Tom Harrell was born in Urbana, Illinois, but moved to the San Francisco Bay Area at the age of five. He started playing trumpet at eight, and within five years was playing gigs with local bands. In 1969 he graduated from Stanford University with a music composition degree and joined Stan Kenton's orchestra, touring and recording with them throughout 1969.
After leaving Kenton, Harrell played with Woody Herman's big band (1970–1971), Azteca (1972), the Horace Silver Quintet (1973–1977), with whom he made five albums, the Sam Jones-Tom Harrell Big Band, the Lee Konitz Nonet (1979–1981), George Russell, and the Mel Lewis Orchestra (1981). From 1983 to 1989 he was a pivotal member of the Phil Woods Quintet and made seven albums with the group. In addition, he recorded albums with Vince Guaraldi for whom he also did some arranging for the Peanuts television specials, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Ronnie Cuber, Bob Brookmeyer, Lionel Hampton, Bob Berg, Cecil Payne, Bobby Shew, Philip Catherine, Ivan Paduart, Joe Lovano, Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra, Art Farmer, Charles McPherson,David Sánchez, Sheila Jordan, Jane Monheit, the King's Singers and Kathleen Battle among others. Harrell is featured on Bill Evans' final recording, We Will Meet Again, which won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Group.
While Harrell recorded several albums as a leader during his tenure with the Phil Woods Quintet, it was after his departure that he started producing albums as a leader, in succession for Contemporary (now owned by Concord), Chesky, and RCA/BMG. During his years as a BMG artist (1996 - 2003) first with RCA, then BlueBird and finally Arista, Harrell made six albums, many of which feature his arrangements for larger groups. Since the early 1990s, Harrell has toured and performed with his own groups of various sizes and instrumentation.
Harrell is a prolific arranger and composer. He has arranged for Vince Guaraldi's work on Peanuts, Carlos Santana, the Metropole Orchestra, the Danish Radio Big Band, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and Elisabeth Kontomanou with the Orchestre National de Lorraine, among others. His compositions have been recorded by other jazz artists including Ron Carter, Joe Lovano, Kenny Barron, Art Farmer, Chris Potter, Tom Scott, Steve Kuhn, Kenny Werner and Hank Jones. Harrell's composition and big band arrangement entitled "Humility" was recorded on the Grammy-winning album by Arturo O'Farrill's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Song for Chico. As a composer and arranger, Harrell works in different genres, including classical music.
Harrell is represented by Addeo Music International (AMI).
Since 1989 Harrell has led his own groups, usually quintets but occasionally expanded ensembles such as chamber orchestras with strings, and big bands. He has appeared at most major jazz clubs and festival venues, and recorded under his own name for such record labels as RCA, Contemporary, Pinnacle, Blackhawk, Criss Cross, SteepleChase, Chesky, and HighNote.
In contrast to his signature recordings during the RCA/BMG years (1996–2003), where much of his focus was on projects involving large ensembles, big bands and chamber orchestras, Harrell's more recent works demonstrate his skills as a leader of a tight, smaller unit. Harrell has made four albums with the current quintet of six years, which comprises tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Ugonna Okegwo (whom Harrell has employed since 1997), and drummer Johnathan Blake. The group is noted for the strong chemistry between the musicians and the distinctive sound achieved primarily through Harrell's compositions. Harrell's current quintet differs from previous editions of quintets he has formed and worked with, in the use of Fender Rhodes and acoustic piano. Harrell's 2012 recording, The Time of the Sun, received his seventh SESAC Jazz Award.
In June 2012, Harrell debuted his nine-piece chamber ensemble at the Highline Ballroom as part of the Blue Note Jazz Festival. Harrell arranged the music of Debussy, Ravel, and his own compositions for this ensemble, which consists of trumpet, soprano and tenor saxophones, c-flute and bass flute, violin, cello, acoustic guitar, piano, bass, and drums. The Tom Harrell Chamber Ensemble has since performed at the Village Vanguard, Autumn Jazz Festival in Bielsko Biala, the Jazz Standard, the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, the Scripps Auditorium in San Diego, and Soka University Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo, CA. Harrell himself considers the arrangements and compositions some of the most challenging works he has written to date.
Harrell's latest group is the piano-less sextet with two basses called "Colors of a Dream," which comprises himself on trumpet and flugelhorn, Wayne Escoffery on tenor saxophone, Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Johnathan Blake on drums, Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Esperanza Spalding doubling on bass and vocal. The group debuted at the Village Vanguard during its six-night run starting March 26, 2013 and the second night's performance was webcast for live streaming by NPR. A studio album by the same name will be released on October 22, 2013.