“You’ll be able to tell that I’ve been influenced by the tradition,” promises trombonist David L. Harris, who is perhaps better known as a modern jazz artist and makes his debut at Satchmo SummerFest on Saturday, August 5. “I never intend to pick up my horn and not lay down some remnants of all of the great guys I’ve played with,” he adds, mentioning noted classic New Orleans jazz musicians like clarinetists Dr. Michael White and Tom Fischer, fretman Don Vappie and drummers Shannon Powell and Gerald French. “So hopefully, my set will be enjoyable to the strictly traditional listeners.”
Harris, 29, a Baton Rouge native who recently released a fine new album, Blues I Felt, will be heading a quartet that includes pianist Shea Pierre and bassist Jasen Weaver—both of whom are on the disc—plus drummer and recent Crescent City resident Gerald T. Watkins Jr. All of these guys, as well as Miles Labat, who’s at the trap set on the disc, represent a stunningly impressive group of talented millennials making an impact on the New Orleans jazz scene.
Each of these musicians enjoyed different journeys in reaching this point in their careers, though their paths crossed at similar junctions primarily in the Crescent City.
Playing the trombone came by chance for Harris, who had several friends that were members of his high school’s marching band. So he was interested in joining them, though he didn’t even really know what instrument he wanted to play.
“I sat with the band director and he sang a note and said, ‘Match that pitch,’” Harris remembers. “I went ‘dah’ and he said, ‘Okay I’ll put you on trombone.’ You really have to hear the pitches to play the trombone because it’s not as precise as a trumpet or saxophone.”
After high school graduation, Harris headed to Southern University where he played in the trombone section of the institution’s legendary marching band. “It was very stylistic—very gusto,” says Harris, adding that it taught him to have fun and not be afraid to dance. He also was a member of Southern’s concert band.
“Playing in a marching band definitely teaches you how to use your air and project. It’s actually not about playing loud, it’s about projecting your sound.”
Those lessons would remain with Harris when later he moved on to play with the Michael Foster Project brass band, the aforementioned traditional New Orleans musicians, and veteran modern bandleaders such as trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, drummer Herlin Riley and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield.
Harris gives credit to Southern’s late arranger and assistant of bands, director Carnell Knighten, who also oversaw the concert band, for instilling a sense of seriousness when it came to music. The word “serious” can definitely be used to describe Harris’ attitude toward the music as well as that of his fellow bandmates and the crop of musicians of a like age, who wonderfully keep popping up to add their “voices” to sets around the city.
“The seriousness comes with the deliverance of the music,” explains Harris, who began his jazz journey in the tradition. “If I’m playing with Dr. Michael White, Shannon [Powell] or Gerald French, they have years of history of how the music should be played and the role of the trombone. The trumpeter plays the melody, the clarinetist usually dances around the melody and the trombonist, I’d say he’s like the meat, he kind of fills in the gaps and is very rhythmic and adds more of a bounce to the music. I think of the trombone’s job as instilling the dance element into the music.”
Harris left Southern after two years and headed to LSU to further pursue his development on the trombone and his interest in studying classical music that was sparked by his time with the Knighten-led concert band. With some wonder, he also viewed videos of noted classical trombonist Christian Lindberg.
“When I watched him perform, it looked like he was almost improvising and putting his own personality on these compositions,” Harris remembers. “He wasn’t exactly emulating recordings—he put vibrato where he wanted it. It opened my eyes up to seeing that you could play classical music and still make it your own. Your best bet is to learn as much as you can from those you admire the most and when it’s time to play, just be yourself. Of course, the things that you learn from your greatest role models will come out.”
Interestingly, both pianist Pierre and bassist Weaver, who graduated from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), also boast backgrounds that include classical training. As a child, Pierre received lessons in the genre and furthered his classical studies while attending Oberlin Conservatory. At age 11, Weaver performed with the New Orleans String Project Performing Arts School.
Considering things to come, Harris’ move to LSU and his increased interest in improvisational music, thus jazz, could be deemed as his eventual link to Pierre, Weaver, drummer Miles Labat (heard on Blues I Felt) and other young cats who have been making waves on New Orleans’ modern jazz scene.
