Max Harrison

Max Harrison

from Jazz Notes 8/3 1996

by Paul Baker
Copyright © 1996, Paul Baker

Based on correspondence with M.H.

[My wife Denise Lamb and I had the pleasure of meeting Max Harrison in London in October 1995. Over an Italian dinner in Soho we discussed music and journalism on both sides of the Atlantic, and strolling through Bloomsbury we benefited from Max's knowledge of local literary landmarks.

Upon returning to the States I shared my reflections on the visit with Royal Stokes, who suggested that Jazz Notes run a series of articles featuring the work of JJA members, like Max, whose careers had proved distinctive over several decades. This profile is intended to serve as the first in such a series. - PB]

Max Harrison's bibliography (in further detail at article's end) certainly rates him among the most knowledgeable and decorated members of our Jazz Journalists Association. His volleys sent across the bow of Jazz Notes have provided pointed commentary and a welcome international perspective on jazz and jazz writing.

Harrison recalled growing up in a very musical family and hearing lots of music on the radio, lots of records in a house full of books whose walls were crowded with pictures. He studied piano from the age of six and studied theory with a local teacher, which led to further study in harmony, counterpoint, fugue, form, analysis, orchestration, and composition. His mentors include Anthony Milner, Iain Hamilton and Matyas Seiber, all of whom are profiled in The New Grove Dictionary of Music.

Of his early years as a student of theory and composition, Harrison says, "I wrote a lot of pieces, not because I imagined I had any creative gift - I soon came to realize that I didn't - but because I wanted to know what the composer's struggle with musical material actually felt like."

During the early stages of this activity Harrison found a job with a classical music publisher, a field in which he was to work for many years as editor, arranger, and orchestrator. While this was going on he found himself writing about music increasingly, and this gradually took over.

"This proved lucky for me in the long run because the classical music publishing scene in London largely dried up in the 1960s," he says. "By chance, I started writing about jazz first, when Jazz Monthly got going in 1955; then on classical music two years later with Twentieth Century.

"My main beats, however, were with The Times and The Gramophone. For the former I wrote hundreds of reviews of classical concerts and for the latter hundreds of reviews of classical records, many of these latter substantial. At the same time I contributed hundreds of reviews of jazz records chiefly to Jazz Monthly, plus many articles from which A Jazz Retrospect contains just a small selection. I could fill that volume at least half a dozen times over with material already written, let alone material I could still write, if a publisher gave me a chance."

Harrison's current project is to finish The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2 - Modernism to Postmodernism. With that behind him, he intends to return to what he was doing before the Essential Records projects, namely, a book about Rachmaninoff. Then he intends to expand to full length a book on Scriabin that he wrote for the BBC Music Guides series of paperbacks. ("While I was writing this BBC Publications turned itself into BBC Enterprises, meaning that they were bored stiff by anything not tied to a major TV series, and so they didn't publish my text, though my agent forced them to pay for it.")

Max Harrison's publications include contributions to many periodicals, including The London Times, Jazz Monthly, The Gramophone, The Jazz Review, Illustrated London News, Jazz News, The Daily Telegraph, The Musical Times, Jazz Forum, Composer, Jazz Studies, Record Collector, Jazz International, Audio Record Review, Jazz Perspectives, Twentieth Century, Les Cahiers du Jazz, Hi-Fi Newsand Record Review, Musica Jazz, Music and Musicians, Jazz Notes, Musical Opinion, Classical Music, Hampstead and Highgate Express, The Strad, Record Bargains, Crescendo, The Wire, Journal of the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors, The Times of London , The Times Higher Educational Supplement, Der Jazz Freund, Classical Piano, Early Music Today.

Essays by Harrison also appear in Martin Williams' The Art of Jazz , Stanley Dance's Jazz Era: The '40s, Jazz: New Perspectives on the History of Jazz (ed. Nat Hentoff and Albert McCarthy, 1960), This is Jazz (ed. Ken Williamson, 1961), Jazzmen of Our Time (ed. Raymond Horricks, 1962), Just Jazz Vols. 2, 3, 4 (ed. Sinclair Traill and Gerald Lascelles, 1959-61); Jazz on Record (ed. Albert McCarthy, 1968), The Cambridge Companion to the Violin (ed. Robin Stowell, 1990).

He has also contributed to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Sohlmans Musiklexicon, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Contemporary Composers, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, and The Cambridge Companion to the Violin.

He is the author of Charlie Parker (1960), Unpleasant for the Peasants (1966), The Lieder of Brahms (1972), Modern Jazz: The Essential Records 1945-70 [with Alun Morgan, Michael James, Jack Cooke, Ronald Atkins, 1975], A Jazz Retrospect (1976), The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 1 - Ragtime to Swing [with Charles Fox, Eric Thacker, 1984], and The New Grove Gospel, Blues, and Jazz [with Paul Oliver, William Bolcom, 1987].


C o m m e n t s

Max Harrison's liner notes on the album "Legrand Jazz" 1 of 2
Jack Stewart April 17, 03

Harrison was really in left field when he wrote for the subject album in 1986. He obviously doesn't readily recognize the distinctive sound of individual musical instruments. He states that there is a clarinet heard in "Stompin' at the Savoy" and no other numbers. Being a clarinetist, he is wrong on both counts. There is certainly no clarinet solo in Stompin' however there are clarinets in the final number - "In a Mist". His references to the soloists of the album are so vague that I doubt if he were familiar with the sounds of the great jazz musicians on this tremendous album.

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