When Craig Harris exploded onto the jazz scene in 1976, he brought the entire history of the jazz trombone with him. From the growling gutbucket intensity of early New Orleans music through the refined, articulate improvisation of the modern era set forth by J.J. Johnson, and into the confrontational expressionism of the ’60s avant-garde, Craig handled the total vernacular the way a skilled orator utilizes the spoken word.
But the contemporary music world quickly realized that his talents went far beyond his superb skills as a trombonist. While he performed with a veritable Who’s Who of progressive jazz’ most important figures – including Sun Ra, Sam Rivers, Lester Bowie, Abdullah Ibrahim, Makanda Ken McIntyre, Jaki Byard, Cecil Taylor, Muhal Richard Abrams, and the list goes on and on — his own projects displayed both a unique sense of concept and a total command of the sweeping expanse of African-American musical expression.
And it’s those two qualities that have dominated Craig’s past 15 years of activity, bringing him far beyond the confines of the jazz world and into the sphere of multimedia and performance art as composer, performer, conceptualist, curator and artistic director.
Sensing the increasing economic constrictions and diminishing opportunities that would soon place a stranglehold on the more adventurous aspects of music in the jazz tradition, Craig began to devote his energies to a broader realm of artistic realization back in 1988. He established Nation of Imagination, Inc., a non-profit organization devoted to the development of large-scale multi-media collaborative works, as well as educating and creating new opportunities for emerging artists.
This also marked the beginning of the long and fruitful collaborative relationship with the renowned poet Sekou Sundiata that continues to this day. Their first collaboration, The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop premiered at City College of New York’s Aaron Davis Hall in 1992. This epistolary praise poem with music won the theater world’s prestigious Bessie Award in 1993, as well as three Audelco awards: best musical, best writer (Sekou) and best composer (Craig). It also toured U.S. colleges, fine arts institutions and festivals for two years before settling in for an extended run at New York City’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
This work caught the attention of David White and Joseph Mellilo, founders of The Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, who helped establish a curating and artistic directorship with the American Center in Paris for the two collaborators. The result was Lost in Translation, a music, dance and poetry collaboration, also featuring choreographer Marlies Yearby and guitarist/composer Vernon Reid, premiering in 1994.
In that same year, Harris and Sundiata began work on Return of Elijah, focusing on the Middle Passage period of the slave trade. Commissioned through Rites & Reason Theater at Brown University, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and Aaron Davis Hall, with a major grant from Meet The Composer’s Readers’ Digest Commissioning Fund, the provocative work premiered at Brown in 1996.
The following year, Craig was co-artistic director, composer and performer for Remembering We Selves, a fast-paced, non-linear tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, in collaboration with famed poet, writer and social commentator Amiri Baraka. This work, commissioned by Woody King’s New Federal Theater at New York’s Henry Street Settlement House, premiered with a one-week run at Harlem’s Schomburg Center in 1997.
In 1998, Craig composed and led a six piece ensemble as one of the artistic directors of the Tongues of Fire Choir, an evening of music and spoken text in collaboration with Nona Hendryx, Ntozake Shange, Jessica Hagedorn, Regina Carter, Quincy Troupe, Baraka and Sundiata. This event was also commissioned and presented by Aaron Davis Hall.
That same year Craig and Sekou collaborated on one episode of the PBS series, The Language of Life with Bill Moyers, taking place as part of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival at Waterloo Village.
Expanding upon concepts established in Return of Elijah, Harris and Sundiata embarked on their most expansive project to that date, Udu, a full-evening musical-theatre work based upon the contemporary slave trade in Mauritania.
This highly ambitious project was commissioned by an extensive consortium of arts institutions, including the Brooklyn Academy’s 651 ARTS; The Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis; University of Massachusetts’ New World Theater; Rites & Reason at Brown; and Aaron Davis Hall, with major support from Rockefeller’s MAP (Multi-Arts Production) Fund.
It premiered at the Walker and then settled in at 651 ARTS’ Majestic Theater with a group of West African musicians in the troupe. Following that, Udu was performed at fine arts centers and universities throughout the U.S.
While Harris and Sundiata continue to collaborate, Craig has two other large-scale projects of his own in the works.
Brown Butterfly, the first of a trilogy, is a multi-media work incorporating video, dance and music and is based upon the physical movement of Muhammad Ali. For this, Craig is collaborating again with choreographer Yearby (who’s also directing), along with noted video artist Jonas Goldstein.
This enormous undertaking has already garnered support from Rockefeller’s MAP Fund, the Lila-Wallace Readers Digest Arts Partners Program, the Warhol Foundation, the Jerome Foundation and the Mary Flagler Cary Trust. The work includes seven musicians, seven dancers and three video screens and is scheduled to premiere at Aaron Davis Hall in March 2003. The other two parts of the trilogy will be based on the movement of James Brown and Tina Turner, respectively.