Harris was already listening to notable trombonists such as Wycliffe Gordon, J.J. Johnson and Jack Teagarden, though he found that the charts he was playing at the University weren’t really reminiscent of their styles—they weren’t blues-oriented. He got to practice some of that style with fellow LSU student and Baton Rouge native, trumpeter Stephen Lands, who, eventually, also moved to the Crescent City.
Fate stepped in one day when Harris was rehearsing by himself in one of LSU’s practice rooms. Next door, the Michael Foster Project brass band was also rehearsing.
“Terrance ‘Tap’ Taplin found me in the practice room one day,” remembers Harris of his fellow trombonist. “He said, ‘Hey man, you should come and check out our rehearsal.’ That’s when I started learning about more theoretical stuff and how to apply it to jazz music—like arpeggios. That’s when it started making more sense.”
Harris made his first professional gig as a musician with the Michael Foster Project, including a weekly date at Baton Rouge’s Chelsea’s Cafe as well as performing at private events.
Inevitably, Harris decided that he had to be more in the scene where jazz music was happening and that was in its birthplace of New Orleans. While still in Baton Rouge, the trombonist began coming down to sit in with clarinetist Dr. Michael White and trumpeter Gregg Stafford at their regular Sunday brunch sets at the InterContinental Hotel. “That’s when I first started learning traditional tunes,” Harris recalls, adding that he enjoyed and continues to enjoy the interaction between the instruments that traditional jazz allows as compared to brass bands that are more ensemble oriented.
“For me, it’s harder to bring my personality and to communicate with the clarinet and trumpet in a brass band,” he explains. “I like to communicate. I like to talk. So if I can communicate with my instrument to some cat, they’ll listen to me and say something back to me.”
Taplin, who had recruited Harris into the Michael Foster Project, started bringing his fellow trombonist to New Orleans to sit in with trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra for its weekly Wednesday night shows at Snug Harbor. The large ensemble, which barely manages to squeeze onto the club’s small stage, remains a hot bed for upcoming talent as they join seasoned veterans like Marsalis and longtime member, baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis.
“A lot of us played that gig,” says bassist Jasen Weaver. “I did that most of the time I was at college [at the University of New Orleans]. I got to meet a lot of people that way and I ended up working with a lot of those musicians outside of that gig as a sideman at their gigs.” Weaver, who graduated from both NOCCA and UNO, agrees that especially in New Orleans, one thing leads to another. It was while playing with Marsalis’ big band that he met Harris and eventually introduced him to pianist Pierre. The beat, as they say and sing, goes on.
“The whole history of the music is like a fellowship, like a communicative effort to keep the music alive and keep it relevant,” Harris offers on his and his peers’ contribution to the music’s continuum. “We’re always humble when it comes to learning what the more seasoned musicians have to teach us and we always take that stuff and try to commit it to our reality and portray it no matter whatever style of music we play.”
“The thing that makes New Orleans so special and the thing that separates New Orleans from many of the other cities that I’ve been to is that the musicians’ community is very close knit—the bond is very strong,” Pierre observes. “There’s very little jealousy or envy. Mostly cats in our generation are looking out for each other. I think that’s due to us watching the older cats because they did the same thing—Alvin Batiste, Harold Battiste, Ellis Marsalis. Everybody was playing on each other’s projects during their era,” Pierre continues while mentioning the name of Battiste’s label, All for One. “That sentiment has definitely been passed on. And here there’s a culture that tries to embrace [new] people.”
Harris stepped into the modern world of jazz and swing on joining Delfeayo Marsalis’ Uptown Jazz Orchestra, a university in itself for many younger musicians. “The interpretations of the rhythms were different—that’s the biggest thing I had to learn,” Harris explains. “With a big band there are a lot of rhythms that aren’t exact. It’s more like feeling what’s happening around you and then interpreting what’s on the page. The main point of playing jazz music is that you’re playing with people. You never want to ignore the people that you’re playing with because that makes bad music.”
Delfeayo Marsalis was certainly a catalyst in steering these and so many other guys in a true direction in their musical pursuits. Moreover, other artists also played important roles in their development and understanding of what makes New Orleans jazz important, unique and great. Drum master Herlin Riley, who boasts a rich history in the music, has definitely been in that number in providing a link to this generation of musicians.
“Herlin has been a really key mentor figure for me,” says Pierre, who credits bassist Weaver for hooking him up with the drummer. “Playing with Herlin is almost like going to grad school. Herlin brings a special vibe to the music.”
