Donald Harrison, Jr., is one of the most influential modern jazz players of his generation, yet he remains inextricably tied to his New Orleans roots. The 38-year-old saxophonist is the son of the great Mardi Gras Indian Chief and founder of the Guardians of the Flame tribe, Donald Harrison, Sr., who passed away late last year. After graduating from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), Harrison, Jr., began touring in 1982 with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the launching pad for many jazz greats, including Harrison’s contemporaries Terence Blanchard, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and Mulgrew Miller. In the late eighties, Harrison co-led a young group with Terence Blanchard which played a crucial role in the so-called neo-conservative movement of the day. The group split up in ’89, and Harrison began work on the groundbreaking Indian Blues (Candid), a collaboration with his father, Dr. John, percussionist Howard “Smiley” Ricks and modern jazzmen Cyrus Chestnut and Phil Bowler, which combined Mardi Gras Indian folk music with modern jazz. Were it still in print, this record would no doubt be a likely candidate for OffBeat’s “100 Essential Louisiana CD’s.” Over the last decade, Harrison has worked with a wide variety of talents: Roy Haynes, Lena Horne, Latin jazz giant Eddie Palmieri, even hip-hop group Digable Planets. This spectrum of influences gave birth to a new concept on Nouveau Swing, his well received 1997 debut for Impulse. Harrison took grooves from pop music styles like funk, rock, Jamaican Dancehall, reggae, hip-hop, Caribbean soca, gospel, New Orleans second-line and R&B, and incorporated them subtly into a hard-swinging acoustic jazz band setting. “You don’t EXclude, you INclude, because jazz wouldn’t be here if people didn’t include,” Harrison says in the liner notes to Free To Be, his follow-up record due in stores on February 9th.
On February 18th, Harrison performs at Snug Harbor with his quartet. On the 19th at the Orpheum Thaeater, he unveils “Haley Suite,” which features the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra together with his quartet performing Mardi Gras Indian chants in a classical orchestral setting.
It’s 1982. You’ve graduated from NOCCA and you’re out with Art Blakey’s band for the first time. What was that time like for you?
That was a big change in my life since I hadn’t toured much, and Art’s band had a long legacy of fine musicians. A big weight was on my shoulders to try to keep up this thing that had been going on for so long. To be somewhere in the same ballpark as these great musicians who had come through. Art used to always tell us, “You’re supposed to have everything you need when you leave this band.” So I was trying to get it all together.
What were the major lessons you got out of that experience?
One was don’t believe your own press clippings. First lesson Art taught me was don’t believe that you’re the greatest. You’re just one part of the wheel, everybody’s just one part. Try and learn as much about the music as possible. Develop any talent that you have, because it was given to you for a reason, and because everyone has that particular thing that they have to do. Play from your heart and keep the banner high. You know, jazz music has a banner and keep the banner as high as possible and be honest about your music. He made us write music, said if you don’t want to write, you can’t stay here. He taught us a lot about the older musicians, told me stories about Charlie Parker and Trane and people he felt I would want to hear about. How to stand up and be a man…all kinds of lessons really.
Let’s jump ahead to later on in the eighties. You’re co-leading a band with trumpeter Terence Blanchard and you’re putting out really good records that are well-received. What was significant about that period?
We were able to put some of the lessons we learned with other musicians into practice. We learned how to lead a band. We were trying to develop ourselves as musicians, as well as start hiring younger musicians, you know like Art did, so that there would be more jazz musicians and more places for us to work. We also talked to a lot of record company people. At that time Columbia was the only label hiring young jazz musicians, so Terence and I took it upon ourselves to contact the presidents of all the major labels. Also, the program directors at pop and R&B radio stations, telling them why they needed to play jazz music. Everybody was telling us that we were crazy (laughs). But, you know, some of the pop stations starting playing us late at night.
Can you give an example of what you would say?
