Back Pages #6: Beaver Harris

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

harris-earsThe most heartbreaking CD in my collection is Thank You for Your Ears (Dizim, 1998) by the Beaver Harris Trio. It’s not the music — which is joyous, powered by Hamiet Bluiett on sax/flute and Vincent Taylor playing steel drums. It’s the liner notes, written by Harris’ widow, Glo.

I was in Paris in 1999, ambling through every CD store I could find. Of course, the shoddy-looking small stores had the best selection of obscure jazzy stuff (this being an era when such stores were still plentiful). One had its avant-jazz collection in boxes, arranged not by artist but by record label — a sign that they catered to a knowledgeable crowd. Among the dividers was Rastascan Records, the Bay Area label run by Gino Robair. I hope he managed to get paid for those CDs.

I picked up a CD from the Eric Barret Quartet, because it had guitarist Marc Ducret on it, whom I knew from Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, and also a cover of Yes’ “Five Percent for Nothing,” a 30-second blip of a song that Barrett’s band expanded to five minutes. Fun stuff, and it’s interesting to hear Ducret in a more conventional setting (but still not “inside” jazz). I bought a disc called Terra Nova mainly because the artwork looked interesting — kind of artsy and mildly abstract. Turns out it was modern classical with heavy jazz influences. The disc’s highlight is a catchy 15/8 theme in a concerto for bandoleon (an instrument like the accordion), written by guitarist David Chevallier.

But also … I found Thank You for Your Ears. It was on a short-lived German label called Dizim, which I knew from Monk’s Japanese Dream Song, a jazz trio led by Miya Masaoka on koto, backed by Reggie Washington and Andrew Cyrille. That album includes energetic jazz covers and zen-like improvisations, and it got a lot of attention from me both at KZSU and at home.

So I recognized the Dizim packaging and was eager to hear what else they were into. I didn’t know who Beaver Harris was, I’m sorry to say. But I did recognize Hamiet Bluiett‘s name, and I was excited at the thought of having found more output from this new label. I gave it a shot.

Back at the room, I read Glo Harris’ liner notes:

Towards the end of Beaver’s life he was still practicing on the drum pad. (Could he have been preparing for the music he would create as he moved on …?) He never stopped practicing and he wanted to play until his breath ceased and he would finally be at peace. For his desire to keep playing was so powerful and he was so sad that his dreams were to be shattered by the cancer that took his life [at age 55]. I saw a man, the last six months of his life, fight to stay alive, to keep the music happening. His optimism never ceased.

He even wanted to play with Sonny Rollins again. I remember when he called Sonny when he was very ill and he finally began to tell his colleagues that he wasn’t well. Several days later, a photograph of Sonny arrived in the mail inscribed: “To Beaver, My Drummer, All the Best, Sonny Rollins.” As Beaver introduces the members of this trio at the end of the concert he tells the audience “… and thank you for your ears,” an expression he learned from Sonny Rollins and a sentiment that led our daughter, Portia, to name this recording.

The night before Beaver passed away he came to terms with his anger in a complex, spiritual way and he thanked God for making him “new and well again.” He closed his eyes forever not long after that.

Beaver, thank you for making my life with you a unique experience. We have your music to always keep close to our hearts … forever lasting. I knew another side of you, a gentle man that always thought of others first.

I knew that jazz was a difficult life, but this essay really drove the message home. Here was a man who, as I would learn later, had accomplished quite a lot but was still underappreciated and still wanted more.

Recorded at a 1984 concert, Thank You for Your Ears serves as a fine send-off for Harris. With steel drums (an instrument that factored into his 360 Degree Musical Experience), it can’t help but be happy. And as Glo mentions, Harris thanks the audience at the end: “Thank you for your ears.”

harris-africanIn the following years, I pieced together more about Harris. I discovered The 360 Degree Musical Experience and his work with Don Pullen and his lengthy relationship with Archie Sheep. I bought African Drums (Owl, 2002; originally released 1978), an album of mostly solo drumming, to get the “full” Beaver Harris experience. I pay attention anywhere I encounter his name. It’s a pittance, but it’s also all I can do. I can remember Beaver Harris and lend him my ears.

Here’s the longest track on Thank You for Your Ears: an ebullient 23-minute rendition of “African Drums.”