NPR logo Donald Harrison Jr.: Guarding The Flame

Donald Harrison Jr.: Guarding The Flame

The professional side of Donald Harrison, Jr. Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR

The professional side of Donald Harrison, Jr.

Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR

These days, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. often plays a sort of instrumental R&B. His set at the Congo Square "My Louisiana" stage on the first Sunday of the 2010 Jazz and Heritage Festival led off with The Meters' "Cissy Strut," and two songs later, went into "Feel Like Making Love."

But years before that, Harrison established his reputation in music as a leading straight-ahead jazzman. And years before that, he first masked as a Mardi Gras Indian.

Not long after his set, the children of the Guardians of the Flame tribe put on an exhibition at the Kids' Tent. (Photos of their performance are unavailable due to copyright issues, but I'll assure you they were adorable.) The Guardians are the tribe founded by Donald Harrison Sr.; his son grew up in that tradition. Now, Donald Jr. is a Big Chief too.

The rest of America has Little League, Boy Scouts, Sunday school. New Orleans has all that too, but for certain African-American folks here, Indian tribes also serve as a sort of youth group. It struck me especially hard when one Guardians song was introduced as a tool for teaching conflict resolution: Indian tribes aren't merely isolated spare-time pursuits. They're communities dedicated to a demanding craft and its attendant values.

Fittingly, that craft includes performing in an ensemble. I don't know how being a Mardi Gras Indian comes out in Harrison's music-making necessarily — how his folk art affects his professional art. But it's tucked deep in there somewhere. According to this Times-Picayune report, at last year's Jazz Fest performance, Harrison stepped away from his (hard-swinging jazz) performance to change into costume and perform a few Indian chants. I couldn't stay for all of this year's show, but judging from photographs of the scene, it seems as if the Big Chief fancied purple for this year's outfit.