Two things have surrounded saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr. throughout his life—jazz and the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. The son of the Guardians of the Flames’ Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., who was also a knowledgeable jazz fan, he grew up with jazz music and Black Indian rhythms in the air.
Harrison reigns supreme in both of these worlds. The saxophonist stands as a world-renowned jazz musician, recording artist and the “King of Nouveau Swing.” In New Orleans’ Black Indian Nation, he’s the Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group.
“They inform each other,” says Harrison, who adds that the feeling he gets when he steps out onto streets in his beautiful feathered and beaded suit on Carnival Day is comparable to when he blows his horn.
“It’s a metamorphosis into a transcendental state,” he explains of masking and being involved in the culture. “It’s the same thing when you’re playing jazz—it’s transcendental; it takes you away.”
It’s important to note that Harrison doesn’t use the common terms Mardi Gras Indian or Black Indian when referring to his organization.
“I have a lot of respect for the guys who consider themselves to be Mardi Gras Indians, but I moved into describing what I do culturally in New Orleans to be Afro-New Orleans music from traveling all over the world,” he explains. “Going to places like Cuba and Brazil, they always put Afro in front of things that are from their country but are a derivative of African culture. For instance, [keyboard great] Eddie Palmieri always says Afro-Caribbean when describing his music.”
“From understanding our history and coming from inside the culture, I decided that Congo Square needed to be represented in the culture,” Harrison continues. “And, of course, there were African people who were in Congo Square. [The Black Indian culture] isn’t straight African but a new entity that was born wholly here in America.”
Similarly, he doesn’t use the word gang but rather cultural group when speaking of the Congo Square Nation.
“I’m not happy about the term gang, not because of the word but because of the implications,” he explains. “When you put the term on certain people, everything becomes negative in the eyes of certain segments of the world. I have a problem putting myself in an area where I know someone will think of me negatively. So I’m trying to help them along,” he adds with a laugh.
Harrison successfully marries old-school traditions with forward-thinking creativity in both his approach to jazz and in his position as the chief of the Congo Square Nation. That vision certainly can be traced to his greatest mentors: his father and drum legend Art Blakey, with whom Harrison performed and recorded in the early ’80s. Throughout any conversation with the saxophonist, he quotes them both. A lot.
“Art Blakey was one of the most logical people in terms of life. My father was very logical. My mother is very logical. My father called me a pragmatist but maybe he didn’t realize I got this way from him,” says Harrison, again with a laugh.
Harrison, 53, first masked Indian when he was two years old. He held the position of Little Chief of the Creole Wild West, the tribe that, in 1963, was led by his father, Chief Donald Harrison, Sr.
“It’s a cloudy memory in the back of my head but I can definitely see it,” Harrison recalls as he sits in the museum on North Johnson Street that is dedicated to his father and located next to the family home. “I certainly remember guys moving fast and feathers and singing.”
Harrison’s aim in building his suits and creating the look, feel and sound of the Congo Square Nation is to incorporate some of the style and innovations that his father brought forth and to add, with the help of collaborator Nelson Thompson, new elements of his own.
“My father was groomed by Robbe [Robert “Big Chief Robbe” Lee] and [Big Chief Lawrence] Fletcher and Robbe came through the tutelage of [Big Chief] Brother Tillman,” says Harrison. “That’s the line of chiefs that I come from and they have a specific way of enunciating the words and a specific meaning of the words that are not like the other groups. I only know the way that they taught me but I know it well. So I can tell right away if you came from that line by the way you pronounce words and the way you move.”
Harrison, like his father and the aforementioned chiefs, continues to sing the classic version of “Two-Way-Pocky-Way” rather than the popular adaptation, “Hey Pockaway,” as made famous by the Neville Brothers. Likewise, according to these chiefs, the old-school pronunciation to another standard was “Hu-Ta-Nay” that is now most often sung, “Un Na Nay.” Big Chief Donald Jr. also pays homage to the past by including in his repertoire “Chong Chong” which is considered, by some, to be the oldest song on the streets. “I have heard [Big Chief] Tootie Montana speak of it also,” says Harrison.
Several of these songs, as well as one of Donald Sr.’s favorites, “Shallow Water”—“he was called the Shallow Water man,” says his son—are heard on the saxophonist’s, innovative album, 1991’s Indian Blues, that features Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr. on vocals and his tribe, the Guardians of the Flame.
One day, he says, the connection between jazz and the Indians just came to him. He suddenly heard Art Blakey swinging the beats of the song “Shallow Water.” He describes the combination, one that he never planned, as swinging on one side of the beat while echoing the rhythms of Congo Square on the other.
