Creative jazz drummer and educator who achieved cult status
John Fordham and Dan Somogyi
The Guardian, Thursday 6 March 2008
The late 1980s saw jazz receiving one of its periodic fleeting embraces by the mainstream media. What was sometimes called "the British jazz boom" briefly introduced gifted young players such as Courtney Pine, Andy Sheppard, Julian Joseph and Tommy Smith to major-label contracts, while the word "jazz" found its way into logos for perfumes and cars, and saxophones into the props department for designer-label photoshoots.
One UK cult band of that era remorselessly pursued its tough and abrasive mix of free-improv and jazz-funk in its own, singular way. That was - and still is - the Pinski Zoo quartet, led by Nottingham saxist, visual artist and teacher Jan Kopinski. For 15 years, the engine room of Pinski Zoo was run by drummer Steve Harris, an inspired player and educator whose playing combined a funky backbeat that managed to be simultaneously exhilarating and faintly sinister, with a free-improviser's appetite for subverting anticipated outcomes.
He could not subvert the anticipated outcome of his liver cancer, but met it with a typically combative optimism. Just when his own unclassifiable experimental band Zaum was receiving rave reviews, Harris died in hospital in Dorchester, Dorset, aged 59.
He had said of his band: "The last thing I wanted it to sound like was the perceived notion of jazz, or anything else for that matter." This newspaper's CD review ran: "For all the absence of easy hooks of any kind, this is very superior, non-idiomatic, contemporary music that almost never treads water and promises a surprise around every corner."
Harris was a big, warm, gentle and yet passionate man. He poured his formidable energies into Zaum (which he formed in 2001) and into his long and successful parallel career in music education and arts development, touching thousands of people of all ages.
He was born to greengrocer Albert Harris and company secretary Winifred, and grew up in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. Despite the best efforts of the Queen Elizabeth's grammar school for boys, he took up the drums at 14, and was playing dance-band gigs around Mansfield a year later. By 17, Harris was in a soul-covers band, touring US military bases in Germany, then joined the progressive rock band Woody Kern, playing alongside future Roxy Music bassist Rik Kenton on the 1969 album, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. The album became a cult classic (John Peel wrote the liner notes), and fans continued to contact Harris throughout his life.
Around the same time, he also auditioned unsuccessfully for T Rex and recorded with prog-rock band Witchwhat. He joined the punky Amazorblades in 1976, but by the 1980s (in collaboration with sax player Geoff Hearn) was becoming interested in the more arcane but intriguing world of jazz and improvisation. Harris toured eastern Europe with the eclectic saxist George Haslam and helped set up the Oxford Improvisers Cooperative. By the end of the decade he had met Kopinski, and on joining the fledgling Pinski Zoo, his career took a life-changing turn.
Zoo's mix of incantatory, Albert Ayler-like free-sax sermonising and dancefloor grooves attracted another cult following, bolstered by endless touring and some seminal recordings, notably East Rail East (1991) and De Icer (1993). The band broke up that year (it was later to re-form), but Harris's other life as educator and creative producer of community arts events was already blossoming. He was a passionate believer in the ethos that anyone, given the chance, could make music. With his friend Henry Tracy, Harris had been a member of the Coventry Centre for Performing Arts' band-in-residence from 1986 to 1989, so successfully drawing young people from difficult backgrounds into music-making that 35 groups were in operation when Harris and Tracy left.
He then ran the community music project Music Now at the Mill arts centre in Banbury, Oxfordshire, where he met his long-term partner, musician Kathie Prince. In 1995, the two worked in Ireland, where one of their most rewarding ventures drew Catholic and Protestant young people together on the same projects.
Back in England in 1997, Harris managed the Face to Face community arts project in Atherstone, north Warwickshire, and from 2000 was community arts officer in Poole, Dorset, then music development officer for Dorset music service. There he set up SoundStorm, an award-winning music development agency attracting masterclasses from Sheppard, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Keith Tippett. Through it, Harris was able to attend a summer course in New York with a percussion hero, American improvising drummer Jim Black.
He also established two innovative musicians' collectives under the name of Safehouse in Poole and Brighton, and hooked up again with the re-formed Pinski Zoo. But perhaps most significantly, he formed Zaum, featuring old associate Hearn's Coltrane-to-Jan Garbarek sax, that would represent his personal musical world most vividly. Zaum's eponymous first CD made waves, but it was Above Our Heads the Sky Splits Open (2004), with its improvised instant compositions crackling with sonic innovation, that seemed to be bursting open a new creative phase in Harris's life. Two more Zaum recordings followed, including the much-lauded I Hope You Never Love Anything as Much as I Love You (2007). But after an album launch at the ICA in London last September, the last Zaum gig was at the Brunswick in Brighton on October 31.
Just before his death, Harris took his beloved family on a final, happy holiday to the Tatra mountains in Poland, reliving a memorable winter trip he had made in 1993 with the half-Polish Kopinski. He is survived by Kathie and daughters May and Bella.
· Stephen John Harris, drummer, born August 16 1948; died January 11 2008