Oh, I would tell them, you know, what was the truth. That jazz is our classical music and that we need to keep this music alive. Even if it didn’t sell a million records today, that if they made a record and the artist was sincere and his music was in the true light of what jazz should be, that over the years it would sell. And to go look in their back catalogs and see how many jazz records that they made fifty years ago that are selling. That there’re young musicians who are going to be coming out, as well as the established musicians, and they need a place to play. That they were doing a disservice to their label, to the world, to their company, to everybody involved because they didn’t have jazz on their label. People would look at me and say, “Well, that’s not going to happen,” and I’d say, “Well, we’re going to keep trying. I’m not going to stop, no matter what you say.” I sort of feel gratified because all of the major jazz labels now have jazz as part of their music. So it worked, I guess, in some respect.
Radio seems to be the major barrier right now.
Yeah, I’m always telling the Program Directors, “We need to do this. You’ve got to do it.” Once somebody has the dream, it becomes a reality, so we’re going to make it a reality, as far as I’m concerned.
What prompted you and Terence to split up and go in different directions in 1989?
Well, I guess it was mostly Terence’s decision. I didn’t think the band was finished at the time, but I guess Terence had some other things he needed to pursue. It turned out to be good for me because otherwise I probably would never have wanted the band to end, I was having so much fun. Some of the records I have made wouldn’t have come to be, you know, like Indian Blues. I started hanging out more with my father when we broke up. I got a chance to start masking again with him.
Indian Blues has become something of a cult favorite, even though it’s out of print. How did that project come to life?
After Terence and I broke up, I was hanging out in New Orleans. My father started Guardians of the Flame, the Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and I started masking with him. And I had this magical revelation one Mardi Gras. I was hearing how the Indian music and jazz could be merged together. I was hearing the swing beat in the Indian music. So at that point I wanted to make a record. I went to New York and I thought about different players, you know, Dr. John and this percussionist, Howard ['Smiley"] Ricks. We got together and started writing the music and asking my father different questions. I made sure that we got some of the traditional elements, like my father singing the traditional chants, close to the way they were being done on Mardi Gras day. And we put jazz songs, like Cherokee, in the context of the Mardi Gras Indian music. A lot of different elements came together.
Since then you’ve exchanged ideas and worked with a lot of different, interesting people, haven’t you?
Hanging out in Brooklyn, you know, Notorious B.I.G., the rapper, he was my neighbor. So he was at my house everyday. He was telling me, “I want to be a musician, man. I want to rap.” I said, “Well, man, first thing is, most of the rappers, I don’t understand what they’re talking about, so if you could learn to enunciate…” (laughs) But we used to work on music. He was actually a brilliant little kid, you know. Whatever I let him hear, he would immediately understand. I used to tell him about jazz and he taught me about rap, actually. He would sing solos, Cannonball Adderley, anybody, and I would say, “Man, you should play music. I don’t know why you’re rapping.” (laughs) Of course, I also played with Lena Horne, a brilliant lady who was very helpful to me. I loved how she’d make the lyrics come alive. You could actually see the story, whatever she was singing about, and you felt that she was really a part of it and you were a part of it. She was the only person I saw get a standing ovation after every song. Then there’s Eddie Palmieri, the Latin great, who’s actually on this latest CD that I cut. I call Eddie “maestro” because he’s always dealing with higher levels of music. He’s really like the Duke Ellington of Latin music, because he’s approached classical music, jazz, ethnic music, anything he hears, and finds a way to put it into Latin music, as well as keeping the dance feel of it, you know. That’s one thing which was always a part of my music, but Eddie helped me to understand how that dance feel should always be imperative in your thoughts. I also worked with Digable Planets, which is a jazz-rap group.
Yeah, I remember their hit song…
“Cool Like That,” which actually became the bass-line for “Nouveau Swing,” which was derived from an Art Blakey song.
That’s like 360 degrees…
Full circle. Some kind of strange thing happened with that. (laughs) Anyway, Digable Planets helped me to further understand about hip-hop music, you know. What I liked about them is that they were positive. I used to have arguments with Chris [B.I.G.]. I would say, “Man, you rappers are always saying you’re ‘keeping it real.’ But in your neighborhood, in the neighborhood we live in, yeah, there’re negative elements, but next door to us is a lawyer, across the street is a church. If you’re going to keep it real, you’ve got to talk about that on your album also. You’re just focusing on one little negative element and you’re making that the whole story.” We sort of fell out on that. (laughs)
Having been influenced by so many different pop forms, how do you make a distinction between good pop and bad pop?
