Follow the leader 

On a late-August Saturday when any number of outdoor joys are beckoning, Teddy Harris Jr. is ensconced in his Highland Park basement. Hundreds of photos of his musical journey are behind him. Tools of his trade are before him: piano, pencils, flute, stacks of sheet music and (in a nod to the times) his computer. There’s a Tuesday big band rehearsal to prepare for, and a bigger show for the jazz festival at Hart Plaza on Sunday. There are orchestrations and arrangements still to complete. A singer will be coming to rehearse a deceptively lovely and tricky tune.

But there is no question about his making the deadline as Harris had made them before, whether for the Supremes or Paul Butterfield or any of his own projects over the years.

Come Sunday, Harris will take the stage leading the grandly titled National Jazz Orchestra of Detroit. It’s a star-studded collection of Detroit and former Detroit musicians spread over several generations; the older musicians are his peers; some of the younger ones are his musical progeny. Teddy Edwards, a California-based musician who spent some formative years in Detroit in the ’40s, will be the featured soloist. A 16-piece string section will augment the 17-piece jazz band and vocalist.

And Harris will be the man out front, responsible for shepherding 34 potentially discordant voices into song.

It’s a fitting job for a guy whose odyssey has taken him from Detroit’s fabled jazz joints to studies in Paris, from posh concert houses to the craziness of the Woodstock festival to band rehearsals back in this basement.

It’s a fitting job for a guy who six decades ago, as a precocious 7-year-old, had a musical epiphany a few miles up the street from Hart Plaza at the Paradise Theatre. As recounted in Harris family lore, the curtains opened, the youngster jumped up on his seat, pointed at Duke Ellington on stage and pronounced, “That’s what I want to be.”

Harris now adds this coda with a chuckle: “I’ve been messed up ever since.”

Haircuts and harmonies

Teddy Harris Sr., who nurtured his son in music from the age of 3, came to Detroit from Georgia.

“My father tells the story that he hoboed up here,” says the younger Harris. “He was on a farm, and he told his grandfather who raised him that he had to leave when he was about 17 years old. He tells me that he hoboed as far as Toledo, Ohio, and walked from Toledo to Monroe before he could get another train that brought him to Detroit.”

The Harrises gravitated to two trades, tailoring and music, Harris Jr. says.

“I came up in a house full of music. I had uncles that sang; they sang like birds. They had a trio called the Cosmopolitan Trio, and they sang in churches throughout the area. My father was their accompanist. Every Saturday my father would give me a haircut, and after I would listen to the guys sing and rehearse.”

The elder Harris eventually became the leader and pianist for the pit band at the Paradise Theatre, as Orchestra Hall was called in the 1940s, becoming a venue for the biggest names in jazz and black entertainment. And down in the pit, Harris Sr. made a special place for a non-playing musician, young Teddy.

“I kind of grew up in that building. When the kids were playing baseball and football, I did all that stuff. But Friday and Saturday were my days at the Paradise Theatre,” he says.

As he developed, his father invited him to sit in on gigs. The elder Harris, now 87, recalls taking an underage Teddy to play the 606 Horseshoe Lounge. Later, the Gay ’90s club across from Paradise Theatre sported a double father-and-son act. Teddy Harris Sr. played jazz organ (the first to do so in Detroit, he says); Otis Finch Sr. and Teddy Harris Jr. doubled up on saxophones, and Otis Finch Jr. played drums.

Black Detroit in the 1950s may have been hemmed in by segregation and relative poverty. But it was a time of musical richness that veteran musicians look back upon with fondness and nostalgia. Clubs were abundant, gigs were plentiful.

Saxophonist Wendell Harrison remembers entering his teens and looking with awe on the scene around 12th Street, which was renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard after being gutted in the 1967 riot. Back then, it was an entire street that was “talking about jazz.”

