By Jasper Burns, Copyright 1993
The AL HARVEY TRIO
Bass: Bill Eldridge (1920- )
The AL HARVEY TRIO
This page is dedicated to the greatest jazz band that almost no one outside of Washington, D. C. ever heard of. Al Harvey (guitar and vocals), Bill Eldridge (stand-up bass), and Adolph Taylor (piano) made music that was as good as it gets, but they never recorded nor made the big-time, so they fade into history. This is a modest tribute from an old fan.
The drawing (left) was done from memory 16 years after Al's death, with no photographs to work from. Unavoidably, it is crude and inaccurate, but as close as I can come to reproducing the image in my mind.
There follow two accounts of the Trio, the first written by me in 1994, the second is by Bill Peterson and appeared in The Washington Post on July 24, 1975. Mr. Peterson's article was accompanied by a sketch of Al and Bill done from life by Peg Averill, which is reproduced from an old photocopy below. Finally there is a partial song list, reconstructed by David Burns and myself.Here's to you, Al, Bill, and Adolph - and we "ain't misbehavin'."
It was sixteen years ago, in 1977, that Al Harvey, a steady light on the Washington, D.C. music scene for more than fifty years, died of a heart attack on his way home from the Georgetown nightclub known as "Mr. Smith's," where he had performed regularly for thirteen years. For most of that time, Al had headed the "Al Harvey Trio" featuring Bill Eldridge on bass fiddle and Adolph Taylor on piano. But after Adolph died in 1973 and Bill moved on in 1976, Al had continued alone, leaving his seat in the garden or behind the piano bar to stroll from table to table. This article is a tribute to Mr. Harvey, and his trio, and a statement that - even in show business - one needn't become famous to be one of the greats and to leave a deep impression.
Al Harvey was born in Washington, D.C. in 1910. He grew up not far from the Howard Theater and remembered hearing Louis Armstrong's trumpet as a boy, blaring from several blocks away. "Satchmo" actually stayed with Al's family when in town, for Al's mother was a popular singer on the local jazz scene and it was one of his proudest memories that his mother had helped Duke Ellington land his first paying gig as a pianist, backing her up at the Oriental Gardens at 9th and R Streets NW.
Al Harvey grew up in a jazz atmosphere and he never doubted that he would be a musician. By the age of fifteen, in 1925, he had begun his long career, playing banjo on Potomac cruise boats for three dollars a night with a group known as "The Bellhops." He used to say that he had played at just about every address on M Street in Georgetown at one time or another, as well as at many other spots in the Capital: such places as the Club Deluxe at 7th and S NW, the Black and Gold Grill near the Government Printing Office, the Ritz at 2nd and K, and L'Espionage at 29th and M.
Like many young musicians of his generation, Al admired the music and style of the Nat King Cole Trio, and his three-man format was modeled after that legendary group. Al's lifelong friend, Adolph Taylor, joined him on piano, playing with an instinctive inven-tiveness and a brilliance that rivaled such jazz greats as Art Tatum, "Fats" Waller, and Nat himself. For many years, Bill Eldridge, cousin of the well-known trumpet player Roy Eldridge, joined Al on bass. Bill's uncanny sense of rhythm and energetic style perfectly complemented Adolph's innovations and Al's steady, rich guitar playing.
Al Harvey never seemed to play the same chord the same way twice. His massive hands knew every fret and note in a way that few if any of today's guitar maestros could imagine. His constant and tasteful chord changes and simple but effective runs helped make a three-piece band sound like an orchestra.
We remember the Al Harvey Trio at Mr. Smith's, upstairs behind the piano bar. Bill, with eyes closed, lost in the music, rocking and swaying after a hard day's work for the Post Office. Adolph wowed us for less than a year before he passed away with pneumonia, but his unsurpassed mastery of the jazz style has never been forgotten. After his death, a few other pianists sat in, but none could match the Master or take his place.
