Remember the time the great Joe Harriott came to York? Oh, yeah . . .

It was September 1972 when word got around York that the alto saxophonist Joe Harriott was coming to town. We were ecstatic. For years we'd bored our friends with Joe's great records, the ground-breaking Indo-Jazz Fusions, and the sheer virtuosity of Free Form.

But then came the bad news. Joe wasn't coming with his own band, he was relying entirely on local musicians. Even for the best players in town this was a terrifying prospect. Being asked to sit behind Joe as he screamed and soared through some of his wilder pieces of improvisation seemed about as inviting at the time as the offer of ten rounds with Muhammad Ali.

But worse was to come. No venue had been arranged. The country's greatest alto player was about to step off the train and we were running around desperately trying to find a stage on which he could unleash his genius. There was only one option. Joe would have to be asked to come down to jazz night at the Spotted Cow on Wednesday and sit in with the regulars.

It's not easy to describe the Spotted Cow band. Everyone in the bar so much wanted to hear some jazz that they willed the players to perform, making allowances for bum notes with the same degree of charity they extended every other Saturday to the equally uncertain performances of York City at Bootham Crescent. But it was generally agreed that the pianist and tenor player were able, if tentative, and the drummer perfectly adequate as long as he was denied a shed-building solo. The only unfortunate member was the vocalist, who seemed unable to sing any standard without the addition of an "Oh, yeah" after every other line. "Fly me to the moon/And let me walk among the stars. Oh, yeah."

Joe strolled into the crowded bar just after nine o'clock. A striking figure. Tall and elegant in a well-pressed black suit and dazzlingly clean white shirt. He sat by himself at a table and slowly assembled his alto. Was he listening? What was he making of the band's version of "Lullaby of Birdland, Oh, yeah"?

We needn't have worried. He listened to three numbers and then slowly strolled over to the rostrum, whispered to the pianist, and soared straight into "Don't Get Around Much Any More". There was no "Free Form" or "Indo-Jazz Fusions". For an hour and a half he played the classics the band knew and played them with a commitment rarely heard from the other professional jazzers who turned up in the city on Arts Council-sponsored tours.

Joe stayed in town a month, lodging in turn with Terry and myself. During that time we realised just how courageous he'd been at the Spotted Cow and all the other second-rate gigs we set up for him around the city. For £20 a night he'd blow his guts out with a pick-up band, stagger home exhausted, wash out his one white nylon shirt, and then try to find a sleeping position in bed that wouldn't aggravate the large and, as it turned out, cancerous tumour in the middle of his back.

When he died nine months after leaving York, every jazz fan in the city felt they'd been unhappy witnesses to a major tragedy. At least they can now remind themselves of Joe's brilliance. Polygram has brought out CDs of his greatest work and it only takes the thrilling first notes of "Formation" on the Free Form album to bring back the enormous generosity of spirit that allowed their creator to sit down so readily all those years ago and jam along with a pub band. Sad days. But at the Spotted Cow they certainly gave a whole new meaning to "Oh, yeah".

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?