SFJAZZ.org | QA with Donald Harrison

On The Corner Masthead

A Q&A With Donald Harrison Jr.  

March 23, 2022 | by Richard Scheinin

Donald Harrison Jr. with the Cookers at SFJAZZ during the 37th San Francisco Jazz Festival, June 2019.
(photo by Rick Swig)

In advance of the 2022 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert (March 31) honoring Cassandra Wilson, Billy Hart, Stanley Clarke, and Donald Harrison Jr., staff writer Richard Scheinin spoke to the saxophonist, bandleader, and composer. 

Saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., is the sum of many parts: He is “an inclusive musician,” as he puts it. He inhabits a “multiverse” of musical styles and influences.

One of his new projects links African chants with his jazz group and a symphony orchestra. As Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation — a Mardi Gras Indian krewe in his native New Orleans — Harrison has inside knowledge of the musical relationships, say, between West African drumming and early recordings by Louis Armstrong, or between Charlie Parker and the Afro-Puerto Rican plena music that currently absorbs him. The Black music continuum — all eras, all genres — is his bailiwick.

“I don’t play notes. I play life,” says Harrison, who believes that music — if it has any depth — arises from experience.

One of four 2022 NEA Jazz Masters — along with vocalist Cassandra Wilson, bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Billy Hart (with whom he plays in the all-star post-bop septet the Cookers) — Harrison grew up immersed in Mardi Gras Indian culture.

His father, Donald Harrison, Sr., was also a Big Chief — and a big Charlie Parker fan. Getting serious about the saxophone at 14, Harrison Jr., was part of a coterie of young New Orleanians — including Terence Blanchard and Wynton and Branford Marsalis — who would make a splash in New York in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He performed for much of the 1980s with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and spent years with drummer Roy Haynes, who called his protege “my bebop brother.”

A lifelong student — of bebop, funk, hip-hop, Latin jazz, orchestral composition, you name it — Harrison, 61, spent an hour on the phone discussing his musical philosophy, which is really his philosophy of life. Learn enough, work hard enough, experience enough — eventually, all “these little things, they add up to this gigantic picture.”

Donald Harrison Jr. performing Charlie Parker with Strings with the Ohio State University Orchestra, 2018

Q: How did you get turned on to Charlie Parker? Did your dad play his records in the house?

A: We always listened to Bird. I don’t know a time when I didn’t know about Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. My father used to play us “Salt Peanuts” to calm us down when we were little kids — the version from Massey Hall. And we’d be listening to the song, and singing, “Salt Peanuts!”

So I‘ve always been aware of Charlie Parker.

But I didn’t know how deep he was until I started playing saxophone and trying to learn his music. And then I realized the depth, and I made it a mission to try and figure out some of the things he was doing. And that quest led me to many other places, because I figured out that he was what I call an inclusive musician. When you look at all the different kinds of music that he loved, you see that his own music is a confluence of many ideas. The fact that he loved classical music, blues, the Latin music, the jive talk music — he was a student of everything and tried to learn all that music, and I got on that train.

And then I happened to read a statement he made: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” That turned me around in high school. My estimation was, he was saying you can’t tell a story musically unless you go live it. So I decided to go play with everybody who had a lesson that I wanted to learn in music. And now I’m even more of a firm believer in that statement: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” So many things — I can look back now and see how I used them from experience. It’s a whole other thing to play from experience than to play from just listening to a record.

Q: What’s an example?

A: Okay, I play with Ron Carter.

l listened to him for years, but until I got on the bandstand with him, I was really kind of clueless. When you get on the stage with the Cookers, it’s the same kind of lesson. Or McCoy Tyner, or Roy Haynes. I started with Roy Haynes when I was young, and I was really trying to learn as much as I could about bebop from all the bebop masters. And Roy would tell me, “No we would do this for this reason. You got this off the record — you got that in the wrong place.” So I was with him for 15 years and I think a lot of the beboppers used to like me because I asked lots of questions and then I’d go and work on it.

Q: Who else answered your questions?

A: Walter Bishop, Art Blakey, Walter Davis Jr. — everybody who was around. I asked Miles Davis a lot about Bird and Lester Young. They tried to impart to me how they interacted with Bird, the lessons they got, and how they moved them around in their own music. For me that’s invaluable. But I did that with everybody, with so many styles of music — with funk music, with Fred Wesley from the J.B.'s, with Bernie Worrell from Parliament-Funkadelic, with Dr. John, and with being a Big Chief, around the old-timers from that culture.

