Donald Harrison

Donald Harrison
Photo Credit: Mark Mann
Donald Harrison

Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison exhibits a deep respect for the entire jazz tradition. But his style also reflects African, Latin and modern influences, the avant-garde, and his own personal experiences. Harrison claims that "jazz music is about stating what your life is about." With skill and versatility, this New Orleans native opens himself up to a receptive audience at The Kennedy Center's Theater Lab.

He starts the show off with his own composition, "Christopher Junior", a stellar tribute to his idol, Charles Christopher Parker Jr. Once the applause settles, Dr. Taylor delves into Harrison's New Orleans influence, noting that it manifests itself in his rhythmic sense. He suggests to Harrison, "Your sense of rhythm informs everything you do".

According to Harrison, his rhythmic sense can be explained by his exposure to New Orleans jazz and African traditions while growing up. He notes that jazz is the cultural music of New Orleans as in no other city in the world. It is the music for all events: weddings, funerals, football games. He says, "everything we do, jazz is there...So, jazz is like life to me..."

In addition, Harrison has worked with a group called the Mardi Gras Indians, which performs African call and response chants during Mardi Gras events. Harrison's father is a leader with the group. These strong African tribal traditions contribute to the rhythmic qualities of the New Orleans jazz tradition. At Billy's request, Harrison demonstrates the rhythm and chanting of the Indians' Mardi Gras rituals. Then he carries this same infectious rhythm into a dancing rendition of "Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise".

Harrison observes that the fundamental elements of harmony and rhythm, have "retained their presence" in jazz from its earliest beginnings in New Orleans. He and Billy discuss some of the founding fathers of jazz in New Orleans, including Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Buddy Bolden. Harrison notes their influence on each new generation of players as they continued to develop jazz into the present day. Armstrong and Bolden influenced Charlie Parker and Lester Young, and they, in turn, influenced John Coltrane. Harrison says, "all those guys have passed down a tradition to each other. And hopefully I'm trying to do the same".

Harrison has had some of the finest mentors in jazz. In high school he studied under Ellis Marsalis, who taught him the basics of bebop and post bop. Two other notable mentors were jazz drummers Roy Haynes and Art Blakey. In the eighties, Harrison played with Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. Blakey refined Harrison's understanding of various rhythm styles, and also taught him how to "play with love" for the music and for people, by emphasizing that jazz is a spiritual music.

Harrison credits Kidd Jordan for teaching him to open his mind and experiment more by exploring the avant-garde. Of this free-form approach to the music he says, "It's more about what you feel". Billy's trio and Harrison demonstrate with a free-flowing group improvisation inspired by Jordan himself.

Responding to questions from the audience, Harrison explains that he has attained a clearer more relaxed tone as he has matured as a musician. He also shares his views on different types of audiences. Despite the appreciation for jazz in Europe and Japan, he feels he relates better to American audiences because they have a better understanding of the cultural and social influences that helped create jazz.

Harrison also explains why he loves to play ballads: "I think you can really also feel the soul of a musician on a ballad." Once again, he puts his own soul into a very personal performance, this time a sultry rendition of "Body and Soul". During the show, he also does Dizzy Gillespie's "Algo Bueno", before concluding with Duke Ellington's "Cottontail".