Volume 8, Number 1, 1999

Play it again, Bill

Few of his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratories know Bill Harman, EG ’62, as a jazzman who once played Carnegie Hall. But, that may change.

Nearly 40 years ago, this engineer, who is an expert on airline collision avoidance, was part of an up-and-coming jazz band known as the Pennsylvania Six-Pence, which broke up in 1959 when its leader was drafted. Now, Harman is performing again with his reunited college band, which appears under the name Independence Jazz Reunion.

And, judging from recent reviews, time has only tightened the group, which blends traditional, classic and mainstream jazz with some original tunes. Harman started playing trombone in the fourth grade. By the time he reached junior high school, he and friends, Jeff Haskell and Bob Kindred, began dabbling in the popular sound of Dixieland. In high school, the three met up with trumpet player Rick Lundquist, a junior business major at the University of Pennsylvania who was determined to form a six-piece Dixieland jazz band. With two other college students, the Pennsylvania Six-Pence performed its first gig at a Penn fraternity house.

"We were paid $85," recalls Harman. "When that went well, Rick gave each of us a bunch of dimes and instructed us to call around to other fraternities. The telephone blitz landed us a few more gigs. Soon, we were playing once or twice a week on college campuses."

After a couple of months, they noticed an ad for a concert at Carnegie Hall. The concert, to be held on Thanksgiving Eve, would feature Eddie Condon as emcee, alongside such popular college bands as Eli’s Chosen Six, the Yale Whiffenpoofs, Brown’s BruNotes and Chris Porterfield’s Big-Band Jazz. The Pennsylvania Six-Pence wanted in, so they sent a tape to the producer and offered to help with publicity. The producer agreed to put the band on the program. "We were really nervous on the night of that performance," Harman says, "but it was an experience I will never forget!" Touring on weekends and during school vacations, the six young musicians performed up and down the East Coast. They played at New York City’s Biltmore Hotel, Jimmy Ryan’s night club and the Village Gate, sharing the stage with such jazz greats as Billy May, Kai Winding and Wilbur De Paris. They also performed at several night clubs and hotels in Bermuda. With each performance, the Six-Pence refined its sound, adding its own brand of what Harman calls "society music"–dance and show tunes from the era–as well as mainstream jazz to the repertoire.

In 1959, the group released its first album, The Saints Come Marching In, on Westminster Records. That summer, the band took a student sailing trip to Europe. "Once in Europe, I traveled with Bob," says Harman who kept his journal from the trip. "At the end of our stay, we joined the rest of the guys to play a big gig in Hamburg, Germany. We practiced anywhere and everywhere that summer–on the streets in Paris, near some sand dunes at The Hague, roadside on the autobahn. We frequented jazz clubs and wherever possible, joined the acts." The reviews from the Hamburg gig were outstanding. After just two short years, the Six-Pence was poised for success. Back in the states, the band had lined up an audition for the Ed Sullivan Show when bandleader Lundquist was drafted. The audition never took place, and soon after, the band dissolved.

Life went on for these musician friends. A couple of them continued to perform and record jazz music; others, like Harman, pursued alternative careers. After earning his degree in electrical engineering at UD, Harman went on to receive his master’s degree at the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. at M.I.T. He married, had two children, and has been on the technical staff at Lincoln Laboratories for the past 26 years.

But, the dream of playing jazz together never died. On a few occasions over the years, the band reunited for special concerts. Among these were two college reunions. The most exciting reunion concert by far–the one that stuck–was the one held in honor of Lundquist’s retirement in 1993 as business professor from the State University of New York at Fredonia. "That concert went really well," says Harman, modestly. According to a local newspaper that reviewed the concert, it was an unequivocal success: "The program of swing and Dixieland was second to none...The ‘front three’– Lundquist, Kindred and Harman–really know how to do Dixieland. They work as a team, playing melody, counter melody and harmony in an intricate filigree of silver, ebony and brass...."

Amazingly, says Harman, it had been 10 years since the three had shared the stage; yet, after only one rehearsal, they played a two-and-a half-hour jazz concert to a standing ovation.

"I guess it’s kind of like riding a bike," says Harman. "Whenever we play together, things just fall into place."

Lundquist’s retirement concert marked the rebirth of the old band under its new name, Independence Jazz Reunion. It brought together four original members–Harman (trombone), Lundquist (trumpet), Kindred (tenor sax/clarinet) and Haskell (piano)–with two other accomplished jazz recording artists, bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Danny D’Imperio. In 1996, during a live performance, the band recorded its first CD, aptly titled, Rekindling the Dream. A year later, the band signed with Marilyn Gilbert Artists Management, a national booking agency based in Philadelphia. Harman, who lives in Westford, Mass., says it isn’t always easy to shift gears away from the life he’s created over the decades to that of a traveling musician. In addition to his full- time job, Harman is an active member of the Westford Conservation Trust and Conservation Commission.

"It is really the sense of reunion and friendship that pulls me back on stage," says Harman, "and the dream of keeping jazz alive."Independence Jazz Reunion plans to use future profits to fund aspiring jazz musicians and music educators. The group will be featured at the conferences of both the Canadian and American associations of performing arts presenters this fall and winter. To find out where the band’s next gig is, visit its web site at <www.ijr.net>.

–Michelle Reynolds