“There were maybe 15 clubs between Grand Boulevard and Collingwood,” Harrison says, calling out names: the Eagle Show Bar; the Collingwood bar; Buddy’s barbecue joint, where bluesman Washboard Willie was a mainstay; the Chit Chat Lounge, where Motown cats would hang out years later.

Like any wannabe, Harrison watched the older cats, where they played, what they were into. Harris Jr., eight years Harrison’s elder, was one to watch. Harrison recalls a time when Harris worked at a neighborhood cleaners; between pressing hats he’d have his bass clarinet handy and scores to work on. On the gig — say at Klein’s Show Bar, where Harris might be working alongside Yusef Lateef or Bennie Maupin — Harris “would always be the one with the music, he was always the cat that had the charts.”

That interest in composing and arranging — inspired by watching close-up as his father pulled bands together, and by Ellington — took Harris to the New England Conservatory of Music in 1956, at a time when jazz and higher education were hardly synonymous. (Jazz scholar and writer Dan Morgenstern was one of his teachers.) Though a draft notice cut his formal studies short, his stint as a tank commander in Germany also did him well musically, matching him up with an exceptional cohort of Army band musicians, including pianist Cedar Walton (a festival headliner this year), Albert “Tootie” Heath and future sax-star Eddie Harris. Ironically, at that time Eddie Harris was primarily a pianist. The two Harrises gave each other lessons and joked about switching instruments. In time Eddie dropped piano almost entirely, while Teddy became a keys-and-reeds switch-hitter.

Rather than return home after his tour of duty, Teddy Harris disembarked in Paris. He studied composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, following in the footsteps of Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomas and Quincy Jones. “She could analyze music at sight. She could just take a score of music and tell you what you should have done,” says Harris, still in evident awe.

Lessons from Boulanger were by day. At night Harris was at the Blue Note (the spot featured in the movie Round Midnight), playing piano for expatriate Detroit saxophonist Lucky Thompson, an old music and fishing friend of Harris Sr.’s. The younger Harris knew Thompson as “Uncle Eli.” Still in uniform and with his duffel bag over his shoulder, “I walked right in there and got a gig,” he says. And nightly, too, he’d slip to the club where Bud Powell, the “epitome” of the bebop piano school, played. “That’s what I was into at the time, so I got a chance to get some lessons without paying.” It helped that Powell took a liking to Harris.

But after a year or so, family pulled him back home. And rather than Bud Powell’s bop wisdom, the next chapter of his life would be shaped by the entrepreneurial zeal of one childhood acquaintance, Berry Gordy Jr., and the megaton talent of another, Aretha Franklin.

From Motown to Woodstock

Back before he’d left town, Harris had gotten a call from Gordy to round up a bass player and come to a recording studio run by Gordy’s sister, Gwen. “Berry Gordy and I were altar boys at the same church and we used to take boxing lessons at Brewster Center over the years, so we were pretty good buddies,” says Harris.

At the studio was another former boxing buddy, singer Jackie Wilson. Like Harris, Wilson was there to do a favor on a song that Gordy had written called “Reet Petite.” Musicians each got $12.50 for recording the demo “because that’s all the money he had,” says Harris. “Reet Petite,” which was released on Brunswick, became a hit, and Gordy had big plans for his profits from this and other early efforts. As Harris put it, “Motown … began with nothing.”

By the time Harris got back to Detroit in the early ’60s, the company was growing and about to boom. Harris got involved writing arrangements and orchestrations and playing. But there were other gigs as well. He played a couple months behind Barbra Streisand as she passed through town on her way to the top. And he spent several years on the road and did some studio work with the younger sister of his buddy Vaughn Franklin; he’d known Aretha since she was a baby, as he put it, had wiped her nose in the winter and conducted her across the street as a school safety boy.

Harris traveled the country and recorded with a young Aretha during her jazzy phase, before her change of styles and coronation as the Queen of Soul. (Asked about missing the period when the band went from barnstorming in station wagons to being chauffeured in limos, Harris is nonchalant: “I’ve always been able to go to work. That’s what I call success.”)

