Jazz musician, composer, arranger
A longtime figure of Detroit’s jazz scene, Theodore “Teddy” Harris Jr. has found international acclaim as a pianist, soprano saxophonist, composer, and arranger. In his travels around the world, he has played command performances for the Emperor of Japan and Jordan’s King Hussein. Affectionately known as the “Good Doctor,” Harris has worked with numerous jazz greats, stage personalities, and famed Motown artists, including the Supremes for whom he served as music director for sixteen years. Though a noted musician and bandleader, Harris earns his livelihood from composing and arranging music for ensemble instrumentation, stage performances, and motion picture soundtracks: “That’s how I make my living,” he stated in The Detroit News, “with that pencil.” Through his New Breed Bebop Society Orchestra, and as an artist in residence in the Highland Park school system, Harris instructs and inspires young musicians to find their own creative voices within Detroit’s great jazz tradition.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 27, 1934, Theodore Harris Jr., hailed from a musical family. Harris’ grandfather played trombone, and his mother the keyboard. A pianist and organist, his father performed in the pit orchestra of Detroit’s Paradise Theatre, backing such famed jazzmen as Cab Calloway and Oran “Hot Lips” Page. At age seven, Harris first heard Duke Ellington at the Paradise Theatre, an event which, as he stated in a 1993 promotional program, “had the biggest affect on my musical life. I liked everything about Ellington…. I knew exactly what I wanted to do after that.” By age fourteen Harris was allowed to sit-in at the Paradise with Lionel Hampton’s big band.
Harris attended Eastern and Northern High School, where he served as student band director at both institutions. While at Northern he formed a student band with trumpeter Donald Byrd and bassist Paul Chambers. Known for its wealth of talented jazz pianists, Detroit provided Harris with musical mentors such as Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris. Five years his senior, Barry Harris was, as Teddy Harris recounted in a private interview, “a natural teacher. We all met at his house. Barry did all the playing and I learned from him informally by observing his technique.” Also a student of reed instruments, Harris played his first professional music job on tenor saxophone, while accompanying his father in a organ trio at the Club Gay 90s.
In mid 1950s Harris recorded for Jack Brown’s Fortune label, cutting sides with such local groups as the Diablos and Andre Williams. “Fortune was a small label—a nickel and dime operation—but it put out a lot of music,” recalled Harris in a private interview. “Fortune’s owner, Jack Brown, would give you twenty dollars
Born Teddy Harris Junior, August 27, 1934, in Detroit, Michigan; son of Theodore Harris Sr. (pianist and organist) and Ruth Harris; married Matha Harris (production company owner and booking agent); children Tanya, Karla, Margo; education: New England Conservatory of Music, 1955–1957; studied with Nadia Boulanger 1959–1961.
At age 14 performed on saxophone with father at local club; early 1950s recorded for Detroit-based Fortune label; 1957 recorded on Jackie Wilson’s hit “Reet Petite”; performed in Paris with saxophonist Eli “Lucky” Thompson in 1959–1961; performed in local Detroit clubs 1961 and in 1962 joined Motown Record’s Motortown Revue; worked with bassist Ernie Farrow 1963; mid 1960s served as musical director for Aretha Franklin; member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band 1969–1970; served as musical director for the Supremes 1970–1986; 1973 scored tile number for motion picture Jonathan Livingston Seagull; early 1980s formed the New Breed Bebop Society Orchestra; embarked on world tour with the Michigan Jazz Masters.
Awards: Outstanding Contributions (United Negro College Fund) 1986; Distinguished Recognition Medal (City of Detroit) 1990; State of Michigan Special Tribute 1992; Legends of Jazz International Hall of Fame; Michiganian of the Year 1993; Jazz Masters Award 1993; 1993 Key to the City of Detroit; Spirit of Detroit Award 1994, Governor’s Michigan Artist Award 1995.
Address: 12950 John R., Detroit, Michigan, 48203
to play some music, and later I’d hear myself playing on records as an unknown member on a Diablo or Andre Williams’ band.”
In 1955 Harris attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he studied with Dr. Russ Morganstern. In 1957 he recorded with several other local Detroiters on Jackie Wilson’s first hit “Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You Ever Want to Meet).” During the same year, while studying at the conservatory, Harris was drafted into the army, and eventually became a member of the Fourth Armored Division. He performed as guest saxophonist with the 7th Army Symphony Orchestra and Soldier’s Show Company, a ensemble featuring Eddie Harris, Don Ellis, Cedar Walton, Albert “Tootie” Heath, and Leo Wright. As Harris related in a private interview, “Eddie Harris showed me things on the piano and I would show him things on the saxophone. Later, he would become an international talent as a tenor horn player.” Around 1958 Harris wrote his first composition “Soul Sister,” which he sent to Yusef Lateef who later recorded it on the Impulse! label.
