A Sense of History

  Photos by Alfonso "Pompo" Bresciani

The music of Donald Harrison '81 has been shaped by the rich traditions and historical path of New Orleans culture.

It's late August on a sunny, sultry morning in New Orleans, the day after the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Musician Donald Harrison shares bits of local history as he drives me through the French Quarter, Tremé, and Ninth Ward neighborhoods. He has a deep knowledge and passion for the history and influence of New Orleans culture-especially in music. He pulls over at the corner of North Rampart and Dumaine streets for an impromptu visit to the former J&M Recording Studio. Between 1947 and 1956, Ray Charles, Joe Turner, Little Richard, and other legends recorded there, but now it's a Laundromat. Amid the washers and dryers, captioned photos of the musical giants who appeared there now adorn the walls.

As we drive around the Ninth Ward, Harrison tells me that during Katrina, the waters that gushed from Lake Pontchartrain reached depths of 30 feet in these streets. At home in another part of the city during and after Katrina, Harrison witnessed the destruction of property and social order. But he's quick to note that those tough times also brought out the best in humanity, evidenced by waves of volunteers and charitable organizations later flooding the city to help with the cleanup and rebuilding efforts. The Katrina experience made Harrison even more determined to preserve the cultural legacy that is the bedrock of his musical artistry.

Harrison is first and foremost a jazz saxophonist with a broad musical appetite and a catalog of jazz compositions that incorporate bebop, r&b, hip-hop, smooth jazz, classical music, and of course, traditional New Orleans influences. Harrison became fluent in many styles through his youthful explorations of r&b and jazz and his stint with Doc Paulin's New Orleans Brass Band. He maintains that possessing a strong sense of history-the music that's come before-is essential for moving things forward.

Following his father's lifelong involvement with the historic New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian culture has added depth and texture to the younger Harrison's musical style. During his life, Donald Harrison Sr. was the big chief of four tribes (including Guardians of the Flame) and passed along the secret rituals and drumming patterns of Congo Square to his son. Donald Jr. later became a big chief himself and established the Congo Nation Mardi Gras Indian tribe to honor his late father. His work with traditional New Orleans music is chronicled on his 1991 Indian Blues album, but it also influenced his development of hybrid-jazz styles such as Nouveau Swing.


Harrison's fluid alto sax lines grace some 25 albums on which he's the leader and many more featuring him as a sideman. He's played with a veritable who's who of the jazz world, including Ron Carter, Miles Davis, Tony Williams, McCoy Tyner, Billy Cobham, Jack McDuff, Art Blakey, James Williams, and countless others. His devotion to preserving traditions has prompted Harrison to become deeply involved in nurturing numerous young musicians, including his nephew Christian Scott '04, a Grammy-nominated trumpeter. For several years, he has mentored young New Orleans-area high-school-aged musicians, and given them opportunities to perform with him onstage and in the studio.

In addition to Harrison's busy schedule of performing, recording, and educational activities, he has also worked as a consultant, actor, and musician for movie and TV productions by Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, and David Simon. While Harrison harbors dreams of writing a screenplay one day, his primary focus will always be musical explorations that acknowledge the past while looking forward. His new CD, This Is Jazz on the Half Note label, is his third trio outing with jazz titans Ron Carter (bass) and Billy Cobham (drums), and the album further showcases Harrison's explorations within the jazz idiom.

"Ron and Billy have been nurturing me and helping me understand the concepts they brought forth in the sixties and seventies," Harrison says humbly. "Musicians with a lot of experience in jazz and other styles of music can have a conversation on those subjects. I feel now that I'm finally in the conversation with Ron and Billy." In a broader sense, Harrison's distinctive musical voice is in the conversation, reminding all of the importance of New Orleans culture in the past and future of American music.

What was your entrée to playing music?

My father bought me a saxophone on a whim one day and I played it for about half a year when I was in elementary school. It went into mothballs after that until I was a teenager. When I was in ninth grade, I heard [the Grover Washington Jr. song] "Mr. Magic" and took the horn out again and started playing in the junior high-school marching band. I joined an r&b band at my school and got some notoriety because I could play "Mr. Magic." When I played it for my father -- who always played jazz records for me at home -- he asked if I could play Charlie Parker's music too. I couldn't, and that started my quest to learn to play bebop.

