Donald Harrison: Without A Mask

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Donald Harrison
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Donald Harrison

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Donald Harrison and his wife were among thousands who slept on the ballroom floor of New Orleans’ Hyatt Regency Hotel while riding out Hurricane Katrina. In the terrible days that followed, the saxophonist found solace in the thought of playing with two of his musical heroes, Frank Morgan and Charles McPherson, at the Chicago Jazz Festival the following weekend.

“After we survived the hurricane, that was my dream—to get to Chicago,” Harrison says. “I felt if I could get there I would be OK; I’d get my life back. If I could do this first performance I’d be a happy man.”

“All the people in Chicago were like a big warm blanket in the middle of a windstorm,” he continues. “At the time, I didn’t realize that after a hurricane you go into shock because you see too much—things people shouldn’t see in life.”

Harrison then reflects on a happier moment: spotting trumpeter Kermit Ruffins in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Baton Rouge, where Harrison and his family landed after four horrific days. “I love him. He has his own way of walking, talking, dressing—so to see him was like, ‘That’s New Orleans right there.’”

The saxophonist found a hotel room in Baton Rouge for his mother-in-law and her son and then drove around for 24 hours trying to secure one for himself and his wife. After hanging out in one lobby until 3 a.m., the couple finally got a room. They lived there until February 11, when they found an apartment at last.

“Yeah, I was stir crazy, for sure,” says Harrison, whose only date in Baton Rouge was a workshop under the auspices of clarinetist Alvin Batiste. Nonetheless, the saxophonist felt strongly about staying in close proximity to New Orleans. His house had taken on six feet of water and was unlivable, and Harrison could have opted to go to New York, where he has long kept an apartment.

“I don’t feel like a New Yorker right now,” he says. “I feel like New Orleans is where I need to be more right now. I feel like New York and New Orleans are my homes and I neglected my first home—where I was raised—for many years. I wanted to be close to home and for my family to have continuity and to get my daughter in school.”

Before the storm Harrison focused on his position as artistic director of the Tipitina’s Internship Program (T.I.P.), where he shares his knowledge of music with young people just as his elders handed their wisdom down to him. In late March, the first T.I.P workshop resumed with 100 high school students in its new locale—its legendary namesake club. “I had seen a few of them [before the workshop] and they couldn’t wait to get back,” Harrison says of the impressive turnout.

Another very strong draw for the saxophonist’s return to the city was his lifelong involvement with the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. Harrison came up in the heritage under his father, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. of the Guardians of the Flame, and now leads his own group, Congo Nation.

“I wanted to come home and keep the traditions of my father alive,” says Harrison. “I feel like I am a part of a great legacy—a lot of great legacies. Traditions help define who we are as a people. They give you hope and let you know that things are still like they were before. I always said that being a part of the Mardi Gras Indians is a transcendental feeling, especially for African-Americans. We’ve lived under a strain for so long that we’re always looking for a place where we can find a little peace. Once you do that, you always want to get that feeling of euphoria.”

Mardi Gras Indian parades customarily begin in the leader’s house. But Harrison’s Broadmoor neighborhood home was so severely damaged that he and his crew made their entrance from the historic St. Augustine Church in New Orleans’ musically rich Treme neighborhood. He donned a magnificent brown feather-laden suit that he built in just three weeks with help from his mother and his assistant, Nelson Thompson. Harrison spent the entire previous night in the church completing his suit, which boasted a spectacular centerpiece accessory of a real lion pelt. After being blessed with holy water by the church’s popular Father Jerome LeDoux, he emerged at 7 a.m. in all his finery to awaiting revelers, cameramen and film crews. The lion stunned the crowd.

“It’s an idea I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and we were able to pull it off,” says Harrison. He called himself the Lion Chief to link Congo Nation’s stylistic and ritualistic role to its African heritage. “This year I decided to bring the tradition full circle because I’m not an Indian. I am an African-American, so my group celebrates the fact that we have kept ancient traditions alive.”

Donald Harrison’s career got a kick-start one night in New York when he went to hear Freddie Hubbard’s band with drummer Al Foster and bassist Ron Carter. At the urging of Miles Davis, who was also in attendance and had spotted Harrison’s sax case, the 19-year-old altoist sat in with the band. Harrison soon landed a job with the legendary drummer Roy Haynes and later enjoyed a stint with drummer Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. His reputation soared when he and fellow New Orleanian trumpeter Terence Blanchard co-led a group that produced an array of well-received albums. When the saxophone-and-trumpet team split up, however, Harrison says some young musicians ostracized him because he wanted to go in his own direction.

“I’m still ostracized,” he says.

And he still follows his own path.

The forward-thinking yet traditional saxophonist presently leads three stylistically diverse groups and plays in several others.