Harris joined the Motown Revue band led by Choker Campbell and later became musical director for the Supremes, a seat he held for 15 years.

But ask about Motown, and it becomes clear that he is particularly enamored of his work with Marvin Gaye on the epochal album What’s Going On, even though Gaye’s approach to arranging and orchestrating was the antithesis of Harris’:

“For one of the sessions, he called in five saxophone players and didn’t have any music written. But he went to the lead saxophone player, the alto player, and hummed a phrase to him and asked him if he could play it. And he said sure and played it back to him. And he said that’s exactly what I want, and he just went on down the line and harmonized it by humming in each of the musicians’ ear.”

For another What’s Going On session, Harris says, Gaye called and asked him to drop by the studio on the spur of the moment: “This is 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning. No one is in the studio but him and me, and he puts on a tape and hums what he wants to hear. ‘Can you play that for me? That’s what I want.’ That’s how he pieced it together.”

Harris always seems to be juggling multiple balls, sometimes shuttling between musical worlds. The late ’60s and early ’70s found Harris working a stint with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, recruited by his old friend, bassist Rod Hicks. Its name aside, the band had grown into a one-of-a-kind unit working the vagabond intersection of blues, jazz and rock.

“That band was just a godsend to write for. That was the only band I’ve ever played with that could turn it on — all you had to say is ‘Let’s play,’ and it was on,” Harris says.

He recalls commuting to Woodstock and staying at Butterfield’s place. Even if, as he puts it, “I did not partake in a lot of the activities,” Harris says he dug the scene. Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker and Jimi Hendrix were on neighboring farms. He describes the helicopter ride over the traffic-jammed roads to reach the stage of the massive Woodstock rock festival. Harris and his bandmates were in on one of the era’s defining moments.

“As far as the eye could see in any direction was just a mass of people,” Harris says, remembering the sight from the stage. “I’ve never seen a demonstration of love like that in my entire life.”

Hicks recalls looking out at night and seeing the audience estimated at 300,000 or more. With the darkness dotted with fires, he felt he was looking at the “biggest Indian pow-wow in the world.”

But one story about that period captures the range of Harris’ musical interests. He’d flown out to the Woodstock to meet Butterfield for the first time and discuss arrangements he was to write for the band’s upcoming album. Harris’ wife, Martha, called from Detroit with word that Tony Bennett wanted him for a week’s engagement for the supper-club crowd at the Roostertail.

Says Harris: “I told Butter, let me take this music home because I must do this gig, man. I’d have worked that gig for nothing.”

Musical pillar

Ask around the jazz community about Teddy Harris Jr. and you’ll hear a lot of things. You’ll hear about a cat who increasingly settled back into jazz after his rock and pop years. You’ll hear about a placid and reserved cat who can “laugh from the bottom of his soul … but he doesn’t let everybody go there with him,” as old friend Hicks puts it. You’ll hear about his work ethic, his professionalism, his swing and deep-down love for the music. You’ll hear about years-long, nearly legendary stays at the old club Dummy George’s, at Bomac’s, and now at Baker’s Keyboard. You’ll hear about his long partnership with his late wife, Martha, who was deeply involved in promoting his bands and the Detroit music scene.

And you’ll hear a lot about his working with and mentoring young musicians. Geri Allen (who returns to the festival as a headliner this year) and Greg Phillanganes (Michael Jackson’s musical director and an Eric Clapton sideman) and James Carter (one of the most lauded jazz musicians of the last decade) are a few of the biggest names in a long list.

Calling from New York, Carter talks about the “various pillars” for young musicians coming up in Detroit, and notes sadly that a number of them — including Thomas “Beans” Bowles, Pistol Allen and Harold McKinney — have passed away in the past couple years.

Carter describes Harris as “the consummate bebop big band director.”

