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Playing With the Mind

Trumpeter Tom Harrell can improvise effortlessly and compose at will. The rest of his life hasn't been so easy. Battling schizophrenia, he finds music a tonic.

July 28, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

The lights dim in a small, crowded jazz club as the buzz of conversation in the room is interrupted by a brief introduction over the public address system. The crowd applauds in anticipation, and a quintet of musicians enters the room.

Lagging a bit behind the others, trumpeter Tom Harrell finally reaches the stage, walking with a slow, awkward gait. Tall and slender, head hung down, chin nearly to his chest, he moves with arms dangling at his side, trumpet held loosely in one hand.

A few audience members look quizzically at this unusual figure, so unlike the familiar image of the hip, confident jazz musician. They whisper softly to each other, occasionally glancing in Harrell's direction as the players pick up their instruments.

There is a brief moment of silence as Harrell takes his position at the front, nods to the musicians. Without a word of instruction, he grunts a count-off.

The rhythm section digs into a slow groove, and the saxophone player nods in rhythm with the time. But Harrell, except for a slight trembling in one hand, appears oblivious, standing in a position of near immobility, apparently disconnected to the point of inertia.

As his time comes to play, however, he slowly brings his horn to his lips and suddenly, without warning, fills it with a stream of music bursting with vitality and life. The contrast is astonishing, as he reels off a string of dazzling, hard swinging, improvised choruses. Then, just as suddenly, he finishes his solo, lowers his trumpet, and his body reverts to its rooted posture.

Almost universally admired by his contemporaries, Harrell has been described by both drummer Elvin Jones and saxophonist Phil Woods as a "pure genius," and by tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano--a frequent musical associate--as a "poetic musician."

But this "pure genius," this "poetic musician" and much admired jazzman, has one other quality that makes him unique. He has suffered, for more than 25 years, from schizophrenia. And his life is one of the most remarkable stories in the long history of jazz.

On Tuesday night, Harrell brings his quintet to Catalina Bar & Grill for a six-night run in support of his new RCA album, "Labyrinth," his 11th recording as a leader. He arrives on the wave of growing attention for his playing and his composing, which have matured dramatically in the last few years, raising him to the top level of post-Miles Davis creative jazz artists. Earlier this month, in down beat magazine's annual jazz critics' poll, he was voted best trumpeter, beating out the far more visible Wynton Marsalis by one vote.


But his journey to jazz prominence has not been easy, even though it began with considerable promise.

A prodigal musical talent as a child, Harrell, now 50, was a highly regarded trumpeter in the Bay Area while he was still a teenager. Found to be schizophrenic when he was in his early 20s, he has functioned in the mainstream since the early '60s with the aid of neuroleptic medication to deal with the typical schizophrenic symptoms of auditory hallucinations, disorganized speech and behavior and flattened affect.

For 20 years, Harrell performed with a strikingly wide array of major jazz artists. He toured with Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, worked with Horace Silver for five years and recorded and performed with Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans (on Evans' final album, "We Will Meet Again," on Warner Bros.), the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, Lee Konitz and Phil Woods. Since 1989, he has led his own groups.

Along the way, he has had to endure a variety of physical ailments, including a collapsed lung and an attack of Bell's palsy, a debilitating--especially for a horn player--nerve disorder that can paralyze one side of the face for months. More indirectly, he continually experiences the sometimes fearful reaction of people who cannot see past his physical appearance, with the oddly somnambulistic affect produced by his medication.

"Tom's never had any problems with his music," says Angela Harrell, his wife of four years. "That's always been there for him. But criticism and negative reactions are something else. Even with the medication, he hears so many critical voices inside his head that experiencing negativity on the outside, at the same time, can throw him into emotional overload."

A conversation with Harrell is a singular experience. One of the common difficulties schizophrenics face is a feeling of verbal fragmentation. (In fact, Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who invented the term schizophrenia, did not intend for it to mean "split" personality, but "shattered" personality.) A typical manifestation is loosening associations--losing track of a thought in the middle of a sentence.

Harrell occasionally trails off in the course of an idea and sometimes is unable to converse at all. What eventually comes through, however, is not at all fragmented. His thoughts and ideas, like his music, are rich with a view of jazz that reaches into the heart of the creative process.

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