An acoustic ensemble he calls his nouveau swing group includes his nephew the up-and-coming trumpeter Christian Scott, drummer John Lamkin and two of the Curtis brothers, pianist Zaccai and bassist Luques. Special guest pianist Mulgrew Miller joins the group on Harrison’s latest album, The Survivor (Nagel-Heyer). The title of the disc, his sixth for the label, refers not only to Hurricane Katrina but also the jazz world in general. In 2004 Nagel-Heyer released Heroes, which reunited Harrison with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Cobham. It was a fine disc that put Harrison in a trio setting that was ripe for exploration and swing. The three also performed on last year’s New York Cool: Live at the Blue Note. (Half Note) That same year the always innovative saxophonist released The New Sounds of Mardi Gras II, where he delved even deeper into his Mardi Gras Indian heritage than he did on his 1991 jazz-meets-Indians album, Indian Blues (Candid).

Indian Blues came about because Harrison had lost his Columbia recording contract and returned to New Orleans in 1989. At home amid the rhythms and chants of the Mardi Gras Indians he grew up with, the connection between jazz and the Indians came to him. He suddenly heard Art Blakey swinging in the beats of the Indian song “Shallow Water,” and Harrison put the two together on Indian Blues. He describes the marriage, one he never planned, as swinging on one side of the beat while taking the rhythms of Congo Square on the other.

That CD also introduced Harrison as a vocalist and rapper.

“My father used to say, ‘Sing lead,’” recalls Harrison. “He was grooming me to be a chief so I started getting it together. That’s how I started getting a little bit of a song voice.” Harrison’s vocals were first recorded by happenstance. He was working on a session with CTI producer Creed Taylor and singing along with the tune “Calling You.” He remembers the engineer saying, “OK, Harrison, we’re going to have you sing this song.” The saxophonist immediately refused but soon changed his mind. “The monetary figure mentioned, that really helped me want to try it,” he says with a laugh. “It wound up getting a lot of airplay.”

Harrison credits Christopher Wallace—aka Notorious B.I.G.—with getting him interested rap. The late hip-hop artist was a teenager when the two were neighbors in Brooklyn. The saxophonist mentored the young man, teaching him about jazz, the art of storytelling and the importance of enunciation. Harrison believes this background in jazz helped set the Notorious B.I.G. apart from the crowd. In turn, rap popped up in Harrison’s repertoire decades later.

Another band Harrison leads focuses on smooth jazz. That group headed to South Africa in mid-March. “They love it down there,” Harrison says of South African audiences. Some view this stylistic departure with scorn, but the saxophonist has found success in the genre. Witness his 1994 chart-topping album, The Power of Cool. Meanwhile, smooth jazz, classic jazz and hip-hop all turn up on Harrison’s 3D.

He’s also back blowing with keyboardist Eddie Palmieri, with whom he spent six years from 1990 to 1996. The two hooked up again in Chicago during Harrison’s post- storm trip. “That was a great moment—he was really worried about me,” Harrison says. (He adds that he didn’t want to leave Palmieri’s band a decade ago but the folks at Impulse!, the label he was then signed with, decided it would be better if he toured exclusively with his own band.)

This summer Harrison will call on his bebop chops when he tours with pianist McCoy Tyner and his funk licks when he hits the road with the Headhunters. “Two weeks I might be out with one band, and then I’ll flick the switch and be out with another band,” Harrison says on his genre-hopping ways. “When I was with some of the big record companies they said if you continue on your path you’re going to ruin everything. You won’t be able to play nothing. I’m still here.”

Masking Heartbreak

Unlike the fragile feathers and plumes that adorn their elaborate suits, the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians remain remarkably resilient. Hurricane Katrina forced members of the Indian gangs to scatter across the country but couldn’t wipe out their centuries-old heritage. Feathers, sequins, rhinestones and beads glittered in the sun on Carnival Day in late February and reflected in streetlights and flashlights during the gangs’ traditional St. Joseph’s night roamings a few weeks later.

“Even if I had and a shirt and pants on and a feather in my head, I was going to try to hit the streets,” says Big Chief Little Walter Cook of the Creole Wild West, whose Ninth Ward home was devastated by the storm. Cook has been donning a Native American costume for Mardi Gras, known as masking Indian, since 1963 and in 1974 became chief of New Orleans’ oldest Indian gang. This year he created a suit for Mardi Gras by piecing together sections from past creations that were stored elsewhere. With tambourine ringing and voice raised, the chief led his gang through the city’s Uptown neighborhood, carrying out traditional ritualistic chants and dances that have existed for decades.

It is widely believed that the tradition of African-Americans masking Indian paid tribute to Native Americans who, suffering under similar oppression, often sheltered runaway slaves. When slavery was abolished and those who had been exiled returned to New Orleans, they celebrated by adopting their benefactors’ attire during Mardi Gras.

A spirit of determination to preserve the culture prevails among the Mardi Gras Indians. “All it takes is one Indian on the corner and we’re going to survive,” says Big Chief Larry Bannock of the Golden Star Hunters. “All it takes is one Indian with a tambourine; he’ll draw a crowd. By all rights, I shouldn’t even be masking,” he concedes. “My house is gone, everything is gone. I might be crazy but I’m a crazy Mardi Gras Indian. We’ve done been to hell and back. This is our way of venting. It’s something that nobody can take from us.”

Originally published in June 2006

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