Making Music That Catches the Wind

Premier jazz trumpeter Tom Harrell outplays his schizophrenia.

May/June 2008

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Making Music That Catches the Wind

Courtesy J. Chriss; Co.

At the Iridium Jazz Club’s tiny tables are several groups of young Europeans on a pilgrimage to hear trumpeter and composer Tom Harrell. Some of his fellow jazz professionals, many graying, came early to get front-row seats. Toward the back are some lucky tourists who’ve walked the few blocks up from Times Square.

Burly sax player Joe Lovano takes the quartet’s first solo, then comes Harrell. With his horn up, he is a compelling figure: a gray-haired, ghost-pale man in black leather jacket and black jeans. From his trumpet comes a cascade of notes, impossibly high and impossibly fast, yet with each note articulated. He’s inventive, completely concentrated, playing with the audience’s expectations about where the tune will go next. Then, on a standard—“Body and Soul”—his playing turns slow and sweet, twining with Lovano’s sax.

Harrell usually plays and tours the United States and Europe with the intensively rehearsed quintet he leads. Tonight’s quartet plays together expertly even without rehearsal; they trust each other. Harrell and Lovano have played together for at least 25 years. Cindy Blackman, intense and glamorous, is on drums; Cameron Brown, with 40 years of recording behind him, plays double bass. For this week each will lay improvisations over Harrell’s compositions, and every performance will be distinctive.

Newsweek has called Harrell a genius, and Entertainment Weekly named his recording The Art of Rhythm its best jazz album of 1998, celebrating “Harrell’s arrival as a composer and as the premier trumpeter of his generation. (Sorry, Wynton).” Phil Schaap, curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center, says of Harrell, “He has it all—technique, lyricism, beauty and energy.”

But the sight of Harrell when he lowers his horn is also compelling. His head is bowed, his chest caves in, the hand holding the trumpet hangs limp. His face is without affect or reaction. Not everyone in the audience knows that he has schizophrenia; the disease was diagnosed when Harrell, ’67, was a Stanford freshman. For more than four decades he has struggled with the illness and with the debilitating side effects of the imperfect medications used to control it.

His appearance unnerves people, even as their hearts go out to him. He’s aware of the discomfort that disperses only when he is playing his shimmering music. He once apologized to an audience, “I’m sorry I’m not a more charismatic figure.”

It is, of course, a cliché to cite music’s power. We have all, as listeners, experienced its charms—been soothed by lullabies, excited by fast tempos, consoled by stately rhythms. We’ve read about countless performers who proclaim that music is their reason for being. It’s another thing altogether to hear this sentiment from Harrell, for whom music literally is transforming: “One of the first reasons I wanted to play the trumpet is that it healed me.”

There is no cure for schizophrenia, although generations of drugs developed during the past 20 years have made the disease more bearable for many. But it remains very hard for a schizophrenic to make a coherent life, much less construct a stellar career. In a typical year Harrell has between 80 and 120 performance dates in the United States, Europe, South America and Japan. His fellow performers report that he is remarkably dependable and considerate. His success is especially remarkable because he still experiences delusional thinking, hears voices and shies at noises, such as a camera’s click.

“His condition?” says Joe Lovano. “He knows how to deal with it. He’s a mature individual.”

When told about Harrell, neurologist Oliver Sacks, the author most recently of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, was reminded of one of the most studied cases of schizophrenia in history, that of Daniel Paul Schreber, a German who died in 1911. Though institutionalized, Schreber was able to write a memoir in which he observed, “During piano playing the nonsensical twaddle of the voices which talk to me is drowned. . . . Every attempt at ‘representing’ me by the ‘creation of a false feeling’ and suchlike is doomed to end in failure because of the real feeling one can put into piano-playing.”

Harrell’s fellow musicians often mention the honesty of his playing, his authentic feeling. The intensity of his playing, along with the structure of music itself and the supportive cohort of musicians who work with him, seems to mitigate the disease’s hallmarks of disordered thinking and withdrawal from other people. Harrell also benefits from his marriage to Angela Harrell, a Japanese-born science and medicine writer whom he met 16 years ago when she interviewed him for a joint Japanese TV and Discovery Channel documentary on creativity and the brain. (“She called me,” he says, with a faint smile, to joke about her being forward.) She acts as his manager, booking performances and looking after his music publishing. Hundreds of his songs, orchestrations and arrangements are used by other musicians. His compositions have been played by Carlos Santana and Vince Guaraldi; young trumpet players up for a challenge buy the sheet music, Tom Harrell—Jazz Trumpet Solos Collection.

“He could not do it himself,” Harrell’s agent Joel Chriss says. But well before having Angela’s logistical and business support—in the late 1970s—Harrell was established as one of the foremost musicians of his generation. As a teenager, he sat in on Bay Area jam sessions that sometimes included famed saxophonist Dewey Redman. After graduating from Stanford (where he played with the Band and the Stanford Symphony), Harrell toured with Stan Kenton’s band and Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd. In the 1970s he moved from big, brassy bands to more experimental music, playing with jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver. Silver was a pioneer in hard bop style, an extension of bebop that pulled in gospel, and rhythm and blues.

By age 30 Harrell was leading groups of his own. His 21 albums consist mainly of original works, with a few standards tucked in. Some of his most impressive pieces are experiments in the interplay of trumpet and voice. Early this year the French Orchestre National de Lorraine recorded a premiere of Harrell’s symphonic suite for singer Elisabeth Kontomanou. Another reason he gives for loving the trumpet is that he believes it’s the closest instrument to the human voice.