  "New Orleans music has influenced so many other styles of music, and to have it be taken seriously enough to portray on TV is more than I ever thought would happen."

Did you have other musical influences at that time

I listened a lot to [the Miles Davis record] Kind of Blue, and really liked the fact that each of the horn players had a different way of interpreting the music. It was remarkable to me that they all were so different but sounded so great together. I started thinking about developing a style that mixed Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane with the Charlie Parker things I was learning.

Did you study music formally after that?

Later in high school, I studied with Kidd Jordan and Ellis Marsalis. In my first year of college at Southern University, I studied with Alvin Batiste. After that I went to Berklee as a performance major and met a lot of musicians my age who were serious about learning to play. We became like brothers and sisters.

Who among your Berklee teachers were most influential?

Billy Pierce was my first saxophone teacher. He was influential on my concept of rhythm and the lines I was playing. His use of chromatics was highly advanced. In the lessons, he never talked about the gigs he was doing. But when Art Blakey came to town, I went to see Billy playing with him. He introduced me to Art and told him I could play. I got to sit in with Art that night, which was a monumental moment for me. The feeling of that music was so different from any other jazz I had played before.

I also studied with Andy McGhee and Joe Viola at Berklee. I remember playing for Joe once during a lesson when he asked me, "Which guy are you going to be: the one who plays high, the one who plays in the middle, or the one who plays down low?" Joe helped me to develop a more consistent sound on the horn.

How did you get your first gig with a big-name jazz artist?

Once, I was in New York hearing Roy Haynes play. In between sets there was a jam session. I had my horn, so I sat in. Roy was sitting at the bar listening and called me over afterwards. We exchanged information. He ultimately asked me to come to New York to play gigs with him. I was only 19 and still a Berklee student. Roy proved to be a great mentor and teacher, explaining all the little things he did on the drums. I played with him for two years and then later played with Jack McDuff. I went with Art Blakey after that. I've gotten the chance to play with a lot of great jazz musicians and learned from all of them. I wanted to understand the whole history of jazz and play with that perspective. I wanted to play the sounds that felt natural to me, so I would add nuances from New Orleans music, r&b, and other styles I liked. I hope that when people hear me play, they get a sense of history. I sensed the history in the playing of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, and I wanted to be like that.

What was your first move after Berklee?

I left in 1982 and moved to New York when I started working with Art Blakey. He was touring nine months out of the year so I couldn't do that and stay in school. I wanted to learn music and this was another way to do that. I've always made choices, not for career reasons, but to be where I needed to be to learn music.

How long did you live in New York?

I was there from 1982 through 1999. I worked with a lot of musicians while I was there. Through the years, I continued to play with people like Tony Williams, Don Pullen, Nat Adderley, and Lena Horne. That was a great period because I got to play with so many major jazz artists in New York.

One important person I worked with was [Latin-jazz pianist and composer] Eddie Palmieri. I first got to play with him on a recording session in Japan and later joined his band. He has a great understanding of Afro-Caribbean music and incorporates classical and jazz concepts into it while also blending what he calls the "dance aesthetic" with it. I realized I should be doing that too because I come from New Orleans, and the music from here also has a dance aesthetic. When I write music, I want to make sure I can dance to it -- even if it is serious jazz.

Is it true that when you lived in New York you were a mentor to the late rapper the Notorious B.I.G.

That's true. Chris Wallace, who later became known as the Notorious B.I.G., was a kid I used to see standing on his stoop two doors down from my home in Brooklyn. We started saying hi to each other, and in our conversations, I realized he was a really intelligent young man, knowledgeable about a bunch of things. He told me that he wanted to rap to music. I wasn't into rap, but with his mother's permission, I started teaching him every day. Some of the things I talked about ended up in his music -- like imitating the rhythm of a bebop snare drum in his raps. Some rappers don't like to hear that there is a jazz influence in his music, but I know it's in there. He was also one of the first hip-hoppers to put on a suit -- like a jazz musician. Another thing I told him to work on was his enunciation. I told him that I couldn't understand what a lot of rappers were saying and he'd have an advantage if he enunciated clearly. We also talked about using a lot of visual images in his words.