The second project in the development stage is a work based upon W.E. B. DuBois’ stunningly prophetic 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk.
Despite his seemingly overwhelming commitments as artistic director and curator that have somewhat diminished his participation on the jazz circuit, Craig is about to return to the world of regular performing with his various ensembles and pure music projects.
Established in 1988, Tailgaters Tales, featuring Craig accompanied by guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, melds intricate composition with exploratory improvisation and draws upon the entire spectrum of Black music for its repertoire.
Nation of Imagination features Harris with three vocalists, three percussionists, keyboards, guitar and bass. Conceived as a springboard for forays into the rich veins of world music, it was founded in 1996 and is designed to form artistic alliances with musicians from different cultures. The first collaboration was with Eastern European Gypsy musicians and premiered in Turkey, then toured Europe. A collaboration with West African percussionists is the most recent project.
In keeping with the goals of Nation of Imagination, Inc., the regular members of both ensembles have been nurtured through the activities of the organization and its large-scale artistic endeavors.
Rounding out Craig’s current musical associations is the cooperative ensemble Slide Ride, a trombone quartet formed in 1993 and featuring some of the most adventurous, innovative and talented trombonists on the current scene. In addition to Craig, Slide Ride’s members are Ray Anderson, Joseph Bowie and Gary Valente.
All three groups will be touring the U.S. and Europe in the near future.
Born in Hempstead on Long Island, N.Y. in 1953, Craig is a graduate of the renowned music program of SUNY at Old Westbury. Profoundly influenced by its legendary founder and director, the late Makanda Ken McIntyre, Craig’s move to New York City in 1978 quickly established him in the forefront of young trombonists, along with Ray Anderson, George Lewis and Joseph Bowie.
First playing alongside another of his teachers at SUNY, baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick in Sun Ra’s Arkestra for two years, Harris embarked on a world tour with South African pianist/composer Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) in 1981. Highly affected by their stay in Australia, Craig played with Aborigine musicians and returned with a dijeridoo, a haunting wind instrument that has become a part of his musical arsenal ever since.
Upon his return, Harris became a member of such major groups as David Murray’s Octet, the Beaver Harris-Don Pullen 360 Degree Musical Experience, Sam Rivers’ various orchestral aggregations, Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy and many, many more. He also played for Lena Horne in her Broadway orchestra for a year.
Craig has performed all over the world with his own ensembles and has recorded numerous albums for various labels.
Sun Ra • Dollar Brand • Sam Rivers • Jaki Byard • Warren Smith • Ken Mcintyre • Henry Threadgill • David Murray • Olu Dara • Lester Bowie • Cecil Taylor • Hamiet Bluiett • Joseph Jarman • Don Moye • Muhal • Richard Abrams • Don Pullen • Beaver Harris • Chico Freeman • Mal Waldron • Lena Horne • Jay McShann • Sparrow • The Four Tops • The Dells • The Manhattans • Eddie Kendricks • and many more.
Kool Jazz Festival, “The Young Lions”, Carnegie Hall, NYC
Camden Jazz Festival, England
Heineken Jazz & Blues Festival, San Sabastian, Spain
American Center, Paris, France
International Jazz Festival, Saalfelden, Austria
Newport Jazz Festival, RI
Paris Jazz Festival, France
Berlin Jazz Festival, Germany
Zurich Jazz Festival, Germany
North Sea Jazz Festival,
Willisau Jazz Festival, Switzerland
Perugia Jazz Festival,
Chicago Jazz Festival, IL
Atlanta Jazz Festival, GA
Boston Globe Jazz Festival, MA
Montreal Jazz Festival, Canada
Painted Bride, Philadelphia, PA
Real Artways, Hartford, CT
D.C. Space, Washington, DC
Smithstonian, Washington, DC
Darthmouth University, NH
Northeastern University, Boston, MA
Carnegie Hall, NYC
Aaron Davis Hall, NYC
Town Hall, NYC
Sweet Basil, NYC
Village Vanguard, NYC
The Knitting Factory, NYC
Joe’s Pub, NYC
The Jazz Gallery, NYC
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Harlem, NY
Summer Jazz at The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY
Prince Theatre, Philadelphia, PA
York College, Queens, NY
Center for the Emerging Arts, Philadelphia, PA
University of the Sciences, Philadelphia, PA
Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis
Penumbra Theatre, St, Paul MN
Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, OH
Butler University, Indianapolis, IN
Emory University, Atlanta, GA
Dayton Art Institute, Dayton OH
Meet the Composers New Works Commission
Rockefeller Foundation MAP
Mary Flager Cary Charitable Trust
National Endowment for the Arts
Lila Wallace Readers Digest Award
The Ford Foundation
The William Penn Foundation
Creative Capital Award
The Nathan Cumming Foundation
National Endowment for the Humanities
New York State Council of the Arts