Like many jazz musicians of his generation just after the Swing Era, Knepper became fascinated with “Modern Jazz” in general and Charlie Parker’s playing in particular.
At least once, Knepper recorded Parker live himself; he’s responsible for a recording initially distributed by Charles Mingus’s Workshop label called Bird at St. Nicks. (To conserve tape, Knepper turned the tape recorder on only during Charlie Parker’s solos.)
Despite the primary influence of jazz players on instruments other than the trombone, Jimmy’s improvising style is unique and features a personal sound that is immediately identifiable. It’s virtuosic without ever being cold or showy.
Knepper is perhaps best known for playing with Charles Mingus, but he had a varied career which included playing in the Broadway pit orchestra for the entire original run of Funny Girl.
Harrison was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1900. He was raised in Detroit, Michigan. Like Jack Teagarden, he was self largely taught, but started the trombone later, as a teenager. Soon, he was able to get work as a musician in his hometown, later gigging throughout the midwest. Harrison eventually made it to New York City, and continued a promising trajectory. There were stints with with Fess Williams, Elmer Snowden, June Clark, Billy Fowler, and even, in the early 20s, Duke Ellington.
Kaiser Marshall, Fletcher Henderson’s drummer, remembered meeting Jimmy Harrison at Small’s 5th Avenue Club in 1923, when he was playing with cornetist June Clark’s five-piece band. He recalled:
“Jimmy played riffs and often played his trombone very high, so that sometimes you would think two cornets were playing instead of one…He was crazy about Louis Armstrong, and some of the things that Louis made on his cornet or trumpet, Jimmy could play the second part of it. In fact like I said, before you could think, two trumpets were playing.”
Harrison joined Fletcher Hendersons’s band in 1925, becoming bandmates with Coleman Hawkins. Kaiser recalled that Harrison had a one-year contract with Charlie Johnson and that Fletcher Henderson had to “buy his contract in order get him.” The meeting between Jimmy and Jack Teagarden took place soon after, in part engineered by Hawkins himself at the Roseland Ballroom. Later, the musicians put together jam sessions at Marshall’s place. Kaiser again:
Harrison on record:
Blazin’ May 29, 1925 with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra: Harrison’s solo is in at 1:10:
Sweet and Hot 1931 with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra: Jimmy Harrison, trombone and vocal.
“Jack Teagarden … used to come over to our house often, sometimes staying all night, and we would have a slight jam session between Hawk who lived only a few doors from us. So Jack would play piano, Jimmy trombone, Hawkins tenor, and myself on my rubber-pad I kept at home. Then Hawk would play piano, Jack and Jimmy trombone. My, what fun we had!”
Most of Harrison’s best recorded solos are with Benny Carter‘s Chocolate Dandies, a group that at the time had a fair amount of overlap, personnel wise, with Fletcher Henderson’s aggregation.
Here’s Jimmy with his pre-Henderson employer, Charlie Johnson. With Johnson’s “Paradise Orchestra,” the tune is Walk That Thing, recorded on September 19, 1928:
Also with Johnson, The Boy in the Boat from 1928:
Here’s Jimmy with Benny Carter’s Chocolate Dandies group: Dee Blues, recorded on December 3, 1930:
In addition to arriving at similar jazz trombone styles inspired by Louis Armstrong, Harrison and Teagarden were both singers. Jimmy added something more, entertainment wise, which was a Bert Williams inspired, vaudeville-style “preaching” act. Some of these performances by Harrison were apparently recorded; none have yet surfaced.
Jimmy Harrison continued playing with Fletcher Henderson through early 1931. He joined Chick Webb‘s band next. Sadly, he became ill soon after, succumbing to a severe stomach ailment which has been described as “ulcers,” or possibly cancer. He was only 29.
Including Coleman Hawkins, musicians that enjoyed much longer careers in jazz never forgot about Jimmy Harrison. Benny Carter lauded him for his “warmth, tone, feeling and style,” and felt that recordings don’t give a full picture of his playing. Trumpeter Rex Stewart also testified to Harrison’s preeminence as a swing trombonist in mid-twenties New York, adding that, because of the trombonist’s early death, “History inadvertently and unwittingly bypassed Jim.”
