Beckett was born in St. Michael Parish, Barbados. He took up the cornet to play in a Salvation Army band, explored several other brass instruments, and moved to Britain at 19, where he soon found work with the Jamaican bandleader Leslie Jiver Hutchinson's popular group. In 1961 Beckett was one of Charles Mingus' favorite recruits for the Brit band he'd assembled to play on the soundtrack for the 1961 jazz-noir film All Night Long. Beckett joined Graham Collier's band in 1961 and remained until 1977. That said, his journeyman activities were well underway: He played in the jazz orchestras of Mike Gibbs, Mike Westbrook, and Neil Ardley and John Warren, and was part of the London Jazz Composer's Orchestra. He also cut is teeth in R&B and blues groups led by Alexis Korner and Herbie Goins the Nightimers.
Beckett's clout on the scene was felt on Flare Up, his leader debut, for Philips. Collier wrote some of its key material, while the studio band included Russell, Alan Skidmore, Mike Osborne, and John Taylor. This same lineup stayed put for his other dates from the period, Warm Smiles and Themes for Fega in 1971 and 1972, respectively. Beckett also served as a member of small combos led by Tony Oxley, Surman, and Russell. In the mid-'70s, Beckett released his undisputed classic, Joy Unlimited, for Cadillac Records. The meld of post-bop and Caribbean-flavored funk resonated with critics and fans alike. He also played with the Stan Tracey Octet, Elton Dean's Ninesense, South African exiles Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, and Sounds Zila, led by saxophonist Dudu Pukwana.
During the '80s, Beckett was constantly overbooked for session work and he loved it. He began the decade working with Robert Wyatt, and in 1982 appeared on Weekend's seminal Rough Trade release La Varieté. The The's Matt Johnson claimed he felt fortunate in getting Beckett to lend his horn to the single "Perfect" from 1982's Soul Mining. While the horn player recorded as a leader for various labels including Jazzprint, ITM, Paladin, and West Wind, he also assisted and mentored younger musicians from many scenes, including the Raincoats on 1984's Moving. He spent the latter half of the decade deeply involved with the Jazz Warriors, an important group that gave rise to the careers of Courtney Pine and Orphy Robinson. He worked with Danish guitarist Pierre Dørge's New Jungle Orchestra and in Dean's various bands. He also managed to release the acclaimed Pictures of You in 1985 with Dean and Tim Whitehead on saxes, Tony Marsh on drums, and Mick Hutton on bass. He collaborated on David Sylvian's Gone to Earth in 1986, and with McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath reunion venture Country Cooking in 1988. He released the widely acclaimed Grandmother's Teaching with Dyani, McGregor, and Mazur, and played sessions with everyone from Wobble to Charlie Watts. He closed out the decade playing concerts with Pine and the Jazz Warriors, and offering his horn to Pierre Dorge New Jungle Orchestra's Different Places, Different Bananas in 1989.
During the '90s, Beckett contributed to some iconic recordings. That's his trumpet break on the single "Erzulie" from Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart's Rising Above Bedlam. He also released his own Passion Possession for ITM in 1991, an important series of duet recordings with pianists Django Bates, Keith Tippett, and Joachim Kuhn. The pianists, Pine, bassist Jean-Francois Jenny Clark, and Jarvis all appeared on Beckett's 1992 West Wind date, Les Jardins Du Casino. Beckett was recruited to play in the Dedication Orchestra, formed to pay recorded and concert tributes to the Blue Notes, an early-'60s interracial South African band who had emigrated to England and included virtually all members of the Brotherhood of Breath. The Dedication Orchestra cut two albums for Ogun, Spirits Rejoice in 1992 and Ixesha (Time) in 1994. In 1996, Beckett issued Compared, which featured trombonist Annie Whitehead. He also continued working with Wobble, playing on almost every one of his Invaders of the Heart's albums and on solo albums the bassist released during the century's final decade, including 1994's Take Me to God, 1997's The Celtic Poets, 1998's Full Moon Over the Shopping Mall, and Umbra Sumus. Somehow, Beckett also found time to release Tribute to Charles Mingus in 1999 with a quintet that included saxophonist Chris Biscoe, bassist Fred T. Baker, pianist Alistair Gavin, and Marsh on drums.
Beckett spent his final decade as a featured soloist and an in-demand sideman. He was prominently featured in the concert band for Soupsongs Live: The Music of Robert Wyatt, on Temple of Sound and Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali's 2001 album People's Colony No. 1 for Real World, and with the London Improvisers Orchestra for The Hearing Continues.... In 2002 he played on Ramon Lopez's Duets 2 Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and two albums by Wobble: Fly and Five Beats. The following year Beckett played his first collaboration with Adrian Sherwood on the producer's Never Trust a Hippy. The trumpeter followed that with Before After, a live album for Jazzprint cut in 1999 with the quintet from Tribute to Charles Mingus.
As an indication of his stylistic breadth, Beckett's final album before his death was the 2008 On-U-Sound release The Modern Sound of Harry Beckett, produced by Sherwood and featuring an all-star band in explorations of jazz-funk, reggae, dub, and dance music. Beckett died in London following a stroke on July 22, 2010; he was 75 years old. In 2011, ITM Archives issued Maxine, a collection of unreleased tracks and outtakes from 1992's Les Jardins Du Casino. In 2016, My Only Desire Records licensed and issued Still Happy, an unreleased 1974 broadcast concert for the BBC Radio 2 Jazz Club program. In the decade that followed, many of Beckett's catalog titles reappeared. 2020 saw the publication of John Watson's critical biography The Many Faces of Harry Beckett in May, while a deluxe remastered version of Joy Unlimited was released globally in August. ~ Thom Jurek & Ron Wynn, Rovi
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