By 1976, the management at Mr. Smith's felt a need to economize. The band's salary was cut so severely that Al was forced to go it alone. Yet, he still filled the room with his music, even without benefit of accompaniment or amplification.
Who could say how many thousands of people enjoyed Al's music in his fifty-two-year career? His performances of jazz standards were so polished and yet so full of love and enthusiasm for the music and for life that they took complete command of the place. They exuded good feeling and no one could spend an evening within reach of Al's deep, warm, invigorating voice without feeling better. His music was stronger and more intoxicating than the liquor that flowed so freely all around him.
What could surpass his inspired renditions of such delightful classics as "Ain't Misbe-havin'," "Tangerine," "I'm Confessin'," "Miss Otis Regrets," "It Had to Be You," "As Time Goes By," "Nature Boy," "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," and so many more?
Al Harvey took his music very seriously without ever losing touch with the fun of it. His performance and demeanor were marked with great integrity and dignity as well as joy. No cheap tricks or flamboyant posturing. He loved the songs and revered the musicians who had given them to him. He spoke of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holliday as if they were saints and benefactors. He knew which music suited his talents and temperament and would play nothing else. When pressed to do an inappropriate request, he would say, "No, it's not me," and no bribe or tip could change his mind. There was no doubt that Al Harvey would never compromise his art or his principles.
In other words, Al Harvey was a great man. But he never made the big time. One of his groups did make a record on the Bluebird label, but fame and widespread recognition were not forthcoming. Even the few articles and mementoes of his career that he had collected in a scrapbook were taken from him by a burglar in his later years.
But Al didn't mind. He counted his blessings and knew he had found his niche and mastered his destiny. "I've been satisfied with what I do," he said in an interview with Bill Peterson, printed in The Washington Post on July 24, 1975. "I eat three meals a day. I have a clean shirt and a place to lay down my head. That's all I need... No, I've never had any regrets... I love music. It's been my life. If I wasn't playing it here (Mr. Smith's) for people, I'd be playing it at home for myself."
And the legacy of Al and his music continues. How many can still hear those songs or remember the warm, jovial moods that he created? And even today, one of his fans carries on the tradition. In a small cafe at seven thousand feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Tahoe, thirty-nine-year-old David Burns strums his guitar and sprinkles Al's beloved old standards in with the rock and pop and originals. And a few gray heads turn and wonder how one so young can remember these songs and appreciate their beauty. Little do they know that they are sharing the continuing vision of Al Harvey, an obscure Washington, D.C. musician, who died almost unnoticed in 1977 at the age of sixty-seven, and who had no betters and few rivals when it came to music.
Post Script: David Burns has moved on from the Sierra Nevada, but still (2000) carries on the Al Harvey tradition in and around the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
By Peg Averill, Washington Post
|Al Harvey: 'All the Inspiration I need Is My Guitar and
Someone to Listen'
By Bill Peterson, The Washington Post, Potomac Journal, July 24, 1975
Al Harvey is a huge bear of a man with tbe hands of a bricklayer. When be wraps tbem arund the guitar be bought at a pawnshop 30 years ago, sounds come out. Deep rich sounds.
"Whatever comes out of that instrument is me - not some phony electrical sound," he says, "It's all me."
Harvey has strong opinions about most of today's music ("It sounds more like noise than music," he says. "The lyrics don't say anything"); the people who play it ("Most of them are more e1ectricians than musicians"); drugs ("Most of the guys who are real musicians don't need them. All the inspiration I need is my guitar and someone to listen"); the Beatles ("They didn't write 'Michele' or 'Yesterday' - they aren't good enough musicians. I've seen them play.")
Harvey has an unusual perspective on music and Washington nightlife. He's been part of it for 50 years, ever since 1925 when he started playing the banjo on Potomac cruise boats - for $3 a night with a group called the "Bellhops."
His father tried to discourage him. "He kept saying that musicians never come to any good end," Harvey recalls. But his mother was a singer at the old Oriental Gardens back in the days when Duke Ellington was getting his start playing the piano at the cluh at 9th and R Streets NW. And the young Harvey was hooked.
