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Beaver Harris

Versatile Drummer Who Left Baseball to Pioneer Free Form Jazz 
Wliiam “Beaver” Harris was a pioneering free-jazz drummer, a prolific recording artist, composer, and bandleader. He was one of the most versatile drummers in Jazz who could play styles ranging from avante-garde jazz to be-bop and swing. His performances with a broad range of jazz artists is heard on 129 album releases. Harris recorded and toured with the free-form jazz artists Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Ken McIntyre, Roswell Rudd and Marion Brown.   Harris played swing, Be Bop, Latin, funk fusion and straight ahead jazz recording and peforming with Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Doc Cheatham,  Sonny Rollins, Gato Barbieri, Shelia Gordon, and Larry Coryell.  He co-founded and led the progressive jazz ensemble the 360-Degree Music Experience.  Audiences around the world heard Beaver on his tours with Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and others.

“With avant-garde groups, Mr. Harris's drumming was both swirling and muscular, waves of rhythm that gave propulsion and texture to the incantations of saxophonists like Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. - Jon Pareles New York Times

"Harris showcased a remarkably eclectic musical palette." -Henry M. Shteamer All Music Guide 

Born into a Baseball Family in Pittsburgh

William Godvin “Beaver” Harris Jr. was born April 20, 1936 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His family was famous in athletics. His father Bill Harris co-founded the legendary Negro League baseball team the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1925 and played first and third base for the Homestead Grays. Uncles Vic and Neal Harris also were members of the Homestead Grays. Vic Harris was a star outfielder for the Grays batting a career average of .306. Vic managed the Homestead Grays to six consecutive pennants from 1937 through 1942 and won the Negro League World Series championship in 1948. Uncle Vic also coached for the 1949 Baltimore Elite Giants and managed the 1950 Birmingham Black Barons.

A love for music was instilled into Beaver by his mother who studied piano and was a dancer. During his school years Beaver played clarinet and alto saxophone. 

Baseball Career

Inheriting his family’s athletic ability Beaver Hariis played professional baseball for five years during his teens. He began playing semi-pro baseball in Pittsburgh and went on to play professionally in the Negro Leagues with the New York Black Yankees, the Indianapolis Clowns and the Kansas City Monarchs. An article in the Carolina Times in 1955 describes Billy Beaver Harris Jr., a nephew of Vic Harris, as an 18 year old 5’7” all around infielder looking for a berth on the Indianapolis Clowns. "Young Harris has plenty of speed, a good pair of hands, and takes a healthy cut at the plate."  The Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants scouted Beaver, but he gave up pro baseball to enlist in the Army in 1957.

Finding Music in the Army

Beaver was assigned to the U.S Army Special Services Unit as a baseball player. He was stationed at Fort Knox Kentucky from 1957 to 1959 and was given a day job as a mail clerk. Continuing his interest in music he began playing drums around age 20. Beaver bought his first drum kit and set it up in the army base mail room. He was soon jamming with future world class jazz musicians. Fort Knox was also the home base of two Army bands. Beaver became friends with two Army band saxophonists Albert Ayler and Stanely Turrentine in 1958. They spent hours jamming together in the mail room and played gigs at the Fort Knox N.C.O club. In an interview with WKCR radio Beaver said that Albert Ayler inspired him to quit baseball and go into jazz. Albert Ayler shipped out to Europe in 1958 and went on to became an international star in the early 1960s. Beaver kept practicing and eventually became a member of Ayler's band. 

Jamming on the Hill

After his discharge from the Army in 1959 Beaver returned to Pittsburgh to pursue a music career.  Harris spend the next two years in Pittsburgh honing his drumming skills.  He studied drumming at Carnegie Tech privately with Stanley Leonard the Principal Timpanist of the Pittsburgh Symphony.  He also studied composition with Charles Bell.  Honing his chops Beaver sat in with Benny Golson, Slide Hampton, Horace Silver, Max Roach and others jazz artists who performed at Hill District clubs.  Max Roach on a visit to Pittsburgh encouraged Beaver to move to New York find work as a drummer.

Off to New York and Fame

Beaver Harris moved to New York City in 1962 where he became a key player in the emerging progressive free jazz movement. His first notable work in New York was as a member of the Bep Bop saxophonist Sonny Rollins' Quartet. Harris began working with free jazz tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp in 1965. Over the next ten years Harris recorded 17 albums with Shepp on the Impulse, Enja, Horo, Freedom, Uniteledis, and Black Saint labels.

Harris reunited with his old Army buddy Albert Ayler in 1966 and 1967.  He toured Europe with Ayler and is featured on four Ayler album releases. 

360 Degree Music Experience 

In 1968 Harris formed the group 360 Degree Music Experience with Grachan Moncur III, pianist Dave Burrell, Roland Alexander, and bassist Ron Carter. Harris chose the name 360 to represent the group’s desire to transcend stylistic limitations. The group recorded both traditional and experimental jazz on its albums "From Ragtime to No Time" (1975), " and In:Santiy (1977), and A Well Kept Secret" (1984). It was a showcase for Harris's versatility in jazz styles.

360 Music's first album "From Ragtime to No Time" spanned from traidtional jazz to free from.  Side One featured the traditional jazz players trumpeter Doc Cheatham, clarinetist Herb Hall e trombonist Marshall Brown and singer Maxine Sullivan.  Side two featured the two part modern jazz piece "Round Trip" with Howard Johnson on baritone and bass clarinet, flutist Keith Marks and singer Bill Willingham. Scott Yarnow of the All Music Guide wrote: "The idea behind Harris' original version of the 360 Degree Music Experience was to improve communication between several generations of jazz musicians, and this project works quite well."

All Music Guide reviewer Michael G. Nastos called the In Sanity album, which featured Improvisational music with world music touches,  “An essential purchase for the adventurous listener.” 

The band's personnel changed several times during the 1970s and 1980s bringing in steel drummer Francis Haynes, Ken McIntyre, Hamiet Bluiett,  Cameron Brown, Don Pullen and others.

Solo Releases

Harris also release three albums under his own name. "African Drums" recorded in Paris was released on the Owl label in 1978.  The 1979 release "Beautiful Africa" was on the Soul Note label.   "Beaver Is My Name" which featured his own compositions was released on Timeless Records in 1983,  His last release "Thank You For Your Ears"  is live performance recording from a 1984 German jazz festival featuring saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and Trinidadian steel drummer Vincent Taylor on songs composed by  by Harris and Bluiett.

In Demand Side Man

Beaver in an interview with WKRC radio said that he moved from band to band as tours and recording sessions ended. His agent kept him working as calls came in. He toured Europe with Sonny Rolling in 1965. In the 1970's Harris performed with Cecil Taylor. He recorded on three of Gato Barbieri albums from 1969 to 1974. In the 1980's Harris recorded with guitarist Larry Coryell and is featured on five of Coryell’s albums

Before his illness Harris played in a trio with pianist Barry Harris and bassist Ron Carter. 

Beaver Harris passed away on December 22, 1991 at his home in New York City. Only 55 years old he died of prostate cancer.
The drumming of Beaver Harris
Eager Beaver
African Drums -1978