Like Night and Day

By JONATHAN EIG
Esquire, December 1998


TOM HARRELL, dressed all in black, stands in a dark corner of a crowded Chicago nightclub. Sometimes he prefers a closet, but tonight the corner will do. He's clearing the voices from his head, trying to stay cool. Don't worry, he tells himself over and over, be positive...believe in yourself...count your blessings....The banalities don't stick, but they help push aside the voices a bit, and now he is ready to go to work.

Harrell shuffles out of the darkness and onto the stage, where the four members of his band wait, and he begins shaking. His eyebrows twitch. His lips smack. He stares at the ground, trying hard not to make eye contact with his audience. He doesn't want to give the voices or the hallucinations a chance to pop back into his head. "I apologize for my lack of charisma," he once told a club full of people. As he raises his trumpet, the golden spotlight strikes stars on the horn's bell. Even as he puts the cold mouthpiece to his lips, his twitching never quite stops. He takes a deep breath, and for one frozen moment, all is quiet. Tranquillity hangs on an unplayed note.

The trumpeter begins to blow, playing silky ribbons of sixteenth notes that rise and fall. Behind him, the band beats a latin-jazz rhythm. Then he tosses in a handful of slower, cloudier notes that curl and fade away.

Harrell is one of the finest jazz trumpeters in the world. He is also schizophrenic. Backstage after the set, he is impossible to talk to. He sits alone on a ragged sofa in a small dressing room. His wife, Angela, ushers me into the room and makes the introduction. I try small talk, but he is unable to speak. His head shakes, and his lips move as if he's trying to release trapped words.

"Jonathan plays the trumpet," Angela tells her husband, trying to break the ice.

I tell him that I would like to interview him at his home in New York.

He tries again to form sounds. Nothing. Fifteen seconds of silence pass, and I am tempted several times to fill the empty space with babble.

"Bring your trumpet," he finally says.


I arrive on a hot Friday afternoon in August, trumpet case slung over my shoulder. Harrell lives in Washington Heights, and his apartment has a gorgeous view of the George Washington Bridge, the Hudson River, and the Palisades. But on the day of my visit, as on most days, the curtains are drawn. The place smells of grilled steak, which Harrell eats, entirely without seasoning, at least once a day. He puts away his dishes and walks slowly out of the kitchen to shake my hand and lead me to a chair. Most of the walls are lined with dark wooden cabinets that hold Harrell's music. Each drawer contains the score for a different composition, and by a quick count, there are at least two hundred drawers.

After saying hello, Harrell vanishes for fifteen minutes, then suddenly joins me at a darkwood dining room table. He appears much as he did in the club: nervous, shaky, and reluctant or unable to communicate. He is dressed all in black, same as always, and he is even taller than I remembered. His shaggy hair and beard have begun turning gray. His lips are purple and moist, like thin slices of raw sirloin, and his pale-blue eyes match almost perfectly the clear sky beyond his curtained windows.

Even though there are no buildings within sight of the apartment, Harrell sometimes believes he is being watched. At other times, he believes his home has been bugged. Quite often, he hears voices. Tom Harrell did this to somebody. Tom Harrell did that to somebody, they say, and those voices sometimes hurl him deep into a ravine of guilt and depression. When the voices speak, or when visual hallucinations beset him, his shaking worsens. Angela advises me not to use a tape recorder during the interview and to be prepared to come back another day if he doesn't want to talk.


Tom Harrell was born in 1946 in Urbana, Illinois, and grew up in Los Altos, California. His father taught business psychology at Stanford, and his mother worked as a statistician. Tom topped his father's IQ of 146, and he early on showed extraordinary talent in music and art. By the time he was eight, he was writing and illustrating his own children's books, which revealed the work of a precocious, original mind. In one book, young Tom told the story of a little boy who goes to a doctor for treatment of a mosquito bite and gets diagnosed with '

It was his father's constant whistling and his impressive jazz record collection that inspired Tom to begin playing the trumpet. By the time he turned thirteen, he was jamming with professional bands around the Bay Area. When he was seventeen, he went off to Stanford, and it was at about that time that his parents and sister began to notice that the buoyancy was draining from his personality. He became surly and aloof, a social misfit, and, at one very low point, he tried to kill himself.

When he was in his early twenties, Harrell was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, which combines the paranoia of schizophrenia with the wild mood swings of manic depression, and he was given drugs to help control the condition. The medication slowed his speech, gave him headaches, and robbed him of sleep, but he was able to carry on as a professional musician, working his way from band to band. Only in the world of jazz, where abnormal behavior has always been the tradition, could Harrell fit so nicely. After all, Charles Mingus spent time in the mental ward at Bellevue, Bud Powell did his own tour of psychiatric hospitals, the great Sun Ra thought he came from another planet, and Thelonious Monk probably did.

Harrell has recorded a dozen albums for small record companies. But in the past two years, since he signed a contract with the RCA Victor label, he's begun to gain recognition outside the hardcore group of fans who had previously followed his work. The readers of Down Beat recently voted him the world's best trumpet player. With his major-label releases, most recently The Art of Rhythm, even the mainstream press has begun to take note. "Pure melodic genius," declared one discerning newsmagazine.

And the melodies are the genius's own. Harrell prefers his original compositions to standards, He warns listeners to work as they listen, to attempt to understand the feelings behind his songs.

