother had these Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie album ‘Massey Hall’. That album really caught my attention as much as the girls did. Somehow I ended up with that jazz album. If you have to began somewhere with jazz that album is the place to start.

IDJ: The cats that you hung around were they into jazz too? Or was it just your thing exclusively?

BH: I had a friend that was my age. All his brothers were older than him. They were really hip. I lived across the street from them. They were into jazz. They knew Dorothy Ashby. They knew the whole generation of Detroit jazz musicians. People would be over to their house. I was there with them, but I was digging what his brothers were doing. They were a generation older, and they were into everything that was hip. I got into Yusef Lateef because they had all his albums.

IDJ: Back then, was jazz popular?

BH: It was the time of house parties. It was the Doo-Wop era. That was the music that they played at those parties. I started carrying an album that held EP’s. I carried Yusef's EPs and ‘Senor Blues’ by Horace Silver. That was my thing because you could dance to it. It was 12 minutes long and you could partner up and dance to it.

IDJ: How did your peers react when you showed up with those jazz records?

BH: The crowd was generally hip. So you could get away with doing something like that.

IDJ: By that time were you a full-fledged jazz junkie?

BH: By the time I got to college jazz was essentially the popular music, and there were places where you could go to listen to the music like the Minor Key. It wasn’t an alcohol place and everybody played there. One week Monk would be there. The next week the Jazz Messengers would be there, and the next week John Coltrane performed. I remember this concert at the Broadway Capitol that was downtown. It was on of those all-star shows. Dinah Washington headlined. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers played. I don’t know if it was my first time seeing them. I just know after hearing them I was blown away. My interest in jazz increased. I saw at this concert how sharp they were. I started to dress like the Messengers. They had these double-breasted blazers, gray slacks, and these boots. They were all-young and were making the music. I was able to see all these people, and it was affordable. I think it cost a dollar to get in to see them.

IDJ: When you got drafted into the army did you keep up with the music?

BH: When I went into the army I was cut off from what was happening.

IDJ: You were only there two years, right?

BH: It easy for you to say only two years when you weren’t in the motherfucker.

IDJ: Are you saying that for two years you didn’t have access to the music?

BH: In terms of live music. The only live music that I saw was in Europe. I was in Munich. I saw Mel Waldron, which was a really hip experience. I was just walking around and saw these signs on the telephone poles that Mal Waldron was going to be playing somewhere. It was this really hip out of the movies kind of thing. I met people that had known Eric Dolphy when he was in Europe. So we talked about that. It was a great afternoon.

IDJ: Did you start writing plays in the army.

BH: I wrote my first play on the way home on the airplane.

IDJ: How has jazz music influenced your writing?

BH: Through rhythm is the one thing. When I went to New York actors would always say that I wrote with a Detroit rhythm. I think essentially what they were saying that I wrote with a bebop rhythm. I always try to be aware of the rhythm of language how people speak, and I use that as the basis for how my characters.

IDJ: What do you think about where jazz music is now?

BH: For me the energy has gone out the music. You have cats that are proficient at recreating. But there is a fine line between recreation and creation

IDJ: Are there any up and coming cats that you have listened to recently who will impact the music like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman did?

BH: Not unless Jesus and God comeback hand in hand. That kind of innovation ain’t going to happen anymore.

IDG: Why do you feel that way? Aren't up and coming cats being exposed to the same kind of training that Bird, Coltrane, and Coleman got?

BH: I think there is lesser of a musical community. Back in the day, in the Detroit jazz community, there was an extended family. Any jazz musician could walk up to a young jazz cat ask him if he knew the changes to ‘How High the Moon’ and if he didn’t know he would get popped upside the head, or someone would pull him aside and show him. So he wouldn’t embarrass himself the next time that he left the house.

IDJ: How did that kind of community outreach get lost?

BH: It got lost through the generations. Plus, older cats just got tired. They have to make the rent. The economics changed. There are not a lot of clubs where young cats can go to hang out with the older cats. And the respect for elders is not there. I think we now live in a time where young cats think older cats can’t teach them anything.

IDJ: Your tasted in jazz music is eclectic. You are not stuck in one era of the music. How were you able to avoid that?

BH: I’m not sure that I understand would you are asking.

IDJ: Well Ralph Ellison, for example, couldn’t get beyond the jazz music of his generation. He was very indifferent and critical of how the music progressed over the years. He said some disparaging things about Miles Davis and the other jazz musicians of Miles’ generation. It was as if Ellison believed those cats didn’t measure up.

BH: I see. I’ve gotten through all that. What I buy now is post-bop stuff. I hung in there with Coltrane until he went way out. That's when he lost me. It was too far out there for me so I left it along. I did listen to Archie Shepp, and Don Cherry. That was kind of the natural evolution because once I found the Detroit Writers Workshop that’s was the kind of music those people were into. They had this in house band with Charles Moore, and Kenny Cox. I would do a reading, and after that cats would set up and play music. In terms of the music and the evolution I’m now into really looking at cats such as Fred Anderson and Ken Vandermark, dudes out of Chicago that are still making interesting music.

IDJ: Did you ever find any of the jazz fusion music interesting?

BH: No! Not in the least. It was too diluted. I still don’t like synthesizers. That sound isn’t interesting to me at all.

IDJ: How would your life be if jazz wasn’t a part of it?

BH: It probably wouldn’t be. I mean it is such a close relationship that it would be like trying to separate babies that are co-joined at the heart.
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