On the day we met, Harrell’s speaking voice, whether as a result of his illness or affect-dulling medication, was unmusical, a slow monotone. Our interview took place in a Lower Manhattan hotel room, with Angela sitting quietly nearby. Harrell spoke with eyes downcast, sometimes closed.

“Music always has a fantastic ability for healing. The sound is magic. Don Cherry once said, and Freud, too, by the way, that words themselves are magic sounds.” Harrell gives an almost imperceptible smile at mentioning Sigmund Freud second to Cherry, the late trumpeter.

He describes listening as a child to his grandparents’ 78-rpm recordings of Enrico Caruso arias and Aida by Giuseppe Verdi (certainly a composer who knew how to employ trumpets). He loved his parents’ Jazztone Records compilation of 1950s stars—Charlie Parker, bassist Slam Stewart and “the first time I heard Dizzy Gillespie.”

His father, Thomas W. Harrell, was a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business known for his research on the personality traits of successful business people. (His son and daughter heard him whistle Big Band tunes around the house.) His mother, Margaret, was a statistician who co-authored many of her husband’s studies. Music historian Ted Gioia, ’79, MBA ’83, remembers getting a call “out of the blue” from Professor Harrell. “I’m not even sure he knew I had been a student at the Business School. He just wanted to talk about his son. . . . He was a proud father and relished the chance to hear how much jazz musicians admired his son’s talent.”

Harrell began to play the trumpet when he was 8 and was studying Russ Garcia texts on arranging a few years later. A friend’s father who played bass and drums sometimes invited the young trumpeter to play along. “It was a revelation to me,” Harrell remembers. “I started hearing the color of the walking bass line.”

Listening to the radio one day at age 13, Harrell heard a recording of Clifford Brown, the legendary trumpeter of the 1950s who died in a car crash at age 25. “I heard a celestial sound. It was, essentially, Gabriel.” Critics credit Harrell with some of the best of the Clifford Brown qualities—incredible speed, but with clarity and precision.

In his Stanford studies, he says, “I was interested in European classical music and its parallels to American jazz. Billy Strayhorn was classically trained. Dizzy Gillespie combined the rhythm of jazz with European harmony.” He minimizes the onset of his illness in those college years as, “I dropped out for a minute,” and, later in the conversation, “I had a sort of breakdown.” Calmly, he explains, “I was able to go back after I started taking medication for my illness.”

Harrell firmly rejects any romantic notion that mental illness is in any way of benefit to an artist, something that provides unusual insight. “It’s biochemical,” he says brusquely. “First of all, take the medicine.”

Despite recent advances, medication for schizophrenia remains far from perfect. When a drug damps down the demons, in most cases it also smothers spontaneity and creativity, and in many cases antipsychotics have weakening side effects. For decades Harrell took Stelazine, an early antipsychotic that partially controlled delusions and hallucinations but gave him unpredictable muscle contractions, obviously a terrible problem for a performer. Seven years ago he switched to Seroquel, which has common side effects of dizziness and sluggishness, but causes fewer tremors.

Some paranoid sensitivity remains. Harrell took offense at my question about whether he tended to be more solidly on the beat than many jazz musicians. He angrily left the room after remembering a long ago punning criticism by the late New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, who called him, “flat-footed, like a cop on the beat.” Balliett also called Harrell “brilliant,” but that’s not what he remembers. When I had introduced the question by saying I was not a trained musician, he thought I had called him untrained.

Angela said simply, “Tom, you’re being paranoid,” and Harrell returned, suddenly calm, to continue our conversation. “Rhythm is my weak point. I sound stiff to myself sometimes.” As if to stabilize himself, he added very firmly, “Dizzy Gillespie, the greatest trumpet player, admired my playing. That’s all I’ll ever need.”

The musicians who play with Harrell view his occasionally offbeat behavior sympathetically, almost fondly. They remember a time when they were alarmed that he seemed to have gone missing in an airport. He had retreated to a spot in the parking garage to play his trumpet. Some thought the playing was to settle himself; others that he was working on a composition inspired by jet noise.

Jazz is hard work: four hours a day of practice alone, or rehearsal. Harrell manages to surmount his difficulty in communicating verbally with his musical partners: If something is different from what he intends, he’ll play a voicing on the piano rather than explain in words. Harrell also is known for the meticulous preparation of his hand-written scores. Too often, sax player Lovano says, composers turn up with something messy. “When Tom brings in a piece of music, it’s completely written and he’s confident. He counts it off and we play it the first time all the way through.”

The untutored in the Iridium’s audience enjoyed the songs, including Harrell’s best-known “Sail Away.” The educated jazz audience responded to his improvisation; fans say he never plays something you’ve heard before. Someone once said the difference between composing and improvising is that a composer has as long as necessary to create 30 seconds of music, whereas an improviser has 30 seconds. Harrell does both. “I have more ideas now than I ever had,” he says.

He’s modest about his place in the pantheon of American jazz artists, demurs that he is “not a very analytical thinker. I’m playing my feelings.” As our conversation wound down he looked up at me and said, “I can catch the wind, something that is free, something that we all share.”

The next generation of trumpet players is grateful. Ambrose Akinmusire, winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, has seen Harrell in performance. “As soon as he picks the trumpet up, it’s almost like he was meditating. You see pure concentration. I imagine people would walk away with hope, knowing all he’s been through."

CONSTANCE CASEY, a former book editor of the San Jose Mercury News, is a New York City writer who regularly contributes to

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