Herbie Miller, Contributor
There is an added dimension to the jazz experience when listening with someone whose knowledge of the art, in particular, and the social conditions that inspires it, is rooted in the traditional, embraces new advancements, and remains flexible and spontaneous as the art itself. Such a connoisseur was Harry Graham.
When announcing Harry's passing last week, his daughter, Carol Narcisse said, "In 2007, or thereabout, Harry had a major stroke. That and several minor ones took a toll on his physical health and well-being. The quality of his life declined steadily. Although not what he ever wanted, Harry met this challenge with the same quiet, calm demeanour. His several nurses often remarked on how 'easy' he was to be cared for".
When listening to jazz with this aficionado, conversation about the artistes added depth to the listening experience. He was able to express levels and degrees of knowledge that linked history and society to the arts. For example, by constantly drawing references to the time and conditions that shaped them and inspired their music, in his easy unaffected style, Harry was able to enliven a conversation by illuminating the genius of Charlie Parker, the generosity and larger-than-life exuberance of his heartbeat, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk's idiosyncrasies, the conflicting victory and tragedy of Billie Holiday's life, Duke Ellington's prodigious skills and suave demeanour, Coltrane's humility, and the duality of Miles Davis' dark introspection and absolute cool, linking them all to the peculiar social conditions of America.
Harry could always be counted on to provide a second line that animated the listening experience; he could elaborate and extend with visceral clarity, jazz's complex sensibilities.
Harry was like an educator; no he was an educator sharing, not just his admiration for the jazz aesthetic, but also the social history that surrounds it.
My first encounter with Harry was when he worked as a radio and TV jazz presenter (and later as promoter of live jazz sessions) and I, a teenager, a mere listener and observer.
I recall taping some of his programmes from radio and the audio track from TV before videotape recorders arrived on the scene.
One such recording, which I recently listened to, featured the late Seymour 'Foggy' Mullings who Harry described as perhaps the most accomplished pianist this country had yet produced. Another is a recording by the outstanding Jamaican tenor man Wilton Gaynair. Harry was familiar with most of these outstanding Jamaican jazz musicians and was proud and generous with information about them.
Harry and I were jazz acquaintances until our relationship solidified when we both lived in New York in the late 1980s through the '90s. I recall we re-connected through his daughter, the late Jennifer Graham, who lived in the Bronx and whom I frequently saw at reggae and world music shows.
Harry and I attended jazz clubs in New York to hear Cedar Walton, Elvin Jones, and Woody Shaw among others. We hung out at places like the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note and went to performances at Carnegie Hall.
After returning to Jamaica, Harry presented a half-day jazz programme on Radio Mona, now News Talk 93, and on each trip home I would either go see him or we would talk by phone, updating each other on what was taking place on the jazz scene.
We talked about the circumstances that engendered jazz, enriched its form, and provided inspiration for Jamaican musicians like Gaynair.
Harry could do that, not only because he was so rounded, so well informed and selective in his taste, but as well, he was such an urbane gentleman who was a product of a generation of such gentlemen, some of whom saw action in two world wars, and were among the first wave of migrants to both the United Kingdom and North America.
Men and women who assimilated a taste for the metropolis, but who had not relinquished ties to the tradition that grounded them as Jamaicans.
His sense of human pride was also something to be admired. His knowledge of the great personalities of the past in areas such as social activism, sports, and music and, in general, black achievement was admirable.
Obviously well read, Harry was grounded in the tradition that produced self-made men and women rounded in social skills, possessing a sense of pride in self, in community and country. What he exemplified was a kind of personality that anyone wishing to make the best of their own life would want to emulate.
I, for one, respected him as such. For me, Harry was a mentor, friend and a support in my endeavours as a jazz scholar and entrepreneur.
He was an exemplar of the best of what it means to be a Jamaican. Though for the past few years he was very ill, the result of a devastating stroke, his passing is still a great loss and he will certainly be missed. It was worth spending time in his company.