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Jazzman Makes It Nice

Guitarist and composer Charley Harrison (Mu89, GMu94) has improvised a career that includes making music for movies that blends modern rhythms with traditional jazz.


by Patty Dowd Schmitz

When Charley Harrison (Mu89, GMu94) was an undergraduate at Northwestern, he zipped around Evanston in an old station wagon with a license plate that read “Jazzgit.” The moniker bespoke the dual passions Harrison had been fostering since high school: jazz and guitar.

Today Harrison is an accomplished jazz guitarist and an even more accomplished composer and arranger. He brings his unique jazz improvisation background to his work as an up-and-coming Hollywood film composer (Headrush, The Trumpet of the Swan, The Ladies Man).

As a composer/arranger, Harrison is known for his multidimensional music that incorporates modern, swing, Latin and contemporary elements into traditional jazz. In 2005 he garnered rave reviews for his adventurous orchestration of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for pianist Anthony Molinaro (GMu97).

His unique approach to orchestration has gained the attention of industry notables, including jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, who said, “Charley Harrison is one of the outstanding new voices in jazz arranging and composition. His ability to incorporate improvisation with orchestration is masterful.”

In February 2006 he debuted his latest CD at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall during an Ella Fitzgerald tribute performance by the Chicago Jazz Orchestra. The CD, titled Keeping My Composure, features a compilation of six original compositions as well as five additional Harrison arrangements, such as “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” “On the South Side of Chicago” and “Pure Imagination,” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, all performed by the CJO. Harrison plays jazz guitar with the group as well as serves as its associate director and principal composer/arranger.

The CD release at Pick-Staiger marked a sort of coming “full circle” for Harrison. As an undergraduate, Harrison was one of only a handful of School of Music students to create an ad hoc degree in jazz arranging. He spent his summers at Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music, then completed his master’s degree in composition at Northwestern in 1994.

For a time he wrote and produced music for commercials in Chicago, opening his own jingle production company. But in early 2000 the lure of Hollywood came calling, as he formed a relationship with film composer and bassist Marcus Miller. Harrison and his wife, Beth, moved to California so he could pursue film and television scoring. (After moving to California, the Harrisons had two children, Charles and Brian.)

He serves as the director of the top jazz orchestra at the University of California, Los Angeles, and continues his association with the CJO, returning to the Midwest to perform concerts or work on arrangements for the group. In addition, he travels to Washington, D.C., each year to perform with the CJO as the featured entertainment for the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony.

Harrison credits much of his unique approach to jazz writing to Don Owens, the School of Music’s recently retired coordinator of jazz studies. “I prefer to approach jazz composition and arranging from an orchestral standpoint, viewing the ensemble as a jazz orchestra, rather than simply a ‘big band,’” Harrison says. “A lot of my early inspiration to go in that direction came from Don Owens.”

Harrison hopes to broaden the jazz audience by continuing to incorporate elements from all types of genres.
“If I can make jazz more accessible to a larger number of people, that’s my goal,” he says.

Patty Dowd Schmitz (J89, GJ90) is a freelance writer, editor and communications strategist in Barrington, Ill.
Charley Harrison
Charley Harrison Photo by Camille Nims Lamoureux (WCAS89)