The musicians who have worked with Harrell report some odd moments as well as magical ones. In an airport, if the hustle and bustle become too much for him, he might wander off to a quiet spot in a parking garage and blow his trumpet until the noises in his head hush. Sometimes he will hear a chord in the hum of the refrigerator or the engine of a passing jet and work the rest of the day writing a composition based on what he has heard. Once, on a cab ride in Los Angeles with bandmate Gregory Tardy, Harrell began weeping uncontrollably because he was struck by the beauty of a tune on the cabbies radio. Tardy can't remember the song, but he says it was some Top Forty pop number he had heard a hundred times and never paid attention to before.

Angela travels with Harrell and helps keep him from getting distracted. His need for intense periods of quiet concentration guides almost every moment of his life. When he has a gig, he won't leave his apartment or his hotel room until it is time to play. He sends Angela to do the sound check and bring him food. Harrell says he feels awfully alone at times. He sometimes thinks life would be easier if he were to work full-time as a composer and arranger, because he wouldn't have to face the pressures of travel and three-set-a-night gigs. But Angela and his bandmates account for almost all the human companionship he's got, and he can't stand the thought of being isolated.

Once, a few years ago, after his medicine caused a toxic reaction and nearly killed him, Harrell stopped taking it. The results were fascinating and frightening. His moods changed more quickly and furiously than ever, from happy to sad, confident to insecure. His posture improved, his tremors vanished, and he became something close to affable. He would buy bags of groceries and leave them in front of his neighbors' doors as anonymous gifts. On the bandstand, when his turn came to solo, he would stun his audiences by scat singing in falsetto. His emergent personality was wonderful, and it was terrifying. He would go for five-hour walks in the middle of the night, and he would frequently leave all the taps in the apartment running, in tribute, he said, to the Water God.


Harrell never quite looks me in the eye. He stares at his lap, hops quickly from one thought to the next, and raises his eyelids only briefly. At one point, he says he doesn't think he should go on speaking to me, because he feels tremendous guilt for not having been born black. Jazz is black music, he says, and it seems unfair for a white man to be celebrated for his work. He can't separate himself from these thoughts, and all my attempts to change the subject are in vain. He begins to cry, and he lets the tears roll into his beard. He excuses himself, and twenty minutes later he returns with a tall glass of milk and acts as if nothing had happened. He glances at my trumpet case and a book of music paper I have with me. "Do you compose?" he asks.

"No," I say. "But my teacher wants me to write a new melody based on the chords to 'Night and Day.' "

He looks at my weak attempt.

"Oh, this is really nice," he says. His voice is high and pinched in the throat, and my mind scrambles from one television cartoon character to another, trying to place it. "You have some nice ideas here,"

He is incapable of criticizing, except when it applies to himself, but we are off and running, at least, talking about flat nines and flat flat nines and some other nines I pretend to understand. He is most comfortable on the subject of music, about the lovely way Louis Armstrong used scat singing to show that words were not needed to communicate feelings, about how Miles Davis played many of the same rhythms as Armstrong yet cast them in darker colors, and about Charlie Parker's belief that great music is born when musicians forget their long hours of study at the moment of creation.

"You merge with the infinite and transcend your ego," he says, describing how it feels to play. He takes a long, shaky pause. "Sometimes it seems to flow without any conscious effort."

All music has the human cry at its base, he says, and even the saddest songs can lead people out of the darkness of depression. "I think the more emotion you experience, the more you can bring to the music," he says. "Some people say you don't have to suffer to play music...." He takes another long pause. "I don't know, but, umm..." His eyebrows begin leaping wildly, his mouth moves in silence, and his head shakes side to side so much I begin to think he's stable now and the whole room is moving behind him. "That's a really difficult question. You don't want to be self-destructive. At the same time, sadness is a part of everyone's life, and music can express the sadness people are feeling and bring them together. You shouldn't hide from your feelings.

"Sometimes, I guess when I get paranoid, it can make me distracted," he continues. "But sometimes, if I feel really depressed, it can give me humility, which makes it sometimes easier to concentrate, which makes it easier to transcend my ego. I may be drawn to worrying because it's a form of excitement."

When Harrell runs out of words, he takes me into his music studio, a sound-proof extra bedroom with double-paned windows and closed curtains. There are dozens of tubes of lip balm and hundreds of sheets of handwritten music scattered about. He sits at his keyboard and stares at a work in progress for trumpet and strings.

"Play it," Angela gently requests.

The opening chords are very sad. The music moves slowly, by half steps and subtle shades. The key signature is in a constant state of flux, like a chameleon moving from plant to wall, sunlight to shade. Harrell's spine curls into a question mark. He stares straight ahead at the lightly penciled notes, concentrating intensely as his milk-white fingers move slowly over the keys. I hear dark holes without bottom and chaos brought barely under the control of the composer's hand. This is the source of the strength in Harrell's music. He shows us the darkness and confusion, and he makes beauty from it.

Harrell is at peace now. When he finishes, he looks at me and holds his gaze.

"That was so sad," I say.

He smiles, for the first time.

"Thanks," he says. He takes a long pause. The twitching has almost vanished. "Wanna do 'Night and Day'?" he asks.


Tom Harrell - Like Night and Day
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