Donald Harrison Jr.

Saxophonist
Class of 
1981
Alumni

Donald Harrison Jr. ’81 has combined a whirlwind career as a saxophonist with establishing cultural and educational traditions in his native New Orleans, Louisiana. Known for creating nouveau swing, a jazz style that combines R&B, funk, hip-hop, and African dance, Harrison tours all over the world and has many albums and honors to his name. Yet he finds time to be Big Chief of Congo Square Nation in New Orleans for Mardi Gras season as well as being cofounder and artistic director of Tipitina's Foundation Internship Program to help New Orleans youth, especially the disadvantaged, realize their musical dreams.

Harrison was born in 1960 to a musical New Orleans family. His father, Donald Sr., was a Big Chief, part of the African American tradition of participating in dancing, singing, and call-and-response in fanciful costumes that is part of Mardi Gras. Harrison’s career as a saxophonist has included working with multiple top names in jazz and other genres of music, including Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Lena Horne, the Notorious B.I.G., and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, among others.

Harrison's ties to New Orleans became even stronger in 2005 when he and his family were evacuees during Hurricane Katrina, which submerged their home under six feet of water. Then he vowed to stay near New Orleans despite having a residence in New York. Some of the music and aspects of the characters in the HBO series Treme, about the aftermath of Katrina, were based on Harrison, who was a consultant for the show, as was a character in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke.

Harrison’s albums include Quantum Leap, which was called a breakthrough by critics for its joining of cutting-edge jazz with New Orleans funk. In 2015, he recorded his first classical composition, “Congo Square Nation,” with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Harrison's honors include two French Grand Prix du Disques; awards from American, Swiss, and Japanese publications; a 2012 Grammy nomination; and numerous awards from his hometown.