Roland Hanna: Interview 2
Max Harris

Max Harris (1918–2004)

Pianist, composer and arranger Max Harris is perhaps best known for his theme music for the British comedy TV series Porridge, and for recording with many illustrious musicians such as Yehudi Menuhin and Stéphane Grappelli in their landmark albums of 1972 and 1977.

He was born in Bournemouth on the south coast of England and received private tuition at the Royal Academy of Music, giving lessons himself in order to fund his musical education.

His early professional career was in the dance bands of the 1930s and 1940s before serving in the Middle East during World War II. After the war he played in Ronnie Monro’s band before working as a musician on several cruises aboard the Mauretania.

His first radio appearance was on the BBC’s Jazz Club in 1950 before focusing on musical arrangements for performers such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald when they visited the UK.

Harris won an Ivor Novello award for his television musical themes for The Strange World of Gurney Slade in 1960 and Kipling four years later. He worked on numerous British radio comedy shows of the 1960s including Round the Horne and Stop Messing About.

He continued working on TV themes including most notably for Ronnie Barker in Porridge, which started in 1973, and Open All Hours.

Harris recorded a tribute to his favourite pianist Jelly Roll Morton entitled “Mister Jelly with the New Red Hot Peppers” in 1975.

Biography by John Rosie


In memory

This biography and tribute to Max Harris was written by trumpeter Ron Simmons and published on the Jazz Professional website in 2004. Simmons explores Harris’s early life and gives a full and detailed account of his professional career as an arranger and pianist.

Harry Hayes

Max Harris

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Interview date 1st January 2004
Interview source Jazz Professional
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Forename Max
Surname Harris
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Interview Transcription

Max was born on September the 15th, 1918, of Jewish immigrant parents, his father was Polish and his mother was from Latvia. His actual birthplace was Bournemouth, but he grew up in London. Max showed a keen interest in music from an early age and piano lessons followed, progressing to final examinations at the Royal Academy of Music. Having heard an Art Tatum piano solo over the radio during his ‘teens—and being so impressed by the sheer brilliance of his playing, as well as being seduced by radio dance bands, he felt that this was the real music for him.

He joined a semi-professional band, which was fortunate in including members of the Teddy Foster and Harry Gold families. So a brotherly interest was taken in him by Teddy, then a star-trumpeter with Billy Cotton’s band and Harry, then playing tenor sax with Roy Fox. He did a spell with Oscar Rabin when his regular pianist fell ill, and a summer season at Lowestoft with the Stan Atkins band, at the time when his tenor-player was the young and gifted Aubrey Franks.

In September, 1939 Max was called up and posted to the Royal Artillery. He didn’t do much during the war years, apart from playing piano at the odd army concert. After the war he worked in a shop for a while, then plucked up the courage to go along and visit Archer Street, the London market place for musicians just back of Piccadilly Circus. He was pretty nervous, didn’t see anyone he knew. On the way back to the Underground he bumped into a Melody Maker reporter whom he knew slightly, man called Chris Hayes. Chris told him that Ronnie Munro, a bandleader with a regular BBC series, was looking for a pianist, so he phoned him, went for an audition and got the job.

After Munro he did a spell with Carl Barriteau, and then he met the great Geraldo. At that time Geraldo was England’s foremost bandleader. He had a contract to supply bands for the Cunard Line on the North Atlantic run. Ronnie Scott, John Dankworth and many others got to hear live American jazz that way. Max joined what was known as Geraldo’s Navy as a merchant seaman on the HMS Mauretania and did the regular New York to Southampton trips, getting to spend the three-day layover on each trip in New York.

The city was Paradise for a jazz musician. The Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, and Buddy Rich bands were all there to be heard and marvelled over. There were clubs galore with some of the finest jazz soloists around. Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Miles Davis, Bill Harris, Flip Phillips, Don Lamond and Max Kaminsky were all in town. While he was there Max was at the first appearance of the new Dizzy Gillespie big band. He then sat through every evening, listening to the band, absolutely fascinated by this new music they called bebop.

