My posts on singer Toni Harper began back in December, after I discovered an obscure album in Oscar Peterson's discography called Toni Harper Sings! (1956). At the end of January, to my great surprise and delight, Toni emailed me and answered many of the questions that I had raised about the Peterson session. [Pictured: An extended play LP released in Japan, courtesy of Makoto Gotoh]
Next, readers wondered in the Comments section of these posts about Toni's trip to Japan in 1963 with the Cannonball Adderley Sextet. So last week, legendary bassist and Cannonball Adderley's manager John Levy wrote me to provide insight into how Toni came to accompany the group and how she was treated by bassist Sam Jones. Earlier this week, Toni sent along another email with more details and gave me permission to post her remarks.
The beauty of the web, of course, is that history is a moving target, a work in progress. Hence, the "Toni Harper Story" is an ongoing one at JazzWax, providing a glimpse into the life of the singer and the volatile dynamics that occasionally cropped up within jazz groups. I am grateful to Toni and to John for sharing their important stories, since such details add dimension to our knowledge of jazz and might have been lost forever had they not agreed to express them.
Here is Toni's latest email from earlier this week:
"As I read John Levy's accounting of our 1963 tour in Japan, the coldness of some of the musicians toward me—with the exception of Cannonball and Yusef Lateef—came rushing back. Like me, Yusef seemed to be a person outside of the group. Yusef was easy to talk to, and I remember him with fond thoughts.
"When you originally asked me if I could recall anything about that time, I took my time thinking about it. Now having read your posts, my thoughts have more meaning. Living this life of mine is so very enlightening. It is absolutely marvelous. I am so happy to be breathing and experiencing life. And now, having befriended you and having the fun you bring is great. I love it. Too much fun for an old dame like me. Really!!!
"Thinking back, I remember the band being cold and distant, but not rude. But I guess there was that chill. It didn't bother me at all. By that time in my career, I was accustomed to being with and singing with musicians. Just about all of those musicians were men, so I was used to being treated many different ways.
"You have to understand, as I was growing up, my life was a lonely one anyway. I had no close relationships. It wasn't allowed. Just work. So the aloofness of the musicians in Cannonball's sextet was a matter of course, and I just focused on my work.
"However, I have fantastic memories of how I was accepted by the Japanese audiences and of the Japanese officials who handled the arrangements for the tour. Not always but frequently I found that I was the only woman sitting at dinner with just men. At the time I couldn't understand why no women were present. [Pictured below: Rare dinner in Japan that included musicians' wives. From left, Ann and Nat Adderley, Joe Zawinul, Yusef Lateef, Toni Harper, Gladys and John Levy (partially obscured), Louis Hayes and Japanese hosts; photo courtesy of John Levy]
"When I asked the Japanese men about that, they might have thought I was uncomfortable with it. I am not sure. But what ensued was that they invited me to their homes to meet their families. I was so fortunate to have been invited to go through the ritual of Japanese tea ceremonies. Those experiences changed my life forever and helped shape my life as it is today.
"I came to learn that only men typically attended dinners involving business matters and that it was part of the culture. For these men, I was a unique part of the equation. Everything was done by these men to make me feel comfortable and happy. In fact, I got along better with them than some members of Cannonball's group.
"While we were on tour, I learned two Japanese songs—one that I performed at each performance. I recall that Joe Zawinul was forced to play it. The other was a Japanese lullaby that one of the women I had met taught me. I still sing it to myself today and sometimes to my Japanese friends when they visit my home and I am in the mood to sing. We laugh. It is fun.
"I also remember being given the name, 'Toni With the Good Heart.' That was touching. In 1965, two years after our Japanese tour, I accepted the Buddhist faith and remain a Buddhist today. I am sure that my life-changing tour in Japan had everything to do with my becoming a Buddhist and with my decision to leave the entertainment field.
"I've taken the time to write this to you now as I think of it for if had I waited I fear I might have lost the thoughts or gumption. I am so happy we have met over the computer. You and JazzWax bring me more joy than I know how to express."