Well, you know, for me, whenever I listen to something, I only listen for what I can take out of it. There’s always an element that you can dig. The thing I always think about when I’m adding other types of music is where’s the element of swing in it. I like to feel swing. I can make it swing, bridge the gap. Also, a lot of people say that jazz music is dead and old, so I’m trying to show people that I can make a jazz band sound like anything. If you listen to my record, you can hear all the textures that I’ve achieved, and all the instruments are acoustic. Jazz musicians can take any sound and achieve it in the same kind of format. I’m trying to prove that, to do it in a natural way. To take the elements of today that we hear, as well as what we learn from the all the great masters, and bring the music into a new realm, a new space.
It sounds like you just defined the “Nouveau Swing” concept.
Yeah, I’m trying to bring the swing out of the music you hear on the radio nowadays. Because, even though I love standards, I still feel sort of unnatural… When Roy Haynes is playing a standard, he’s remembering a movie or listening to the radio. It’s so natural for him to deal with that, because that was his era. But it’s like I’m fighting myself to do that, even though I want to study it, and it’s beautiful to me. I mean, I love to play “Stella by Starlight,” but there’re no memories attached to that for me. See, I relate more to Earth, Wind, and Fire, you know, Tower of Power. That’s what I was hanging out to, the Indians, the second-line. I just want to bring those elements into the music, that’s all.
Did the first Nouveau Swing record satisfy your vision?
Yeah. Every time you make a record, the next day you want to do something different, but that’s the way it came out that day. I accept that that’s where I was at that particular point in time. But then you grow past that and you want to do new things. There’s so much to do. They only let you make a few records, you know. I could go in the studio every three or four months and come up with some stuff that’s inside of me, but you only get one little, minute, infinitesimal amount out there.
Do you feel like you captured more on the new record, Free To Be?
Yeah. I feel like it’s grown, like I’m understanding the texture of the band more now and how to draw different elements out. I’ve gotten better at it, luckily. (laughs)
There’s a wide spectrum of material. I mean, you play the Meters’ Cissy Strut, and then you’ve got an obscure Duke Ellington tune. Were you trying to go from one extreme to the other?
No, just playing songs that I thought were challenging for me and that felt natural. That’s my big word: natural. When I was in Israel these guys showed me the song by Duke Ellington, “Blue Rose,” and, immediately, I fell in love with it. It has basically the same changes as “Giant Steps,” which was supposed to be so revolutionary, but it turns out Duke Ellington had written something three years before that was basically the same thing. This shows you the scope of Duke Ellington. One thing Art [Blakey] used to always say was, “There’s nothing new under the sun, there’re just different ways of doing it.”
Why did you want to go back and deal with the tune Duck’s Steps?
I wrote it when I was really young. Actually, some of the stuff that I wrote when I was that age is more challenging than some of the stuff now. (laughs) I was trying to write stuff that nobody else could play but me. I brought that song back just to see how I could handle it now. It still was very difficult, but not as difficult as when I was twenty two, when we first recorded it.
OK, you’re performing at Jazz Fest ’98 for a packed tent. How does the world look from that perspective, compared to ’82?
Well, there are new jazz fans and albums. It’s really gotten a lot better, you know. There are all these jazz festivals and the music is, for the most part, wholly respected. It’s being respected in almost every world that you can think of. People are beginning to realize that there’s something to jazz music. It’s back around. “It’s back on the block,” as Quincy Jones said on his record. (laughs) Which is really great to see, because I had so many naysayers when I first started to play this music. Most people at that time were like, “Why are you doing this? Are you crazy?” But it was something that was in me that I had to do. My father, I guess, put it in me by playing all those old records that he had around, and making me enjoy it. (laughs) And, also, I’ve always felt that I can express my whole being with jazz music, because jazz has always been all-encompassing. Jazz is a searching music. You can add anything to it. Everything else is specific, like you can’t add an Indian sitar to country music, but you could with jazz. You can do whatever you want to do with it. It challenges you.
