September 2001

Wendell Harrison, Phil Ranelin and Tribe

Wendell Harrison ponders the pile of memorabilia sprawling across his ancient dining room table. Old album covers, posters, a big stack of magazines, a smattering of program books lay in a jumble around the Detroit reed master, all testifying to a bygone era of Motor City jazz and one of its seminal, albeit long gone, organizations: Tribe. Harrison laughs his big laugh and shakes his head in amazement.

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The Tribe gathers (left to right): Wendell Harrison, Ron Johnson, Phil Ranelin, Lopez Leon, Harold McKinney, Vaughn Andre, Charles Moore.
By Herb Boyd
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Phil Ranelin
By Leni Sinclair
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Wendell Harrison (with bassist Rod Hicks)
By Grant Martin

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“We had a lot of balls back in those days,” he says, eyeing the pile in front of him.

“Those days” were the early 1970s, when beboppers and Trane advocates were shaking in the wind of the latest new thing: a combination of jazz, rock and funk that Miles Davis and his acolytes were whipping into some powerful musical voodoo. But Harrison and his musical partner, trombonist Phil Ranelin, were stirring things up too. They were building a jazz empire of sorts in Detroit—an unusual combination of musical and dramatic production, record label, promotional agency, magazine and splendid local bands known collectively as Tribe.

Tribe stamped “Made in Detroit” deeply into every bar of music it made. There were bebop lines up top, perched on a big funk bottom. In between were all sorts of freewheeling jazz with enough edge to grind the chrome off a Cadillac. There were echoes of Bitches Brew in what Tribe and other Detroit bands of the era were putting onto vinyl. But only echoes—Tribe’s sound was miles away from the increasingly slick sounds dominating the national jazzscape. These Detroiters eschewed tons of technique in favor of in-your-face expressions of deep feelings, ranging from peace and love to unabashed political rage. After all, the city was still trying to get its footing back after the notorious 1967 riots.

Now, 24 years after dissolving into what looked to be permanent obscurity, Tribe Records is suddenly getting hot. Thanks to companies in London, Tokyo, Chicago and Trenton, N.J., the brave little label that documented the jagged, creative ferment of 1970s Detroit is resurfacing.

Ranelin’s first two efforts for Tribe—1973’s The Time Is Now! and 1976’s Vibes From the Tribe—are just out on Chicago’s Hefty Records. Both discs still sound fresh and offer genuinely adventurous listening. Ranelin is pleased to see his earliest music available again.

“They did a wonderful job of repackaging but maintaining the essence of what happened then,” he says by phone from his Los Angeles home. “I’m very proud of it, actually.”
Harrison is proud and pleased, too. He pulls a CD boxed set off of a shelf in his grand old home’s sitting room. Entitled Message From the Tribe: An Anthology of Tribe Records 1972-77, it’s on Universal Sound, a subsidiary of the British label Soul Jazz, and collects music by Ranelin, Harrison and other Detroiters—trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, the late pianist Harold McKinney, drummer Doug Hammond, keyboardist David Durrah and an Ann Arbor-based, Latin-flavored band called Mixed Bag. A thick booklet reprints articles from Tribe magazine—on Jesse Jackson, Watergate, Sun Ra, blacks and the economy, and legendary Detroit radio disc jockey Butterball, all reflecting a radical, Afro-American perspective. Many of the original ads still punctuate Tribe’s pages, amplifying the spirit of the era.

“We had a lot of people working with us at that time,” Harrison recalls, looking around the house that his grandfather bought when he moved up from Texas in 1940 to doctor in Detroit’s burgeoning black community. “We had about six phones in the house. Our people would be calling businesses from 9 to 5 trying to sell advertising for the magazine, and then from 5 to 9 trying to sell tickets to the concerts.”

Tribe’s productions blended original drama, poetry readings and music that made timely social points. These jazz theater pieces had names like “An Evening with the Devil,” “Message From the Tribe,” “Farewell to the Welfare” and “Mary Had an Abortion” and espoused radical politics. Harrison, Ranelin and their musical and theatrical colleagues translated much of this creativity into album projects with similar titles. Some are now collected on the British Soul Jazz Tribe anthology. And a Japanese label, P-Vine, has also released more of the same material in that country under two volumes entitled Vibes From the Tribe.

Soon most of Tribe’s musical output may be available again domestically. Trenton’s Scorpio Music is planning to release the rest of the label’s complete, original catalogue album by album—a mother lode of ’70s Detroit jazz. Titles already in the pipeline include Evening With the Devil and Message From the Tribe, as well as two later dates, Reawakening and Birth of a Fossil, both on the homegrown Rebirth label.

Ranelin says the city had quite a scene going on back then, even as it was collapsing and Motown Records was moving to Hollywood.

“I had come from a rich heritage and had already played with Indy natives Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard, who I went to high school with,” he says of his move to Detroit in 1969. “But even great musicians in Indy had to have a day job. When I got to Detroit there was a music scene where you could actually survive by playing. I got hooked up with Motown, I met Marcus Belgrave for the second time, then hooked up with Wendell when he moved back from New York City.”

Harrison had worked with quite a list of players while in New York City, ranging from Hank Crawford to Sun Ra. But when he got back home to Detroit, his biggest goal was to stay away from the heroin that had made life in the Big Apple hell.