When did you make your first album as a leader?

Terence Blanchard and I formed a group back in 1982 and released an album called New York Second Line. That was the first album. On it, I took the beat from the New Orleans second line tradition and blended it with some New York modern jazz touches. That was the start of people of my generation taking the rhythms of New Orleans seriously. That group with Terence lasted about three years, and then I started my solo career.

What prompted you to leave New York and move back to New Orleans?

My work in New York began slowing down, and I started coming home a bit more and got involved with the culture down here again. Once I was out on a Mardi Gras day and there was African-style percussion and call-and-response chants. My father was the big chief of his tribe the Guardians of the Flame and I was what they call "running-spy boy" for him. I was listening to the drums and my father singing. In my head I could hear Art Blakey's drumming working with the beats and the singing. I started hearing all the styles mixing together. That led to me make the album Indian Blues in 1990. Carl Allen played drums on that. If you listen, you'll hear Carl playing a swing beat on the ride cymbal and hi hat, but a [New Orleans] beat from Congo Square on the snare and bass drum. It's a hybrid beat that affects the way the bass player and everyone else has to think. That led to the style I developed called Nouveau Swing, which mixes hip-hop with swing, r&b, and other types of music. That gave me revelations about what else could be done with music.

In what other ways did you reconnect with the New Orleans culture?

I went to practices with my father as he was gearing up for Mardi Gras. That's when I realized there was a difference between the way the older guys and younger guys did things. I saw that there was something special about the beats of the culture. I started asking my father how to pronounce the words the guys were saying and what those words and the dance steps meant. I'd never focused on that before. He explained a lot to me in that period. I was fortunate to get that from him before he passed away.

The Indian Blues CD was a hybrid, and I knew that I needed my father to do the traditional parts. Howard Ricks played percussion on the record and asked Dr. John if he would play on it as the r&b and soul representative. Dr. John was originally going to do only one song, but he ended up playing on a lot more. He has become a great friend and an advocate. He loves the music and anyone who is trying to be honest with it.

I understand that you were in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and that it took four days for you to get across the bridge to leave the city and that you couldn't return for two months. When you returned, you found your house and your mother's home damaged.

That's all correct. Many people didn't think a hurricane would affect the city that much since we had gotten through many others for the past 40 years. I stayed, and now I think I know what it's like to be in a war or another situation when society breaks down on all levels. You have to be able to think on your feet and realize that if you make a wrong decision, you might not get to make any more decisions. That adds to your perspective on what life is about. You begin to cherish every moment, every note, and everything around you even more. Until I got to that point, I didn't really understand it. I was surprised that losing everything in my house didn't really affect me. What affected me most was that I couldn't provide a stable environment for my daughter. Even today, things are not the way they were before.

If you love a place as much as I love my hometown, you feel that if it goes away, then a big part of what makes you feel comfortable as a human being will be gone. Since the hurricane, I've fought to maintain some of the traditions here that go back to the inception of New Orleans.

Those traditions include the Mardi Gras Indian second-line clothes, my Congo Square Nation tribe, and the call-and-response chants and rituals that we do. I graduated to become a big chief, like my father was, which took a lot of work. The root culture here informs everything we do and has influenced everything in music from jazz to hip-hop to r&b to funk to classical.

How did you become involved with filmmakers?

A lot of them came down here after the storm. Around October of 2007, [director] Jon Demme was here doing a documentary that featured my mother. He came to see me at a club and heard me talking to the audience on the microphone and thought I had the right personality to do a scene in his movie. He gave me about 15 minutes of instructions on acting. He told me to be really aware of how my character should fit in with the other characters and the environment of the scene. That was like a light switch going on for me. Jon is also an advocate for New Orleans and people in general. We have a lot of similar ideas.

What was the path that led to you working with David Simon on the HBO TV series Treme?

David had seen me playing in a lot of cities with different bands. For the Mardi Gras in 2006 when I came out in the morning as a big chief, he felt I was real and giving my all to the things I was doing. After that he asked me to work with him on the TV show.

How did you help to create the character of Delmond Lambreaux that is based on your life and experiences?