"I'm jazz oriented. I came along in the days of the old King Cole trio, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong," he says. "I like the old songs. Traditional music doesn't change. Standards don't get old. They go on and on. This other stuff doesn't live. It's on the top 40 charts one day, then it's gone."
We found Harvey at a party held In his honor one recent muggy night at Mr. Smith's, a Georgetown pub, slightly worn around the edges, where he has performed for the last 11 years.
It was a warm, but not particularly chic affair: a few friends, relatives and fellow musicians, a handful of businessmen in dark suits and young people in blue jeans, one table of young actors and two girls with thick ankles. The bartenders wore tee shirts which said, "Al Harvey, 50 Years in Music."
Harvey was in a corner, sipping fruit juice ("I haven't had a drink in seven or eight years," he said) with two young fans, both rock musicians.
He was talking shout the old days when he played at Washington clubs long since gone: the Club Deluxe at 7th and S NW, the Black and Gold Grill near the Government Printing Office, the Ritz at 2nd and K, and L'Espionage at 29th and M.
He's rubbed shoulders with ~ few of the great and near great over the years, played with a few of them. Louie Armstrong was always his favorite. "I don't think there'll ever be another entertainer like him," Harvey said. "He was the best jazz vocalist in the world - and he didn't have any voice at all."
But he also holds a special fondness for Duke Eilington and Billie Holiday. "She was a musician's singer - what you call a stylist, a real torch singer. She made you feel her music. I think every musican loved to play for her."
Harvey, 65, spoke with the enthusiasm of a fifth grader. He wore a huge grin under his thin charcoal grey moustache, a rumpled dark sportcoat and a brown shirt open at the neck.
The two young musicians, Jim [Jasper] and Dave Burns, hung on every one of Harvey's words. "We're part of the Al Harvey fan club," said Jim Burns, 23. "Most places now give you music in a pop bottle. Al is the real thing, he's genuine. With us it is not nostalgia because most of the songs he plays were written before we were born."
"Al is a pro. He plays just as hard whether there's one person in here or a crowd."
Why, Harvey was asked, has he stayed in Washington all these years? Didn't he ever yearn for fame, bright lights, travel?
No, Washington has been good to him, he replied. Hasn't had to worry about a job since World War II.
"I've been satisfied with what I do," he added. "I eat three meals a day. I have a clean shirt and a place to lay down my head. That's all I need."
He paused, reflecting. His head with the bushy grey hair shook. "No, I've never had any regrets ... I love music. It's been my life. If I wasn't playing it here for people, I'd be playing it at home for myself"
The booze flowed freely.
Eventually Harvey and Bill Eldridge, his partner for almost 30 years, were persuaded to perform. With Eldridge at the bass, Harvey's gravelly voice rolled across the room. It had a deep, throaty tone. He sang "Summertime," "Mack the Knife," "A Kiss is Still a Kiss."
At one point, James Haight, club owner, interrupted to announce that Mr. Smith's was giving Harvey an expense paid trip to New Orleans. "Anyone who does anything as well as he does for 50 years deserves recognition," Haight said later. "He still enjoys his audiences as much as they enjoy him."
By that time, Al Harvey was singing again in the corner under the soft spotlight. He was still singing when we left.Bill Peterson
St. James Infirmary Blues
Watch What Happens
Miss Otis Regrets
Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
Sweethearts on Parade
I Left My Heart in San Francisco
It Had To Be You
I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good
Bring Another Drink
Straighten Up and Fly Right
Mack the Knife
As Time Goes By
I Can't Stop Loving That Gal of Mine
Ol' Rockin' Chair
Blues in the Night
Shadow of Your Smile
How Deep is the Ocean?
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Sunny Side of the Street
Street of Dreams
Basin Street Blues
Don't Get Around Much Anymore
Georgia On My Mind
One More For the Road