“I definitely consider him one of my mentors,” echoes Weaver. “I definitely learned from him just by watching how he runs his gigs—the way he plans out his sets, his general demeanor with other musicians and his perception on how he puts on a show. I try to apply it to my own band. I have heard him mention how he almost feels like it is a responsibility on his part and that of his peers to pass on what they know to us and keep the cycle going.”
Harris had been focused on being a sideman and remains active in that role, as evidenced at this year’s Jazz Fest, where he performed an impressive nine gigs including those with Shannon Powell, another musician whose name comes up as a strong mentor; Dr. Michael White; Don Vappie; vocalists Quiana Lynell and Stephanie Jordan; drummer Andrew Hall; the tribute to the legendary Blue Lu Barker and Jesse McBride and the Next Generation. Pianist McBride, who was mentored by Harold Battiste and continues his Next Generation legacy, also gets props from the younger musicians for his guidance and the opportunities he offers to gain experience and exposure from performing at local gigs. Props also go out to saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr. for leading the way as an involved musician and head of the Tipitina’s Internship Program and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
“We work hard but they make sure we’re in the position to succeed,” says Weaver of the mentors.
With a new CD on the racks, Harris naturally also led his own band in the Jazz Tent at the festival. “Being a sideman was great but I noticed that cats don’t always hire you,” says Harris, repeating the old lament of trombonists who weren’t necessarily crucial to the makeup of a band. “I would leave town and come back and I wouldn’t have a gig.” There’s that old joke that asks, “What’s a trombonist with a pager?” The answer: “An optimist.”
As leader, Harris, who at this writing was heading out on a national and international tour with his band, has more control of his own career and destiny. He is, of course, out there in promotion of his new release, Blues I Felt, an impressive album featuring Pierre, Weaver and drummer Miles Labat, who, incidentally, was Pierre’s roommate at Oberlin. The hard work is evident when the music kicks off strongly on the first cut, Harris’ original “A Pisces’ Dream.”
Harris wrote the tune several years ago when he was performing in Boston in a play based on the book A Confederacy of Dunces. At the time he had a vision—a dream—of doing an album with his girlfriend, vocalist Quiana Lynell. However, she thought he should do his own CD. “The night I heard those words, I sat at a piano at the Huntington Theatre all night and pretty much wrote that song.” His despair is evident in the tune’s opening, though with the help of his more optimistic bandmates and the gentle tones of Pierre’s piano, he and the song find lift.
“Shea has a very sensitive touch and his background is in the realm of where my music is coming from—the church,” Harris offers. “I’m a big fan of gospel music and he’s willing to give you what you need.”
“David has an old soul and he really digs deep into the culture and really tries to show the importance of blues and swing,” Pierre says of the leader. “That’s something that is very critical to me too. My approach was to keep the aesthetic rooted in swing and blues and still add some things that I studied and bring my influence and my creativity to the vibe he was looking for. He was specific about some things but he trusted us. From him trusting us, it gave us the space to trust each other.”
“I think how we click is that everybody in the band, we’re all really serious about putting on the best show that we can and we’re all trying to play at a very high level of musicianship,” Weaver offers. “We’re having fun, but it’s also very serious. It makes it easy to work with everybody because we all know why we’re there. We’re all trying to get better together.”
About three years ago, Harris began singing on his gigs, and he adds his voice to several tunes on the new CD. “I asked Quiana [who leads her own band at Satchmo SummerFest on Friday] for some advice. She’s a great singer; so I would get little tips from her,” says the trombonist, who has recently started to get more formal vocal coaching from a local singer, Clarence Carter.
“I love music and I love the way music makes me feel. So singing is just another avenue for me to portray how I feel, portray my emotions. It also allows me to connect to the people who, for some reason, just can’t connect to a horn. Some people just don’t pay attention when they hear a horn. But don’t get me wrong, the reason I sing is more for me,” Harris confesses with a laugh.
“The reason that brass band and traditional music is still around is because how human it is,” says Harris, adding that whenever he picks up his plunger, the sound of Tyree Glenn, one of Louis Armstrong’s go-to trombonists, runs through his brain. “I hear those humanistic qualities in the playing of the musicians in my band.”