Born on June 16, 1946, in Urbana, IL; son of a psychologist (father); married: wife Angela. Education: Graduate of Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA Addresses: Record company--RCA, 1540 Broadway, New York City, NY 10036 Phone: (212) 930-4000.

When he is lost in his music while entertaining, sometimes electrifying listeners, Tom Harrell is in his element. Ever since he first picked up a trumpet at the age of eight, Harrell was enthralled by a music that did not seem to have any rules--jazz. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Harrell was listening to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong when others his age were consumed by the burgeoning world of rock and roll. The world at large might not easily have recognized his name. To those knowledgeable fans of the big band sounds and jazz, none surpassed his talent.

According to Michael Bloom, writing for Down Beat in December of 1996, when Harrell was named at the top of the magazine's readers' and critics' polls alike, some of his more current renown surged when the RCA Victor label caught wind of his playing on other independent labels including Criss Cross, Contemporary and Chesky. Having a big name like RCA behind him went a long way to make Harrell's music available to a wider audience. From 1977 on, Harrell took Down Beat's critics' and readers' poll for trumpet every year, and for composer in 1995. In 1999, he took the magazine's top prize again in their 64th Annual Readers Poll. Other prizes throughout the years have included JazzTimes' critics' choice for his albums, Visions, Passagesand Upswing; the Prix Oscar for Form, awarded by the French Academy of Jazz; and a nomination for the 1995 Danish JazzPar prize. In biographical notes from his website, Harrell confirmed that while the prizes and recognition are an honor, the reward comes from deep inside him. "Every time I play, I feel that if I'm a good vehicle, I'll be rewarded by being able to experience beauty," Harrell said.

Harrell was born in Urbana, Illinois, on June 16, 1946. When he was six, his family moved to Los Altos, California, down the peninsula from San Francisco. His father was a business psychologist and had accepted a faculty post at Stanford University, at nearby Palo Alto. By the fifth grade, only a couple of years after he first started playing the trumpet with a flair that belied his age, Harrell began to compose. He had already tried transcribing music, with his early efforts including Charlie Parker's "Relaxing at Camarillo." By the time he was in seventh grade, he was studying from Russell Garcia's text on arranging. Harrell began to play professionally by the time he was 13. He played both trumpet and piano with groups all over the San Francisco Bay area, and sat in on jam sessions that included saxophonist Dewey Redman and trumpeter Eddie Henderson. Harrell noted that he chose the trumpet because he "liked the sound." "Lee Konitz got me to transcribe Louis Armstrong solos. I could see parallels between Louis' playing and Miles [Davis]. The way they phrased, using short phrases, was unbelievably similar," Harrell said in comments available at his website.

Crisis came at the time Harrell was beginning studies at Stanford University in 1963. A half-hearted suicide attempt was the first step in a diagnosis that determined he was a borderline schizophrenic. Harrell talked about his illness with Gene Santoro of Nation in February of 1995. "I had feelings of unreality and obsessive thoughts when I was a teenager. I started drinking in high school, then I stopped. I started therapy in the sixties, and that's when I started taking medicine for paranoia." It was after the suicide attempt that he starting taking medicine and began to have control over his life, especially his music. "It also helped me get started writing again--until I got medicine, I stopped being able to write." Santoro also noted that "Harrell's medication-the only thing that keeps him from being institutionalized-helps depress his illness' symptoms.... He talks in a low near-monotone, and rarely faces you, although he turns his face toward you regularly and fixes you with his bright, glistening eyes--windows so suggestively open you can scan both his intelligence and his vulnerability at a glance."

But if his medication keeps him quiet and calm in social situations, the musician onstage portrays an entirely different personality. "When he walks onstage," said Santoro, "he looks like a human question mark: his head, with its slicked-back hair, bent almost perpendicular to his body, eyes on the floor, arms stiff at his sides. Then suddenly, when it's time for him to blow, he straightens to his full, thin, six-foot-two inch height, puts the horn to his mouth and proceeds to carve the splendid sounds that have made him such a reputation among his fellow musicians and among critics and fans." Despite all, Harrell got his bachelor's degree from Stanford University in 1969.