“I had been recuperating from the drugs for two years, so these things were something to keep me out of trouble and give me a focus,” he says of Tribe’s extra-musical activities. “When I came here, I just turned the negative into a positive and said, ‘Well, I could do a lot of things.’ So I just started doing them.”

He moved back into the house he grew up in, installed a recording studio in the basement and changed much of its second floor into offices and a practice room.

“It was a better situation here than in New York or California or Chicago because it was like there was nothing happening here,” he says. “I was free to do what I needed to do. In New York you’ve got managers, you’ve got producers, you have record companies, you have all of this stuff. If I was in New York, I wouldn’t need to do all of this, but the drugs were in New York and I knew I couldn’t refuse. Or I wasn’t going to try, anyway.

“So I started doing all this stuff—I got a job teaching with Harold and Marcus, then I got married, then, damn, I started producing these concerts and that snowballed. Then I met Phil and started dealing with these records, then the magazine, and then we had a whole promotion department. We snatched and grabbed on everything. When I looked around I had cement on my feet.”

That cement provided a foundation for a number of nascent, highly creative local bands. Gradually Tribe—its business side started out as W. Harrison & Associates—became the primary force in creative Detroit jazz. This combination band, label and promotional machine may have been a little scruffy and down-home, but it packed a strong musical punch remarkable for its unorthodoxy. Those Tribe records sounded like nothing else coming out in the ’70s, and the self-determination impulse that drove them paralleled similar efforts by Sun Ra, Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis.

“At the time it was natural, it was a movement, but we didn’t fully realize it.” Ranelin says. “But all around the country things like that were taking place, maybe not to the degree of guys establishing magazines or record companies, but there were collectives where people were getting together and putting on concerts. Those organizations were like survival kits, really.”

Ranelin says the survival was more about artistry than money.

“There were a lot of recognized big names in the ’70s who, in order for them to keep working, even people like Sonny Rollins were delving off into music that was totally different from what they had played before. But it didn’t affect us, because we were not on that circuit where we were making a lot of money anyway, just playing music from the heart. Later on, Tribe started trying to play some commercial music, too. But in the very beginning we were playing spirit music, art music.”

Tribe gradually faded away in the late 1970s as its members began developing their own individual ventures. Hammond moved to Europe; Belgrave expanded his Jazz Development Workshop; and Ranelin moved to Los Angeles, where he became very busy touring with Freddie Hubbard and working with other musical groups.

Harrison and his first wife, Pat, divorced—a big change given how deeply involved she had been in developing the business side of Tribe. But then Harrison married pianist and composer Pamela Wise and, along with Harold McKinney, started Rebirth, an organization similar to Tribe. Wise has been Rebirth’s mainstay ever since, running the record company, writing grants and handling the details that make a small business go.

In the ensuing 25 years Rebirth has presented countless local concerts, released perhaps two dozen records and paired Harrison’s platoon of Detroit players with people like Leon Thomas, Eddie Harris, Woody Shaw, Eddie Jefferson and Jimmy Owens for national and international tours. Rebirth has also attracted local attention for its series of live performance broadcasts on The Kim Heron Program on public radio station WDET-FM, Detroit.

“All this stuff is really the same concept,” Harrison says. “Back in the ’70s we were dealing with the magazine format to promote. Now we are dealing with radio. I’m trying to move from that to TV.”

Harrison has over 100 digital recordings of on-air performances and interviews with nationally known artists, including Paquito D’Rivera, Don Byron, Richard Davis, Bobby Watson and Reggie Workman. Some of his more recent work is also gaining national exposure. Two years ago, Enja Records released his performance with Eddie Harris, The Battle of the Tenors, recorded live at the 1998 Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival, as well as Rush and Hustle, a recording by Harrison’s clarinet ensemble, Mama’s Licking Stick, with guest reed monster James Carter. He’s recording an album of solo saxophone and clarinet improvisations for Entropy Records and working on his contemporary dance band licks with fellow producer and local trumpet marvel Rayse Biggs.

Hefty’s reissue of Ranelin’s old Tribe discs has given the trombonist a real psychological boost.

“I’m 62, but I feel like I am 42,” he says, his quiet, low-key voice brimming with gentle energy. “I’m ready to go out on the road and present this music to the people and continue the concepts that were developed through Tribe. Traveling the world playing some music is really what I thrive on.”

Ranelin stays busy even when he stays home. He’s leading both the Phil Ranelin Jazz Ensemble and Tribe Renaissance, which features four reed players, a rhythm section and his own trombone. He also works in L.A. with the Taumbu International Ensemble, the Michael Session Sextet and the Pan-African People’s Arkestra. And he’s recently released his own self-produced album, A Close Encounter of the Very Best Kind.
Harrison and Ranelin agree that, reissues aside, Tribe made a real difference in their professional careers.

“Tribe goes back to Africa, the inspiration of the name and the music, so it is a part of me,” Ranelin says. “As far as the Detroit Tribe, the guys that were there, and the music we created together, has a lasting effect on everything I do musically. I am still trying to carry forward the concept we developed together there.”

And Ranelin has a message from the Tribe to today’s younger musicians.

“If they really want to be in control of their own destiny, the independent route is not a bad way to go. If we could do it, they can do it, especially if they can find others who believe in the same sort of thing and band together enough.”

Wendell Harrison’s Web site is www.swiftsite.com/WenHaJazz/. Phil Ranelin’s Web site is www.ranelin.com. Information on Tribe-related reissues can be found at www.soundsoftheuniverse.com and www.heftyrecords.com.

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