Why do you think jazz has been able to sustain itself and grow so much recently?
We have a great support system. A lot of older musicians are still around, and, especially when I first came on the scene, they were there to support us. I always say that without Art Blakey, there would be no Donald Harrison, no Wynton Marsalis, no Terence Blanchard. But the support system needs to become stronger. We need to get the music to the people more.
At that Jazz Fest performance, you brought up your 15-year-old nephew, Christian Scott, on trumpet, right?
Yeah. I’m really proud of him. Other musicians are starting to comment on how fast he’s growing. He’s at NOCCA, studying with Kidd Jordan and Clyde Kerr, so they’re really bringing him along in a fine fashion. And, also, he gets a few pointers from his uncle. (laughs)
It seems that, even by New Orleans standards, you have an extremely musical family.
Yeah, initially, it didn’t seem that way to me, but the older I get, the more secrets I find out. I found out a few years ago that my mother had studied clarinet with Alvin Batiste when she was in high school. And my father, you know, he was a folk musician. He knew so much history of New Orleans music. He can sing Mardi Gras Indian songs going back to the turn of the century. Well, he could, when he was alive. He had a great wealth of knowledge. At home, my parents played all types of music, so I never became a jazz hypocrite, which is what some of my friends are. We have arguments about that because they say you’re only supposed to play jazz. Then I catch one of them playing classical music and I catch another one playing funk.
Is it possible for you to give people an idea of how much your father impacted your life and music?
Watching him sew, I learned how to sew. Watching him dance and sing, all those things are part of me. I can hear him singing now, it’s like he’s still here. I walk down the street and start thinking of his lyrics. His lyrics are the most prevalent in my head, when he sings Indian songs and the way he dances and all the things that he talked about. They are really echoing in my head now. It’s like, everywhere I go, I can hear him talking to me, “Do it this way, remember this, yeah, you gotta make this move, this is how we did it, this is the toe step, the Hundred and One was an old tribe that we used to meet up with…” You know, all these little lessons coming out, they’re like in bold-face now for me. I took it for granted before, but they’re all just flooding me right now.
Where do you consider home these days, Brooklyn or New Orleans?
I’m back and forth. I’ve been trying to spend more time down here in New Orleans, especially up until Mardi Gras. I’m down here enough to call myself a New Orleanian.
Do you think it’s significant that many of your contemporaries are coming back home to live in New Orleans?
After Terence and I broke up, I was hanging out in New Orleans a lot, and that was actually one of the arguments that we would have. He said I was hanging out in New Orleans too much. I said, “Man, I’m still serious about the music.” He said, “Well, why are you in New Orleans?” I said, “You can be in New Orleans and still be serious, you’ll see.” (laughs) So, now, of course, he’s back here, too. Nicholas [Payton] is one of the guys who really showed us you can stay here. He didn’t even have to leave. But I think that we had to leave and go out and make some waves. I think we need to give myself and Terence and some of the other cats who left from here a little more credit for being a part of this thing. Because Wynton [Marsalis] is great and he’s done a lot of wonderful things, but he couldn’t have done it alone, just as I can’t do it alone. Everybody needs to be given their just desserts, because we all paid a lot of dues to make it happen. We were wondering where our next meal was coming from, when we first started out.
What do you think about the backlash against Wynton?
Well, I mean, as far as Wynton is concerned, he’s said a lot of dumb things. But, you know, if a guy is trying to play, I support him. He hasn’t supported me all the way down the line, because he’s very opinionated about what has the right to exist, which I think he’ll grow past, hopefully. But, you know, the cat can play, so let him play, man. I have reservations about some of the things that he chooses to say, but other than that, he doesn’t have to like what I do. (laughs) I’m gonna do it anyway.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
I’d be fishing. (laughs)… Well, when I was initially becoming a musician, my mother had put the idea in my head to be a doctor, so I was thinking about that. But I fell in love with the twelve notes and however many rhythms there are and all the ways that you can put them together. Once you touch music and fall in love with it, it’s just such a force in your life. I don’t see me doing anything else, it’s like breathing.