Having graduated from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), Harrison headed to the East Coast to attend the Berklee School of Music and pursue his career on a path that included years with Blakey, teaming up with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and stepping out as leader. Desiring to be more engaged to his roots, the saxophonist started coming back to his hometown in 1989 and masked for the first time as an adult with his father and the Guardians of the Flame. The culmination was Indian Blues, which linked Harrison’s two passions together and he continues the journey performing with his stage group, Donald Harrison & the Congo Square Nation. Currently, this ensemble is in particular demand among Harrison’s many projects—a popularity that the saxophonist believes could be due to the depiction of the Black Indians in the HBO series Treme. “I think it peaked the interest [in the culture] of people and maybe because of Treme people caught on,” says Harrison, who acted, performed and was a consultant for the series. “We played in Europe recently and it was like a spiritual revival. I’ve never seen that at a jazz concert. They wouldn’t let us off the stage.”
Musically, Chief Donald, Jr. also paid attention to his father’s innovations when envisioning the style of the Congo Square Nation Cultural Group. He credits his father for being one of the first men to add African percussion to an Indian tribe. Drummer Luther Gray, leader of the group Bamboula 2000 and a Congo Square preservationist, regularly paraded with the Guardians of the Flame.
“My father didn’t like the bass drum [in the Black Indian sound] but loved African percussion. He brought African percussion to the forefront. I’d say that he brought it back into the mix if you relate it to Congo Square, where, of course they had African drums. It depends on how you relate it back. One thing about culture and art is that everyone has the right to do it from their own perspective. It’s not totalitarian.”
Thus, Donald, Jr. follows in his father’s footsteps by the Congo Square Nation’s use of tambourines, cowbells, and a Brazilian drum and by adding a bamboula drum for Carnival 2014. The percussionists will include jazz musicians Joe Dyson and Max Moran, the drummer and bass player in the Donald Harrison Quintet, plus Darin James. Unusual for a tribe’s rhythm section, they will wear beaded attire all of the same color.
For his suits, Harrison incorporates some of the stylistic decorations that his father used such as the grouping of feathers on the back called a “cabbage.” He also often chooses some multi-faceted Swarovski crystals—“they shine like diamonds”—and high-grade Czechoslovakian stones. “I was the first guy that started using them again after he brought them back.”
“My innovation was to put 20 to 30 different kinds of feathers on my suits,” Harrison adds while pointing to a spectacular outfit displayed in the museum that he wore several years ago. The extravagant suit, with its leopard print body with fox fur trim and pheasant feathers, includes a beading portrait of Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr. that was sewn by his widow, Herreast Harrison. The crown also included a Masai-type mask. “That was to honor my father, who moved back to a lot of African work in his suits,” he explains. “I’m good at making big, gigantic suits that don’t come apart—which is key. Nelson and I did it together. He’s been around, once masked with [Big Chief] Bo Dollis and does a lot of stuff with the second-line clubs. He’s an integral part of New Orleans culture because he helps so many people. He’s a guy behind the scenes and you might see a parade and he made everything in the parade.”
Often on the road heading one of his many jazz groups—the Acoustic Quintet, Donald Harrison & the Congo Square Nation, the Donald Harrison Electric Group—as well as performing with Palmieri, the Headhunters, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and all-star ensemble the Cookers, Harrison says he does a lot of his sewing in hotel rooms. “It’s quieter and I can moderate what’s going on all by myself,” he says, adding that he does sew at home too.
Harrison very well might have ended up being a drummer except at age 10 his father bought him a saxophone. “I always loved drumming,” says Harrison, who has on occasion been heard behind a drum set and plays congas with some of his bands. “My mother said I played drums on my crib and I always drummed on the wall. I think they should have bought me a drum.” The sax lived in the closet for several years before Harrison finally warmed up to the instrument at age 16.
The saxophonist is a bebopper to the bone who is ultimately progressive and throughout his career has sometimes challenged folks as to what jazz is and who he is. While Harrison’s Indian Blues was well-received, he took some flack for ’94’s Power of Cool from both jazz purists and the smooth-jazz world. It was labeled smooth jazz, though Harrison stated, “This is not jazz, and I come from jazz so I think I know.” He prefers the definition “contemporary instrumental music” that New Orleans’ electric violinist Michael Ward offers.
“I play music that people can relate to,” defends Harrison, who has also delved, with the help of his friend, Notorious B.I.G., into the hip-hop world. “Even if you don’t like jazz, a lot of time you can [still] feel what I’m doing. Maybe it’s because I have a respect because I came from a people-oriented culture. You can be ostracized when you have your own ideas about what you should be playing. Art Blakey said that in his generation when someone found something musically they would let them have it and push them forward. Some critics jumped on the nouveau swing thing too. I was just adding the sounds that were natural to me. I think I’m getting better at doing it and I believe it’s created a quiet movement.
Harrison particularly credits the young musicians who have been a part of his band or bands for many years now—Dyson, Moran and pianist Conun Pappas—for the wider acceptance of nouveau swing. They also support the new sound in their own group, the Bridge Trio. All three are also heard on the saxophonist’s extraordinary 2012 release Quantum Leap, which has unanimously been heralded as a brilliant piece of work. It finds the saxophonist in top form, expressing the range of his knowledge as he soars on super speed runs before he jumps back into a beboppin’ swing.