From 1969 through 1970, Harrell captured his first love by touring with the big bands of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. He then returned to the San Francisco area, which is where, while still a student, he got together with a small jazz group in Berkeley every Saturday morning. Harrell explored new venues when he was a charter member of the Latin/jazz group Azteca, and also played with Malo, a Latin/jazz/rock band led by Jorge Santana, Carlos' brother. Beginning in 1973 he played for five years with Horace Silver's band, and recorded five albums with the group, including Silver `n Brass. Working with Silver, Harrell said, "helped my rhythmic awareness because he's a master of rhythm."

By the time Harrell left Silver's band, he was settled in New York City, where he still lives with his wife, Angela, in their small upper west side apartment. In 1977, the year he left Silver, he co-led a big band with the bassist Sam Jones and worked with Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, the Mel Lewis Orchestra, Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra and Lee Konitz' nonet. After he joined Phil Woods' quintet in 1983 he recorded albums with the group that included Bouquet and Bop Stew on the Concord Jazz label. When he left Woods in 1989, he began leading his own bands. As well as recording with various groups and musicians, Harrell debuted his first solo album in the late 1970s, Moon Alley, on the independent Criss Cross label. Other solo albums have included Form, Stories, Sail Away and Visions, all for Contemporary; and Passages and Upswing for Chesky.

If his talent has become legendary, so have the sometimes odd, sometimes magical moments that have happened to those around him who have experienced the personality quirks that come with Harrell's disease. According to James Hale, writing for Down Beat in December of 1998, fellow musicians have told many stories. "In an airport, if the hustle and bustle become too much for him, he might wander off to a quiet spot in a parking garage and blow his trumpet until the noises in his head hush. Sometimes he will hear a chord in the hum of the refrigerator or the engine of a passing jet and work the rest of the day writing a composition based on what he has heard," noted Hale. It is his wife Angela who keeps him grounded and helps keep the symptoms of his illness in check. She travels with him and even does his sound check before his performance, whether he is on tour or playing at home in New York.

His need for quiet before a show keeps him at home or in his hotel room until performance time. Hale also related a story of the time when Harrell's medicine caused a toxic reaction, nearly killing him. When he stopped taking it, the outcome was "fascinating and frightening. His moods changed more quickly and furiously than ever, from happy to sad, confident to insecure ... he became something close to affable. He would buy groceries and leave them in front of his neighbors' doors as anonymous gifts. On the bandstand, when his turn came to solo, he would stun his audiences by scat singing in falsetto. His emergent personality was wonderful, and it was terrifying."

After over 30 years of playing for the public, Harrell defies his challenges every day and smooths them away with his 17-piece orchestra--a feat for someone without the distress his illness can bring. From the time he listened to his father's whistling around the house and became hooked on the sounds that brought America out of a devastating war, big bands have been his true love. Following a performance at Los Angeles' area Jazz Bakery in December of 1999, Los Angeles Times critic Don Heckman noted that "many of the pieces were either arranged or composed decades ago." "Chasin the Bird," was orchesrated in 1964; "Dream," 1968; and "Times Mirror," in 1993. "Yet there was a consistency of style and manner stretching across the entire program of pieces, convincing evidence of the persistent survival powers of Harrell's extraordinary creativity."

By 2000, it had been nearly 50 years since Harrell first picked up a trumpet to play. What has kept him going can best be described in his own words to Hale: "you merge with the infinite and transcend your ego. Sometimes it seems to flow without any conscious effort." As a child he might have been precocious. As a veteran adult musician, he has proven that he has a true genius that audiences cherish.

by Jane Spear

Tom Harrell's Career

Started playing professionally at age 13; played with big bands of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, 1969-70; began leading own bands, 1989.

Tom Harrell's Awards

"Jazz Trumpeter of the Year," Down Beat, 1977-99.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 16 years ago

Where is the movie?