I was hired as a consultant from the beginning and a storyline during the last two seasons was about the making of my Indian Blues recording with my father. We got to play the music in the studio, live, and on TV and to act out some of the things that happened. There were some changes to make it more dramatic for television, but the scene where we are playing at a jazz festival came out better than I could have imagined it. I'm really happy about this show because it gives musicians who really play a chance to play their music on TV. Not as background characters but as central people. I think that's unprecedented in a major TV series.

How many episodes featured you over the course of the first two seasons?

I was in six or seven. I don't know what will happen in the third season. It's been great just to have some music in the show that reflects the root culture here and that I thought was never going to be taken seriously. New Orleans music has influenced so many other styles of music, and to have it be taken seriously enough to portray on TV is more than I ever thought would happen. I hope that others in Hollywood will realize that you can have the people who actually play the music doing that on TV.

What type of educational work are you doing with young musicians?

We're teaching the young generation about all different types of music and getting them prepared do whatever they will do with the music. I tell my students that if they come on board with me, I'll teach them all different styles of music. Then they will have the option to play them. But if they don't learn, they don't have that option.

I'm working through three different entities: the Tipitina Foundation, my mother's foundation Guardians of the Flame Institute, and at a summer camp at Newman high school. I don't really consider this work, I'm just sharing knowledge. The young people show me what they do and help me understand their concept of the music that's on the radio today. When you show that you think what they are doing is important, there's more of a chance that they will think what you do is important.

Can you talk about the young musicians that you perform with around New Orleans?

I'm working with a group of brilliant young musicians who are committed to understanding the past and adding their ideas to music. They include 21-year-old drummer Joe Dyson ['11] and 22-year-old bassist Max Moran ['10], who both studied with me before they went on to graduate from Berklee. They are young but seasoned veterans, because they started playing with me when they were around 15 years old. My main pianist is Zaccai Curtis, but Victor Gould ['10], Jesse McBride, Conun Pappas, and Sullivan Fortner have also played with us. Rounding out the group is Detroit Brooks, a guitarist and singer from New Orleans who is a little older than me. We also have 17-year-old drummer Alfred Jordan play with us on occasion This group plays many styles of music. One night we could be playing cutting-edge modern jazz; the next, smooth jazz; the next, New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian music. There's a high demand for these young musicians, because the word is out that they can handle so many musical styles at a high level.

In addition to your work in jazz, you've written music for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

I've written two pieces for the orchestra that draw on the culture. I took somewhat of a classical approach in those, but I have ideas for pieces that will incorporate classical improvisation and jazz improvisation. It's my dream to spend more time someday writing orchestral music. I also work on classical improvisation on the saxophone and have added some of those nuances into the music on my album Quantum Leap.

That album blends many adventurous musical concepts.

Quantum Leap was an amalgamation of ideas that showed a new way of thinking about time or rhythm, but also about melody and harmony too. The concept was that time can start anywhere you want-before or after it's supposed to start. I compare it to looking at a picture with 300 pixels [per square inch] and comparing it to one with 1200 pixels. In the one with 1200, you will see more detail, things that were already there, but you weren't seeing them. If a bebop drummer were to play a song like "Quantum Leap," it would befuddle him. Even though there would be some similarities, it's totally different from anything he's played before. It was the same when I was making the Nouveau Swing album. The first musicians I approached to play that music didn't get it. I told the drummer to play his concept of a hip-hop bass drum against a swing beat and make it funky. With [drummer] Carl Allen, [bassist] Christian McBride, and [pianist] Mulgrew Miller, I achieved it. I went through maybe 10 drummers before Carl understood what I was after. From working with so many musicians, I've learned that the guy who can play what someone else has done is good, but the guy who actually puts it together is special. Carl, Christian, and Mulgrew are all special because they could put the concept together and play it in a way that feels natural.

Are you still touring a lot?

I would say that I'm out on the road about a third of the year. That's still a lot. Most of the time I go out for the weekends and get back home for a few days during the week to recharge. Sometimes I'm out for two weeks at a time.

What's on the horizon for you?

I don't have a specific plan. I just want to learn as much music as I can and play it from my heart. I think it's important to understand people and have love for them. It shows up in your music when you love other people and think that they are important. That give-and-take that goes back and forth when I'm playing is the ultimate joy for me.