In 1956, Coleman Hawkins was interviewed by Bill Grauer and Paul Bacon for Riverside Records. At one point, Hawkins recalls a period — about April, 1928, it turns out — that he played at the Roseland Ballroom with Jimmy Harrison, a trombonist and fellow member of Fletcher Henderson’s band. Hawkins and Jimmy already shared a kidding, bantering friendship, and soon, the arrival of Jack Tegarden at the Roseland would give Hawkins another thing to tease Harrison about:
Below is a transcription of this portion of the Hawkin’s interview done by writer Richard Hadlock in the 60s. Hadlock tries to contain some of Coleman’s valuable digressions, but it’s mostly accurate. I recommend listening, of course.
“I’d heard about this Teagarden . . . Jimmy and all the rest of them were downstairs, or I don’t even know if they were in yet. I heard him playin’, so I went downstairs to get Jimmy and the fellows to start kidding about it. I says, “Man, there’s a boy upstairs that plays an awful lot of trombone.” “Yeah, who’s that, Hawk?” I says, “He’s a boy from New Orleans or Texas or somethin. I don’t know. What do they call him? Jack Teagarden or somethin’. Jimmy do you know him?” “No, I’m not gonna know him . . . trombone player, ain’t he? Plays like the rest of the trombones, that’s all. I don’t see no trombones. I say the trombone is a brass instrument; it should have a sound just like a trumpet. I don’t want to hear trombone sound like a trombone. I can’t see it. I said, “Jimmy, he doesn’t sound like those trombones. He plays up high; sounds a lot like a trumpet, too.” He says, “Oh, man, I ain’t paying no mind.” Jimmy and Jack got to be the tightest of friends. After this night, I couldn’t separate Jimmy and Jack Teagarden. So we used to come up to my house practically every night . . . I don’t know how they made it, because we’d sit up there and fool around ‘til two, three, four o’clock in the afternoon–no sleep. And we were working every night. We used to go there and eat these cold cuts, cheese and crackers and stuff, and we’d do this and play–playin’ all night. Jimmy and Jack both jivin’ each other . . . trying to figure out what he lacks so he can get from the other one . . . and I dug what was going on . . . I had the piano, and they could play all night. It didn’t disturb anybody or nothin’. The house was all draped and carpeted . . . Both of them got their trombones, and I played piano for them. This used to go on all night long, listening to records and eating and talking and back to playing again–every night. You couldn’t keep Jack out of Harlem . . . He made every rent party . . . Jack made himself right at home. And always had that horn. He must have never slept, playing horn night and day. But that was a funny experience when Jack came up, ‘cause Jimmy never heard anyone play trombone like that.”
A long time ago, in that great and expansive past history of the slide trombone, at least two things were foretold:
The trombone (sackbut, serpenty-slide, etc.,) will be made into something called a “video game” featuring a trombonist with a giant head. This game will be played even by people who do not play the trombone, and lo, even by people who have no real interest in playing a real trombone. Even further lo, this game shall sound much weirder than a real trombone, with slide accuracy that shall have real trombonists everywhere shaking their heads, not in a good way, even though hitting slide positions is apparently part of the whole point of the game.
Trombonists will, well into the future, get together and talk about which slide oil, lubricant, etc., really works the best (on real trombones).
You’re holding it wrong, dude.
The first prophecy was always going to be a little tricky, and frankly it seemed like a long shot, but here we are. Welcome to the future! It’s just starting now. The second? Easy. Fulfilled for years. The problem, of course, is that no one will ever be able to really decide which slide lube works the best. Oh sure — people will get close. Here in the technical vastness of the future, many say the best is Yamaha Slide Lubricant, which in the more immediate past was known as Yamaha Slide Oil. Some “swear by” Slide-O-Mix, or “Rapid Comfort.” But when it comes to slide action, will there ever be any real comfort?
The documentary has been on YouTube since late 2021, and recounts the story of one the most universally revered and beloved jazz musicians, Jack Teagarden. Importantly, this documentary work on Big Tea — now so easily and freely available — would absolutely not exist without the work of the late Joe Showler*, the Canadian record collector who exhaustively documented nearly every day of Teagarden’s career.