Afterwards he met Dizzy with John Lewis, and Tadd Dameron, who was writing for the band. A request to look at Tadd’s scores met with a polite no, but got Max an invitation to visit Tadd on his next trip to New York at a new club he was opening with his own group. When he turned up the place was practically deserted, but in the band were the trumpeter Fats Navarro, Allen Eager, playing tenor in the band, and Curley Russell on bass. On this trip Max also saw and heard a new big band led by Boyd Raeburn—a band that had a very young Milt Bernhart on trombone, and featuring the music of an unknown arranger called Johnny Richards.

On the ship there were quite often celebrities and Max was once asked to accompany Maurice Chevalier on a ship’s concert in aid of the Seamen’s Charity. The rehearsal in one of the staterooms was a lesson in itself, for Chevalier went right through his whole programme with just the two of them, as if playing before a packed audience. By the time the concert came Max knew every move, every gesture of the famous Frenchman.

After six US trips Max took a job at London's Cafe de Paris. The Canadian alto sax player Bob Burns was in the band. Bob was also playing at various jazz clubs around London and Max went around with him sometimes to sit in with his group. There he met the lovely young vocalist Nanette Rees, who later became his wife. After a short spell at the Embassy Club with Don Carlos, Max joined Jack Parnell’s new band, on the recommendation of Bob Burns.

Bob was there with Ronnie Scott, Pete King (who now runs the Ronnie Scott Club), Jimmy Watson, Harry Roche, Don Lusher, and a rhythm section of Sammy Stokes (bass) and Phil Seamen (drums). It was a thrilling band to play with. Reg Owen did a lot of the arranging. Later Ron Simmonds, Jimmy Deuchar and Jo Hunter joined the trumpets, with Ken Wray and Mac Minshull on trombones. The band toured British theatres with a variety show called Jazz Wagon; later on Tubby Hayes and Annie Ross joined the band.

Then came the now famous upheaval within the Parnell band. Jack wanted to engage Marion Davies as featured vocalist, and she would only come if Jack booked her husband, tenor-saxist Ronnie Keen as well. This meant Pete King had to go, which resulted in many of the others leaving the band in protest.

When an opportunity came along to arrange for the new BBC Show Band led by Cyril Stapleton Max took it, writing scores to be played by great musicians in the band such as George Chisholm, Stan Roderick, Bill McGuffie and Tommy Whittle..

Max wrote the Gurney Slade theme for an Anthony Newley mini-series. It made No. 10 in the pop singles charts. And he became one of the staff arrangers for Sunday Night at the London Palladium at the time Bruce Forsythe was compèring the show. He also scored the music for the popular radio comedy series Round The Horn.

One of the high spots of Max’s arranging career was in 1974 when he was engaged to write a series of duets for Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin for EMI records. The  production team asked him to first write an arrangement of Jealousy to display their individual talents. The rehearsal was to take place at Yehudi’s home in Highgate Village. Max arrived with their parts, waiting for Stephane to arrive from London Airport.

The first meeting of these two masters in their own different spheres was interesting as well as historic. They embraced one another cordially, and one could sense the great respect each had for the other. They talked about their respective violins just as any other two like instrumentalists would do. Then they rehearsed, and all went well. The programme on TV was most successful and led on to several successful recordings. Through this Max became a good friend of Stephane.

In September 1997, Max wrote and recorded arrangements for a CD that was issued later in December, featuring Stephane Grappelli and a very fine Japanese classical violinist Iwao Furusawa. Stephane was accompanied by his normal French group. Iwao is well established as a concert violinist and was formerly leader of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.

Max’ s musical writing also embraced John Le Carré’s film,  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as well as Alan Plater’s Last of the Blond Bombshells, where Dame Judi Dench offered a very convincing performance on tenor saxophone, with notes played in the background by Tommy Whittle.

For his contributions to music Max gained two Ivor Novello Awards and a BASCA award. He was a fine pianist, a gifted composer and conductor, and, above all, a gentleman. 
Ron Simmonds

A memorial was held for Max on March 19th, 2004 at Blackwater Valley Golf Club. Among the musicians present were Stan Reynolds, Bobby Orr, Tommy McQuater, Freddy Staff, Duncan Lamont, Johnny Edwards, Jim Lawless, Jack Ellery, Peter Hughes, Tony Harrison, Jackie Armstrong, Bob Holness, Keith Grant, Derek Price, Don Lusher, Roy Willox and Ronnie Hazelhurst. A tribute to Max was given by Roy Willox.

Copyright © 2004 Jazz Professional. All Rights Reserved.