Also, playing with Eddie Palmieri, playing with Chucho Valdés. I tried to study and learn as many styles of music as I could. First of all, because I love them, and then I wanted to be inclusive — same idea as Charlie Parker.

I like to say my concept is like a multiverse concept, because I learned how to stay true to all the forms — but then mixed them in a way that they’re still true to their roots. So the people in the Latin world would say, “Oh, he knows something from our world.” Or if I add something from the Big Chief world and bring it to jazz, the other Big Chiefs would know I know it for real.

It’s taken a long time and it can be exhaustive work.

Q: What’s the hardest style you’ve learned?

A: Bebop. That’s still a challenge. Because it’s so specific.

Q: What do you mean by “specific”?

A: I mean, it’s like a writer who really understands all the grammaticals and all the punctuations. Everything is in a space where you can’t fudge it. Some types of music, you can fudge it a little bit. But to get the sound of bebop, you can’t fudge it at all. It takes a lot of work. When you realize that, it becomes even more mindboggling what Charlie Parker did at such a young age. It’s unbelievable, really. I’m still trying to get to his sound as close as I can, and I know I never will. But then I use those influences to get to what I’m doing.

After studying John Coltrane, I’m realizing he was the same, that his music resulted from the confluence of experiences. I can hear the church in Trane, and I can hear what’s known as the “walk the bar style,” and when you hear that element — walking the bar — you realize he even used that in his explorations in jazz. ("Walking the bar" refers to the practice of rhythm and blues saxophone players literally getting up on the bar in a club and walking its length while performing.) But you have to listen to his whole career. He was with Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges, and then you can put it together and see that this comes from Monk, and this comes from the church tradition, the fervor of it. And it gives you another idea of what it means to place life in music.

I don’t play notes. I play life.

Donald Harrison Jr.in costume as Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation (photo by Skip Bolen)

Q: Can you explain what it means to be the Big Chief of Congo Square Nation?

A: That’s what I call lines or ways of thinking inside this culture in New Orleans. Basically, the music and the drumming are a major aspect of the culture that comes from Congo Square, which is the only place where Africans openly participated in their culture. Out of that, they developed an offshoot culture that influenced jazz. And fortunately, I was around some of the older chiefs who could pass down what they were actually using in jazz. So when they talk about the missing link, in terms of New Orleans and how the African culture was put inside the music, I was privy to that.

Q: Can you hear that on early jazz recordings?

A: Yes. You listen to jazz records from the ‘20s — you can hear what they were taking from Congo Square: the drums, and the concept of how the drums were put together. It all comes from Congo Square.

Q: Whose recordings are you talking about? Joe Oliver? Louis Armstrong?

A: All those guys had aspects of it in their playing.

Q: When you were a kid, did you know musicians who’d been their contemporaries?

A: All of them were playing music when I was a kid. I was just a novice. They called me a natural, I guess because I was around that culture my whole life. My mother says the musicians used to practice at my house, and I’d just be playing the rhythms on my crib — playing the drum rhythms, playing what I just heard. But when I started actually playing music, it took a while before I got the corroboration.

Q: How old were you when it began to come together?

A: That started happening I guess in my late 20s and 30s, but I’ve been in it my whole life. Now I know for sure.

Q: Who was your first important teacher? Your dad?

A: I guess my father, yeah. Because he listened to so many types of music, so it all coalesced in me.

Q: Your dad was inclusive.

A: Like Duke Ellington: everywhere he went, he wrote something about the cultures he encountered, the people he met. Miles Davis, he had so many kinds of influences. Ron Carter, he listens to everything. Art Blakey was the first guy who told me it was okay to play electronic music.

Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers featuring Donald Harrison Jr., 1985

Q: Seriously? When you were with the Jazz Messengers?

A: Yeah. I bought a synthesizer in Japan and Art knew I had it. So when we got back to America, he said, “Why don’t you bring the synthesizer and play with me?” At the time, being with the Messengers, I couldn’t fathom doing it. Looking back, I think I made a mistake, because he really wanted it.