Much of Harris’ mentoring has been through the New Breed Bebop Society, the big band he formed nearly 20 years ago. Harris had been working along with former Motown singer Kim Weston in a federally funded arts program for city youth. Then the funding dried up.

“Four or five of them came to me and said, ‘What are we gonna do?’ And I said, ‘How many of you are interested in keeping a band together?’ I said, ‘I have a rehearsal studio in my basement. Meet me on Tuesday.’”

The Tuesday sessions, which augmented the young musicians with pros, clicked. Harris arranged for the band to play at Dummy George’s, where he had settled in as house pianist, backing up touring jazz stars. “We were to play two weekends and we stayed five years,” says Harris.

Carter recalls sitting in with that band and observing how Harris could calmly instruct and, when things went awry, “cool out whoever was the culprit of the train wreck.”

Trumpeter Dwight Adams, now a group leader in his own right and one of the charter members of the New Breed, credits much of his musical development to Harris. At 37, he has spent more than half of his life under Harris’ musical wing and will be with him on Sunday.

During the ’90s, Adams worked his way up from the big band to being a regular member of the killer quintet that Harris led at Bomac’s. Some nights, he says, he’d tape the session, transcribe his bandmates’ most striking passages, and incorporate them into his own subsequent work.

“You would try to vibe and come up to the level that they were playing at … emulate the spirit if not the notes of what they were laying down,” he says.

Young lions and queens

Harris’s ability to guide musicians is on display Saturday as he works with Sheila Slaughter, a regular at jam sessions around the city. She’ll be on the jazz fest’s main stage for the first time with Harris and the National Jazz Orchestra of Detroit. He explains the band-plus-strings format, and talks about Teddy Edwards, the septuagenarian featured soloist from California who’s been reconnecting with his roots in Detroit gigs. He explains that the orchestra will feature a number of Detroit-bred “young lions” now active on the national scene (bassist Rodney Whitaker, pianist Carlos McKinney and drummer Ali Muhammed Jackson II) and Detroit veterans such as trombonist Ed Gooch and saxophonist Donald Walden.

There’s a song for Harris and Slaughter to work through, Edwards’ “Brazilian Skies.” It starts with a fetching, easy-to-hum Latin lilt — then turns dramatic for the listener, tricky for the singer. “You’ve got some stuff to do,” he says, calmly running his finger over the score’s vexing patches. “You’ve got a whole lot of words to get out.”

Harris fingers the melody alone on the keys, sometimes backtracking to emphasize this phrase or that. He switches to underlying chords while Slaughter tries to make it through. “You’ve got to go right back in,” he says, pointing to this measure. “And you’ve got this little trill,” he says, pulling his finger along another. They lose the thread, go back to the top. He apologizes more than once for not being able to sing. She points to his fingers on the keys, and says, “You do — right here on these 88s.”

“One more time,” he says, time and again, almost serenely, as they come closer and closer to navigating the tongue-twisting tune all the way to its high-note summit. Finally they have it down. “I’ll eat, drink and sleep with this,” Slaughter says of the sheet music before she leaves.

And then Harris talks a bit more about his musical journey. He talks about playing for the Queen of England and the Emperor of Japan with the Supremes. He talks about his State Department tour of the Middle East and Africa seven years ago with an all-star Detroit group, the Michigan Jazz Masters.

And he could talk longer, maybe reminisce through the hundreds of photos and clippings on the wall or play a tape of the Jazz Masters’ performance in Cairo.

But there’s this other gig to prepare for.

Teddy Harris leads jam sessions Wednesday nights at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, on Livernois at Eight Mile in Detroit. The New Breed Bebop Society also performs there frequently. See the schedule at The National Jazz Orchestra of Detroit performs Sunday at 6 p.m. at jazz festival’s Ford Motor Amphitheatre Stage.

Check out the two pieces, which accompanied this piece in the print edition.
Who's on bass?
Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival Schedule

W. Kim Heron is the Metro Times managing editor. Send comments to

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