“I met Joe Dyson when he was eight years old at the Tipitina’s Foundation program. He had a natural affinity for the drums and a natural technical ability. All he needed was the experience. All the old school drummers in New York, they call him “the one” and he’s getting calls. If the older guys aren’t calling you, then maybe you better go and find out why. Because if you get it, they’re looking for you. They’re looking for guys for the continuum. I always say if the older musicians don’t like you then there’s a disconnect.”
The musician who has enjoyed the longest stay in Harrison’s quintet, some 10 years, is pianist Zaccai Curtis, a talented player who resides in New York. On first meeting, Harrison encouraged him to check out some bebop from the likes of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. “Everything I do is rooted in bebop,” declares Harrison, whose advice was heeded by Curtis. “He had to understand that music to be in a band with me.”
New Orleans pianist Conun Pappas often plays Harrison’s local dates as well as being on call for other gigs. “He understands different types of music,” he says of Pappas, who is also a member of the Bridge Trio. Of bassist Max Moran, who is the cousin of highly regarded pianist Jason Moran, Harrison says, “He’s just a solid and steady guy—diligent. When you put a challenge in front of him, he’s going to be effective.”
Like Blakey, Harrison primarily surrounds himself with young guys—Dyson, Moran, Pappas and Curtis are all in their 20s and 30s. The exception is guitarist/banjoist Detroit Brooks, a veteran on the scene who the saxophonist hooked up with while both musicians were in Baton Rouge following Katrina. “I noticed that he had a soulful attitude in his guitar and it lent to the sound of the music,” Harrison says. “All of us are always pushing each other. I send them music and videos and we discuss them. We talk about how to learn from what other people do and make it your own.”
As Harrison quotes Blakey, it’s highly probable that the saxophonist’s own words of wisdom are being played back by his students and young bandmates. Harrison, who is presently an artist in residency at Tulane University where he also helps out with the Trombone Shorty Academy, and the Artistic Director of Tipitina’s Internship Program, got his first taste of teaching at the New School of Music in New York City. He was encouraged to take on the task by Blakey and bassist Reggie Workman. “They said try your hand at this and see what happens. I was too young, in my early 20s, and the students didn’t want to listen to me,” Harrison admits. “Later, they wanted lessons.”
His next venture into the educational field occurred when Bill Taylor approached Harrison to say that Tipitina’s was establishing a foundation and asked him to be involved.
“I said I’d like to share with young people the information I got playing with a lot of different musicians and give them a heads up,” Harrison recalls. Every Monday night, Harrison heads to the Foundation’s studio on Tulane Avenue in the former Fountainbleu Hotel to offer instruction and professional training to students ages 13 to 21. “It makes me happy to think when I see students out there in the music business that maybe I had a little part of it. Art Blakey said that he learned as much from us as we learned from him. The students keep me abreast of the latest developments of these times. I never had a plan [to teach]—whatever’s happened to me comes naturally. When I told my father I wanted to play music, he simply asked, ‘Do you love it?’ He could cut to the chase.”
Harrison also taught at a summer program at Newman School, where his nephew, trumpeter Christian Scott, who played in the saxophonist’s band for some 10 years, acted as assistant director. Dyson also taught there, particularly when Harrison was working out of town.
The saxophonist is enthused about the invitation to join the Cookers, a jazz supergroup that boasts notable veterans including drummer Billy Hart, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, saxophonist Billy Harper and trumpeter David Weiss.
“For me, it’s necessary to play with great musicians like that,” Harrison says. “These are the guys that truly picked up on the legacy of people like John Coltrane and Miles Davis and some of them played in their bands. They play at such a high level.”
Though Donald Harrison, Sr. didn’t mask Indian for some 20 years until establishing the Guardians of the Flame, he was continually involved in the culture. “I was always around it—we would go to the Creole Wild West practices and he would always go up and sing with them. He came back [to masking] to make sure people knew about the old-time ways. He made sure I got an understanding of a lot of the old-time ways—the words, movements. I was one of the ones who listened to him, who thought it was important to listen to him, naturally because he was my father. Two things my father always said was to start early in the morning and never take your crown off—make it so you never have to take it off.”
Heeding his father’s words, Big Chief Donald Harrison, Jr., wearing a suit of an undisclosed color, and the Congo Square Nation will leave his home at 4427 Walmsey Avenue at 7 a.m. on Mardi Gras Day. After roaming around Uptown for an hour or so, the group will head by vehicle to Treme and, as history dictates, eventually head to the corner of Orleans and North Claiborne avenues.
“Anything that can take you away from some of the bad things that happen every day and put you into a beautiful state, it’s a great thing to me,” Harrison declares with heartfelt emotion.
For Donald Harrison, Jr. those great things are jazz and the Afro-New Orleans culture.