Q: I’m surprised to hear this.

A: I know. Art used to come to the dance clubs with me. He used to sing Earth, Wind & Fire songs.

And when I did my record for Creed Taylor — The Power of Cool, my smooth recording — nobody in the jazz world liked that kind of music. I said, “Art, they’re going to crucify me if I do that.” And Art said, “You have to do it, because it’s your own path and it will lead you to your own place.” It was incredible, his insight, and I didn’t realize how deep it would get — mixing all these styles that I love, including the dance music, but keeping the jazz. And the next record I made was Nouveau Swing. The balance is clear on that record: the way I put those different styles inside of it. But I know if I hadn’t made the smooth jazz record first, I wouldn’t have gotten to Nouveau Swing.

The irony of that situation is that all the people who told me I was selling out — they heard that recording and they asked me to help them get into that world.

Q: When you moved to New York in 1979, how did the older musicians treat you?

A: They all told me to come to their houses — come out and hang out with them, and learn. In New York at that time, there weren’t a lot of young people playing jazz music. You could count the people on each instrument on one hand — maybe four or five bass players, four or five saxophone players. So they were elated to see us. It was a team of young people that loved the music, and then it started growing until now you see people studying everywhere and talking about this music. The knowledge of it creates understanding. And the general public will hopefully come to love this music as much as we do.

When I got to New York, I was already loving Charlie Parker. And when I was 23 years old, the recording that I made with Terence (Blanchard) called New York Second Line, I was already mixing up New Orleans music with modern jazz. I remember saying, “This is what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to bridge the gap for all the different styles of jazz.”

I got that idea in high school. So having a concept like that is one thing, but trying to do it — it takes years. But I’ve dutifully stayed true to what I had to do. And I say it was exhausting because I had to sacrifice so much — had to forget about fame and all that stuff. I had to stop thinking about it and say, “No, I need more money, but first I need to get all this music. I need to play with all these people. Maybe one day I’ll get some money if I can get all this music under my belt.”

Q: Besides your dad, who were your main teachers in New Orleans? And how did their concepts flow into what you later did in New York?

A: I was around (saxophonist) Kidd Jordan, (pianist) Ellis Marsalis, (clarinetist) Alvin Batiste, and all three of them had their own particular concept. I tried to learn as much about their concepts as I could. But when I got to New York and got around the beboppers, I sort of abandoned some of those concepts… I kept the stuff I learned from the brass bands. I kept some of the technical stuff I learned from Kidd Jordan, as well as some of the freewheeling nature of what Kidd would do. And Alvin Batiste’s understanding of technique on the clarinet — I know those points.

Q: Were you playing a lot of clarinet as a young guy in New Orleans?

A: Not really. After listening to Alvin Batiste play the clarinet, I got scared. I said, “This is impossible.” I should’ve done it, but he was so phenomenal.

Q: You’ve said that growing up in New Orleans and being a Big Chief gives you a “skeleton key” that opens musical doors — it allows you to hear the relationship between the various eras and styles of jazz and Black music, generally.

A: Because the music in New Orleans was part of the foundational element of how this music was put together. Even when I’m playing with the Cookers, and listening to Billy Hart, I hear it in his playing. Now he might realize it, but some of the other guys — they might not realize it. I hear it in what they’re doing. I hear how it’s still present in what they’re doing.

I can listen to some African music and say, “Oh, this is how we did this in New Orleans.” Or, “Oh, they’re playing the same thing we’re playing in New Orleans.” I can go to Cuba and say, “Oh, this stuff that came from Africa — this is how they do it here.” It’s a key where you can see everything. In other words, I’m not guessing —I actually know!

The Cookers recording Billy Harper's "Sir Galahad" in the studio, 2014

Q: When I see you perform, I get the sense that you’re picking things up from the musicians around you. For instance, with the Cookers, you’re often at the side of the stage with Eddie Henderson, and you seem to be listening very closely to what he’s saying. What is he telling you?

A: I’m looking for the guys who love the music, man.

And Eddie Henderson — he’s what I call my trumpet maestro. Because, first of all, he has the most exquisite sound that I ever heard. And then he has an expansive knowledge of the music and what he’s adding to the music. He knows that I’m always learning from him and trying to add his stuff to what I’m doing. So I’m fortunate that he shares it with me, and sometimes I have to say, “Eddie, it’s enough!” Because he has so much knowledge, it’s relentless. If you want to get grounded in the foundations, it’s what you do; I’m trying to soak up as much as I can get from him.