In 1959 Harris received an overseas discharge from the army in Germany and traveled to Paris, where he encountered his friend, saxophonist Eli “Lucky” Thompson, performing at the Blue Note. Hired by Thompson at the Blue Note, he spent a year at the club playing piano behind the famous saxophonist. In Paris, Harris studied musical composition and orchestration with Nadia Boulanger, whom Tyler Stovall called, in his work Paris Noir, African Americans in the City of Light, “the world’s leading teacher of music theory whose former pupils included many of the great names in the twentiethcentury classical tradition.”
In 1961, after arriving back in Detroit, Harris performed with a drummer in the Swamp Room of Sunnie Wilson’s Mark Twain Hotel, and eventually expanded his group into a formidable unit. Harris’ job at he Swamp Room also allowed him to meet many of the hotel’s famous jazz guests who often sat in with the band. Around 1962, while performing at Odum’s Cave, Harris was hired by Flint bandleader Choker Campbell to play in the orchestra for the Motortown Revue. During his years with the revue Harris traveled with such stellar acts as Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson. Always balancing his work in popular music with jazz, Harris worked with bassist Ernie Farrow in 1963. As he stated in the Detroit News, “… Bebop—that is what I love; that is all I want to do.”
During his career Harris has sought, through his skills as an arranger, to imbue popular and soul songs with a sophisticated harmonic sensibility. During the 1960s, Harris spent five and-a-half years as musical director for Aretha Franklin. Caught in performance on Aretha Franklin’s 1965 album Yeah! In Person With Her Quartet, Harris—in the company of bassist James “Beans Richardson”, drummer Hindel Butts, and special guest guitarist Kenny Burrell—provides fine support behind Franklin whose voice, set within a jazz musical backdrop, covers a range of standards and blues numbers. Jazz writer and scholar Dan Morganstern noted, in the album’s liner notes, the quality of the assembled accompanists, including Harris, “who,” as he noted, “always seems to know where Aretha is going.”
By the late 1960s Harris performed with fellow Motown Revue artist Thomas “Beans” Bowles in the Dashki band. During this time, harmonica/bandleader Paul Butterfield contacted Harris. Following Buttterfield’s attempt to hire Gil Evans as arranger, he, upon the recommendation of the band’s bassist Rod Hicks, hired Harris as pianist and arranger for his progressive blues ensemble. With Butterfield’s ten piece band, Harris appeared on the 1969 Elektra album Keep On Moving, a work which featured “Love March.” Collectively written by Harris and other band members, “Love March” served as the theme for the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival when the band appeared at the legendary concert in 1969. A year later, Harris’ appeared on the album The Paul Butterfield Blues Band Live, a recording which included his composition “Number Nine.” The Butterfield Blues Band was one of the best bands I’ve ever played with,” recounted Harris in a private interview. “We had a number of fine musicians like saxophonists David Sanborn and George Dinwiddie, and when I discovered that Butterfield could play flute I eventually arranged music for four flutes.”
In 1970, after his stint with the Butterfield Blues Band, Harris became musical director and arranger for the Supre;mes—a job which would span sixteen years, and would include shows in Europe, the Middle East, and South America. The group’s rhythm section played live performances within an orchestral setting, and often opened the show with Harris’ original jazz compositions. Throughout the decade Harris also played jazz musicians such as Thad Jones, Kenny Burrell, and Lionel Hampton.
In 1973 Harris scored music for the title song of the motion picture Jonathan Livngston Seagull, “I Must Learn to Fly.” While taking part in such projects, Harris remained a stalwart figure in the local Detroit jazz scene. On January 2 and April 2, 1976, he attended sessions for the album The Hastings Street Jazz Experience, where he played soprano saxophone, piccolo, piano, and contributed the original composition “Yes Lord.” In 1978 Harris led a large ensemble for a concert series, Composers Concepts Concert. Billed with Yusef Lateef, Harris showcased such original compositions, “Yes Lord” and “Passion Dance.” Attending the performance a local music writer noted, in Extra, “Passion Dance’was an exotic Harris composition in which he made excellent use of all the music forces present. Strings and voices were perfectly blended and the piece featured fiery solos by Herbie Williams on trumpet, Ron English on guitar, and Dr. Beans Bowles on baritone sax.”
