If you think the world of a professional musician is all great tunes and glamour, you should have been at a downtown hotel on Dec. 13, 1983, when jazz bassist Bill Harrison and the more than dozen other members of a band set to play a corporate concert were instructed to don Conehead costumes, inspired by characters made famous by “Saturday Night Live,” because the party planners though it would amuse the crowd.
Harrison survived that night. He survived all the other nights in his 40-year career as a working member of the jazz world. He played bass in theaters, hotels and nightclubs. He played at weddings, private parties and bowling alleys.
He has played with such jazz giants as Clark Terry, Max Roach, Josie Falbo.
He also played, more times than he can count, “The Chicken Dance,” “Achy Breaky Heart,” “Margaritaville,” “Celebration” and so many others on a “list (that) makes me want to go take a shower.”
Like the majority of professional musicians, he was mostly anonymous. Or, as he writes, “The final essential quality for competence as a sideman is understanding and accepting your role in the jobbing juggernaut. You’re never the star of the show. … This is a bitter pill for some musicians to swallow but I savored the obscurity of jobbing with gratitude.”
He details his musical life in an intimate, honest and self-aware new book, “Making the Low Notes: A Life in Music” (Open Books Press).
It has received much praise, the jazz critic Neil Tesser calling it an “insightful journey.” It is funny. It is lively. It is poignant. It’s a great book.
There is a palpable immediacy to it. Harrison has kept a “written record of every gig, rehearsal, social occasion, lesson (taken and given), trip … and almost every other notable event” that occurred over his musical decades and this has allowed him to “verify dates and refresh my often-faulty memories of certain pivotal events.”
Born and raised on the East Coast, Harrison got hooked on music as a kid in middle school in 1968, giving a rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” He was not good, his playing sounding like “a nanny goat with an upset stomach” he writes, but “shocking applause erupts as I stumble offstage in a sweat-drenched daze” and “as I retreat to the bosom of backstage, a wave of pleasure pulses through my body. The moms and dads were applauding for me. Was that jolt of approval worth the jazzed-up breath, the jittery hands, the jumping-bean heart?”
The answer, unequivocally, was yes, and though he would aspire to a degree in film when he attended Northwestern University, he was drawn to other musicians on campus and together they started performing around the area. It was much fun, even though as he writes “part of me knew I was as green as moldy mozzarella, my increasingly busy schedule gave me the unwarranted impression that I was on a surefire path to a successful career as a professional musician.”
His arrogance compelled him to drop out of NU, get a music degree from DePaul University and start his career. He played all the best clubs, and enjoyed working in the pit for such musicals as “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Always … Patsy Cline.” He had long been a music teacher, and an admired one.
But in time “the pillars of my musical life came tumbling down.” He was beset by some physical ailments such as a bad back and arthritis. He had gotten a master’s degree in therapy and he was increasingly busy with a psychotherapy practice, saying, “Mental health counseling felt more and more like home. More than half of my clients being artists.” He wrote that practicing psychotherapy “connected me deeply with each of my clients, much as playing music connected me with my fellow musicians.”
His final performance came in December 2017, but he never intended to write this book. Still, he has always been writing and the imposed isolation of the pandemic only fueled his literary ambitions. He published a few stories in small magazines and eventually had enough for this fine book. He is working on his next, saying, “You’ll notice that there is not a great deal, very little actually, in this book about my family. The new one will be family stuff. I had, shall we say, a very colorful father.”
In person (and in print), Harrison is bright, fun and introspective, saying, “I had to face the scary stuff, the things that some might think should remain hidden. I believe the reader wants to be able to trust the writer and if I wasn’t making myself vulnerable, I wouldn’t be able to show who I really am.”
Here’s an example: “The bass might have a feminine shape, but the heft and sound suggest the masculine to me. I suppose it’s possible the instrument’s complex allusion to sexuality played a role in my choosing it over the brass instruments, but if so, that aspect was burning deep in my subconscious.”
He lives in the South Loop with his wife, Nina Corwin, also a therapist and a talented poet, to whom he has been married since 2013. They often go out to hear classical music. Every once in a while they will go out to hear jazz. They have a cat, whose name is Jazzy.
In their living room is his old companion, the upright bass that he toted around for so long. In his book, he writes that “It tethers me to my roots, reminds me to listen beyond the words and to respond with compassion and humility.”
He tells me, “Sometimes I’ll walk past it and stop and play, for a minute or two.”
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