Craig Harris: Trombonist/Bandleader/Composer
The Joint be Really Jumpin!!
Every other Monday night at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem you can hear some real Jazz. Since most of the Jazz venues are downtown and charge hefty prices to see a show, the Dwyer has broken the pattern with excellent Jazz performance at a pittance: ten bucks! The vibe is informal, the acoustics great, the room intimate. It other words, it’s just the right atmosphere for Jazz Performance. And if you love Jazz you more than get your money’s worth. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say it’s the best entertainment value in the Apple!
The Dwyer is a unique cultural institution that caters to the cultural needs of the Harlem community, and in a relatively short time it has become a new Mecca for a wide range of cultural activities. Recently Esther Armah, playwright and host of WBAI’s morning drive time show Wake-Up Call, debuted a play that candidly explored the issues of racism, sexism and economic mobility in American society, and Visual alchemist Ademola Olugbefola is exhibiting a retrospective from his half century as a working artist in their gallery. Every kind of creative activity can be found it this temple to art.
But Mondays are devoted to the art of Jazz, the classical art music of Afro-Americans and the quintessential American art that embodies in its philosophy and practice the most cherished ideals of American civilization. The shows are held every other week and they have the atmosphere of an open workshop where new musical concepts are being explored.
Hence there is much experimentation and free expression within the organized ensemble concept. When master musicians come together in this kind of environment magical things can happen, and there was much sonic alchemy produced in the Dwyer on the night I attended. While I have long believed that no one loves their job more than musicians, there is a special joy in making music that allows for the maximum creative contribution of each player. That’s why musicians like Bennie Goodman, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws and Wynton Marsalis gave up prestigious careers in European Classical Mucis to play jazz.
For dedicated musical virtuosos the joy of performance in collaboration with other masters is a natural high that no material reward can match. That’s why serious musicians continue to play music when other career paths may offer more lucrative rewards. While money has its virtues, it enables us to satisfy the material needs of life, creating great art elevates the soul. Making music is feeling more addictive than dope, and nobody personifies this joy more exuberantly than Craig Harris.
With a broad smile that never seems to abandon his face, even Ray Charles could see the pure ecstasy that appears to engulf Harris as he strikes up the band and swings his trombone like a magic wand. He prances, dances, and plays all over the seven positions of the slide trombone making kinetic music that appeal to the eye as well as the ear, and thrills the musically tutored and untutored alike.
The other musicians in the band seem to catch the vibe and it inspires them to explore new ideas and attempt daring things. One need only peruse the great variety of instruments on the band stand to recognize that they have come to explore new concepts of ensemble playing and expand the horizons of the small ensemble. Unlike a lot on Jazz musicians Harris is no purist; like such master instrumentalists as Hubert Laws, Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis Harris appears to get off playing music whether in the spirit of James, Brown, John Coltrane or Sun Ra.
He is Master of all genres of Afro-American music, and slips from one to the other as easily as an actor changes costumes between scenes. Thus Harris’ expansive concept of music making is an invitation to innovation, and the boys in the band make the most of it. Blending unique combinations of instrumental voices – alto and tenor saxophones blend with baritone sax, bass clarinet, trumpets and trombone – the musical performances at the Dwyer take on the aura of a revival meeting and you can feel it in yo soul.
When one listens to Harris talk about his conception of music and its purpose, it becomes clear that the deep spirituality one hears in the music is no accident. Harris is a profoundly spiritual guy and views music as a healing force that can shield one against life’s adversities; a balm to heal the sin sick soul. He attributes the healing properties of instrumental music to the fact that it is pure sound, unencumbered by the specific concerns imposed upon it by adding lyrics. Hence he believes that instrumental music can transcend the concerns of politics, philosophy, ideology and religion and provide a spiritual experience that is unique to each individual that hears it.
Yet on the other hand Harris also has a clear understanding of the power of music to enhance a lyric as well as inspire dancers. He sums up this concept in the term “Total Artistic Integration,” and one can see it come together in his musical devoted to James Weldon Johnson’s classic text “God’s Trombones,” a series of epic poems based on the sermons of “old time southern Negro preachers” in the words of Johnson. You can actually see the performance of Harris’s masterpiece by clicking the link at the bottom of this essay.
I was fascinated by the fact that Harris had chosen this work as a vehicle for his music because so few people make reference to this canonical text in Afro-American literature. In his explanation of what attracted him to this work we get a glimpse of a deeply spiritual man who views the integration of arts as a means of elevating the human condition. I can envision no nobler mission for art.
From the enthusiastic response of the audience, which ranged from open celebration and animated participation, to deep spiritual contemplation allowing the music to take your mind astral travelling, the evening was a joyous uplifting experience. Our spirits danced to the vibes of magnificent complex instrumental art music. As I testified in the beginning, if you love great Afro-American music: Jazz Monday’s at the Dwyer is the best deal in town!!!!
Portraits of the Band
Swinging the Bone
Keepin it Funky!
Stomping the Blues
Baritone Sax and Trumpet sing in Harmony
Echoes of John the Prophet
And Fast Johnny Griffin Too!
The Alto-Sang as the Tenor Thundered
No Nightingale Can Sing So Pretty
These Cats are Master Musicians
Who Can Read Around Corners
The Trumpeter Filled the Room
With Staccato Fanfare
The Evidence is in the bell of the Horn
Like Euphoric Birds
As the Saxophonists Switched Axes
And Serenaded us With Their Flutes
Where the Swing Comes From!
Pushing the Band to the Outer Limits
The Piano Man!
An imaginative Soloist and Great Accompanist
The Funk Meister!
360 Degrees of Rhythm: From Bootsy Collins to Charlie Mingus!
In a Contemplative Mood
Astral Traveling: Bewitched by the Groove
Great Musicians came out to hear the Band
Hammit Blueitt: Grand Master of the Baritone Saxophone
Cultural Alchemists Lifting us Higher!
Double click To see Graig Harris’s “God’s Trombones.”