In the early 1980s Harris formed the New Breed Bebop Society Orchestra while heading a summer arts workshop for economically disadvantaged youngsters—a program founded by Motown singer Kim Weston. In her memoir, Dancing in the Streets, Motown singer Martha Reeves expressed, “Kim’s project was created to allow underprivileged teenagers a chance to learn music firsthand from some of the best teachers available, like Teddy Harris, Earl Van Dyke, Ernie Rogers, and Arnold Clarrington. It was ingenious and kept a lot of music students out of trouble during their summer vacation from school.” Harris also reaches people of the community by holding workshops in high schools, libraries, and the basement of his home, which too has served as a rehearsal space for local and nationally famous artists.
During the mid 1980s, Harris led the house band at Dummy George’s, and led a big band often accompanied with The Detroit Voices. He too served as musical director for Martha Reeves & The Vandellas for several of the group’s 1980s European appearances. Recipient of the 1993 Arts Midwest Jazz Award, Harris embarked on a 1995 world tour with The Michigan Jazz Masters, comprised of Arts Midwest Jazz award-winners drummer Roy Brooks, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, pianist Harold McKinney, and clarinetist Wendell Harrison. On their tour the Jazz Masters played a command performance for Jordan’s King Hussein at the Royal Cultural Center in Amman. That same year, the Michigan Jazz Masters recorded the album Urban Griots, ’which features Harris original bebop-styled composition “That’s Cool.”
Harris continues to balance his career as a musician and educator—a role which prompted a writer in the Detroit News, to honor him as “Detroit’s godfather of jazz.” Over the last seventeen years his position as artist in residence with the Highland Park School system has allowed Harris to instruct young musicians in the art of jazz. In the Detroit News Harris discussed his role as educator: “Some of these kids have talent, but not the social skills to go along with it. I was the same way coming up. If it hadn’t been for the older guys wrapping their arms around me, showing me things…. So I’m just giving back.” In a private interview, Harris asserted, “I am honored to be associated with the city. When I’m overseas, and people find out I’m from Detroit, I’m automatically accorded a great deal of respect as a musician.” Whether performing in small groups or conducting for large ensembles, Harris makes Detroit his home and the continents of the world his stage.
Passion Dance, Teddy Harris Jr. Quartet, Platinum Disc Records.
I Won’t Say Goodbye, Teddy Harris Jr. Quartet, Platinum Disc Records.
Dr. Tee’s Blues, Teddy Harris Jr. Quartet, Platinum Disc Records.
M.T.K.M., Teddy Harris Jr. Quintet, Platinum Disc Records.
Yes Lord, Teddy Harris Sextet, Platinum Disc Records.
Here’s To Beans, Teddy Harris Quartet, Platinum Disc Records.
Teddy Harris & The Bebop Society Plays Bebop, Disc LTD Records.
Teddy Harris &The New Breed Bebop Society Play Motown, Masterpiece Records.
Aretha Franklin, Yeah! In Person With Her Quartet, Columbia, 1965.
The Detroit Jazz Composers Ltd., Hastings Jazz Experience, Midnite Records, 1976.
The Supremes Live In Japan, Tamala/Motown.
Jackie Wilson, Mr. Excitement! Rhino, 1992.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Keep On Moving, Elecktra, 1969.
Paul Butterfield Blues Band Live, 1970.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Golden Butter, Elektra, 1972.
Michigan Jazz Masters, Urban Griots, ’ 1995.
The Elektra Anthology Years, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elektra, 1997.
Reeves, Martha, with Mark Bego, Dancing in the Streets, Confessions of a Motown Diva, Hyperion, 1994, p. 229.
Stovall, Tyler, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996.
Detroit Free Press, May 2, 1995.
Detroit News, June 15, 1975; December 19, 1980; April 3, 1994.
Extra (Detroit), April 1978.
Michigan Chronicle, June 20, 1981; May 7, 1988.
Additional information for this profile obtained from liner notes by Dan Morganstern to Aretha Franklin Yeah! In Person With HerQuartet, Columbia, 1965; promotional bill from the Key to the City Celebration, Detroit 1993; and from a private interview, Detroit, Michigan, February 25, 1998.