Each Harrison Records LP is indexed with just one letter. The Harrison catalog starts with Harrison A, including the famous Glen Gray band as well as the lesser-known Mack Rogers band, and runs through a Stu Pletcher compilation on Harrison X. That index typifies the charming modesty underneath this label’s wide range of hot music. I’m still searching for Y and Z.
Harrison records also sport endearingly simple graphics, an immediately recognizable and welcome sight in record stores bins and flea market crates. A Harrison logo means something interesting from slightly outside the twenties Top 40. It might be something unissued elsewhere. It’s often music that might not meet more doctrinaire definitions of “hot music, traditional jazz,” or whatever one might label the sounds on the vinyl.
It seems like Harrison’s producer cared more about rhythm, texture and open-eared history than categories. There is plenty of jazz, especially from obscure territory bands. Yet there are also opportunities to appreciate the color and craftsmanship of non-improvising dance bands and even some “sweet’ outfits. Harrison introduced me to the joys of Eubie Blake’s big band—treading greyer and greyer areas between jazz and show music—as well as Adrian Schubert’s elegantly hot dance music and Henny Hendrickson’s Louisville Serenaders in all their thumping glory:
The engineering delivers the music clearly and the information on the back covers is beautifully no-frills: dates, personnel, and an occasional note about the music, but no extended essays or personal reflections. There is plenty of white space for the listener to literally or figuratively write their own notes (many of my Harrisons are pockmarked with discographical shorthand). In a time before Google, this music had to speak for itself.
Tom Crowley’s “Doc’oligy” appears on Harrison C, Let’s Start With Jack Teagarden, which lists nothing other than unidentified personnel, a date in 1935 and “Atlanta.” A note mentions that Casa Loma trumpeter Grady Watts played with the Crowley band years earlier, but the bare context makes this track’s pumping wail that much more mysterious:
Unlike Frog or Jazz Oracle, Harrison came and went before the internet. When I first started finding Harrison records, its staff and mission were a mystery. The only thing I knew was that at some time (the seventies or eighties, from the look and wear of the records), someone took it upon themselves to bring over two dozen LPs of music from the twenties and thirties into the world. Then it ended up on my turntable to let me hear Hal Denman and the hotter side of Kay Kyser. On paper, that simply sounds like any record company. Through my speakers, it was a miracle.
The credits were as self-effacing as the packaging They listed collectors who contributed 78s, a sound engineer and occasionally a cover artist. The only clue to the genesis of these records was a label on each: “Produced and Distributed By Edward H. Reynolds,” with an address in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Wakefield is a fine town on Massachusetts’s North Shore yet (to the best of my knowledge) not famous for its music scene or record industry. What was going on in Wakefield?
It turns out Ed Reynolds was going on in Wakefield, and he was all that was needed to make Harrison happen.
A Google search revealed that Edward Harrison Reynolds passed away recently enough that I could have interviewed him had my curiosity struck sooner. In addition to a record producer, he was also a decorated veteran, a husband, and a father. His son Bill has played drums with nationally known local favorites The Back Bay Ramblers and the New Black Eagle Jazz Band. I reached Bill through his website, and he was kind enough to share the following memories with me:
My father was a passionate record collector and hot jazz aficionado. He had about 4,000 78s in his collection and loved everything about traditional jazz, including hunting all over the Northeast for rare records.
During the 50s, he and three fellow record collectors would get together every Saturday night for a listening session. They would take turns hosting the session, with the host supplying the music (and the food). The music was arranged in setlists, much like a bandleader would do before a gig.
The host offered no information about the tracks. It was a “blindfold” game: each listener would be given a pencil and paper to write down information about each track while it was playing, like the name of the band, the label it was recorded on, the year of the recording, and any additional information about the musicians. They had a complicated point system that determined the winner of each session. Each guy owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder and would freely share music from their collections.
Dad just loved these listening sessions, especially sharing the music. He decided that more people needed to be exposed to the music that he loved, so he researched the process for having some of his favorite music from his own collection professionally copied, packaged, and pressed.
The newly pressed records would be sent to his home, and he would advertise in all of the traditional jazz magazines. He personally packed them and shipped the records. It was a one-man operation! He probably broke even financially but stuck to his original plan of doing 26 volumes, one for each letter of the alphabet.
The Harrison Records story did not stop there. Apparently not one to rest on his laurels or his record collection, Ed moved on to producing hot music by contemporary practitioners and knew just where to start. Bill explained further…
After finishing the first 26 volumes, Dad asked me what I thought about organizing a recording band made up of the best traditional musicians on the east coast and recording studio albums under the Harrison Records label. He would choose all of the songs and would market the records in the same manner as his previous releases. Other considerations were the musical arrangements, studio time, and paying the musicians.
We named the band “The Back Bay Ramblers.” It was my father’s dream band: trumpet, trombone, two reed players, piano, bass/tuba, banjo, and drums, and vocalists. The band members contributed arrangements in the style that my dad loved: tightly arranged ensembles featuring the horn sections with plenty of hot jazz solos and a driving rhythm section. Most of the songs were chosen by my dad. Bob Connors, the great trombone player and bandleader, was the principal arranger and musical director.
We recorded three albums for Harrison and another four CDs for Bob Erdos’s Stomp Off label. The band also performed concerts and at many jazz festivals on the East Coast. However, due to the size of the band, most available venues couldn’t financially support us. It got harder and harder to get bookings.
In his last few years, my dad would always suggest that I put the band back together. I was busy doing other gigs, teaching, and raising a family, and just didn’t have the time. I had retired from my teaching gig at about the same time that my dad got sick. After he passed away, I put the band back together for a series of tribute concerts honoring him.
That pretty much covers the whole story. It was a labor of love. It was Harrison Records.
It is a testament to Mr. Reynolds that it still is Harrison Records. It’s just a pity that the alphabet wasn’t longer.