Even stuff that Roy Haynes was teaching me 40 years ago — I’m still trying to put it together. The pursuit of an understanding of what they taught you — it never stops. And I tell my students, “That’s the beauty of music. It’s infinite. It never stops. It’s like the universe, and you can keep fine tuning.”

But ultimately, after all is said and done, touching people is what it’s all about. Art Blakey used to talk about that.

Q: You played a bit with Miles Davis. What was your relationship like?

A: I talked to him for years. I didn’t spend a lot of time playing with him. But I spent a lot of time around him and picking his brain about music. And what people don’t know — he was like the kind of cat who was doing stuff behind the scenes for people, and you wouldn’t know it.

Q: What’s your approach to mentoring? Do all your students have your phone number? Are they always asking questions?

A: Some of them have a lot of questions. We talk all the time. Most of them who play with me, they’re really focused on finding out how to play the music and getting the lesson. I was just at a jam session at a college, and some of the students were asking for my number, so I gave it to them — just like the guys who gave their numbers to me a long time ago.

I love what Art Blakey said about how “a fair exchange is no robbery.” I ask the young people what they’re working on and I try to use it, and then I pass on what I’ve learned from the masters. It’s give and take.

Q: Who are some musicians you haven’t had a chance to play with? Do you have a wish list? Or are there styles of music you’d still like to explore?

A: Hmmm. There’s a lot of people that I’d love to play with. I wish I’d played with James Brown; I did play with (trombonist) Fred Wesley and (saxophonist) Pee Wee Ellis (both of whom spent years with Brown). Recently I’ve been listening to Afro-Puerto Rican music, bomba, and the plena — that’s a whole thing. I know about it, and now I’m trying to fine-tune it. There’s so many styles of playing that music. Each city has its own take on it — it’s daunting. So I’m dealing with that.

And I’m dealing with this new hip-hop sound, trap sound, making beats with that kind of music and learning how to do that and learning different styles of rapping — and then I can bring it to the saxophone. But first I learned the whole idea of the music, how to produce the beats, how to rhyme on top of it, and sometimes put the saxophone in it. I bring it back to jazz, because I was in that music.

A young guy I taught when I was in my 30s, he was doing hip-hop music. He used to come around me, and so I helped him develop how to get his beats to a professional level. And now he’s sold millions of records, and now I’m connecting with him again. His name is Deezle. That’s what he’s known as; his actual name is Darius Harrison. He’s done songs for Kanye West and Lil Wayne.

That’s like family. I’ve got family in a lot of types of music. But then when I bring it to jazz, if you know trap music, I can hear the trap in the jazz. That’s all I’ve been doing, man — it’s just a little extra work to have the underpinnings.

Q: Is there anything you wish you could tell your younger self?

A: You know what I wish? All those older musicians, the elder guys, they used to tell me they wanted to be on my recordings. And I didn’t do it, and now I can’t do it. It sort of hurts my heart.

People like Milt Jackson used to call me, or Billy Higgins, and Art Blakey — saying they wanted to record with me. And I was like, “Yeah, okay.” That’s the greatest regret of my life.

Q: Why didn’t you take them up on it?

A: I was just young and dumb, that’s all I can say. And you think you have forever to do things when you’re young. But you don’t.

Q: When you look back on your life, are you amazed at the experiences you’ve had, and the people you’ve played with? Are you nostalgic about it?

A: When I was younger, I knew I was in deep water and in great company. But as I get older, really, I can’t believe what happened. Because I now have a better idea of what all these incredible people shared with me.

Like Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, he said, “I’m gonna teach you the blues like I do it.” And then to go out and learn the blues from him — and him saying to me, “The only other person I ever told this to was Charlie Parker.” And him telling me to go study Big Bill Broonzy — “because that’s who I got this from” — and then seeing the depth of Big Bill Broonzy. So these little things, they add up to this gigantic picture.

The 2022 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert will be held Thursday, March 31 at 7:30pm at SFJAZZ. Tickets and more information are available here, and the performance will be broadcast live on sfjazz.org and nea.gov

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

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