Donald Harrison, Jr.

Saxophonist, cultural activist, educator and 2022 NEA Jazz Master
Headshot of a woman

Photo courtesy of Donald Harrison

Donald Harrison: This music that we call jazz is one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. I always said, I don't want to be the greatest, I just want to be the greatest me. The ideal of being the best you can and knowing as much as you can sets the precedent. There's not too many things that I see where that is the ideal. So the music is saying be the best that you can be. The music is saying work as hard as you can. The music is saying give everything you got.

Jo Reed: You just heard Cultural Activist, Saxophonist, Composer, Educator and 2022 NEA Jazz Master Donald Harrison and from the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed.

Donald Harrison may have been named an NEA jazz Master for his advocacy work, but this splendid saxophonist is equally well-known for his hard-swinging improvisational style and the creation of "Nouveau Swing," a blend of jazz with R&B, hip-hop, rock, and soul. Harrison has performed and recorded with many outstanding musicians--including Ron Carter, Terence Blanchard, Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Eddie Palmieri, the Notorious B.I.G., as well as with the powerhouse jazz group the Cookers. 

But Harrison’s passion for preserving and celebrating the music and culture of his hometown New Orleans is unmatched.  Harrison is the son of the late New Orleans folklorist Donald Harrison, Sr., who was known for his involvement in local Mardi Gras traditions. Taking a page from his father’s book, Donald Harrison Jr. founded the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group to honor the cultures brought from Africa that found root in New Orleans and then traveled the world. Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Harrison increased his activism, creating employment opportunities in his own bands for young musicians who had remained in the city.  An intentional and avid student of some of the jazz greats—like Art Blakey and Roy Haynes, Harrison has devoted himself to passing down the lessons he learned to younger musicians. And he has mentored some extraordinary jazz artists including Jon Batiste, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Trombone Shorty, and Esperanza Spaulding.

For Donald Harrison it’s a way of giving back, and in no small part in gratitude for being raised in the cultural mecca that is New Orleans—

Donald Harrison:New Orleans is a great city, and growing up here and being part of the culture and listening to the music in my opinion gives you a different idea of what music is because music is part of everyday life here.  If you go to Brazil, I noticed that it's the same there, in Africa, in Jamaica, in Cuba, music is part of the everyday fabric of life, and everything is connected, it's the same here in New Orleans.  I've heard that New Orleans is the northernmost Caribbean Island, <laughs> but I like to think of New Orleans as part of America and part of the Caribbean as well, so we've got the best of both worlds.

Jo Reed:And I know your father was crucial in immersing you in the music and in the culture.

Donald Harrison: My father of course was part of the culture.  He brought me around the old timers that were connected to antiquity, and I didn't realize what that meant until I started playing music, I was connected on the jazz side and on the cultural side and understood the keys from the cultural side that were used in jazz.  So when I listen to records from the 20's I'm actually hearing things that go back to Africa, so I feel like I'm the embodiment of the whole lineage of the music, but it all comes from my father taking me to second lines and me dancing to the music and hearing, seeing that music is connected to life, it's a culture that keeps alive the things that were happening in Congo Square that influenced jazz music.

Jo Reed: For people who might not know, can you describe what the importance of Congo Square is for New Orleans music and culture?

Donald Harrison: Yeah, Congo Square is a place in New Orleans where Africans were allowed to play their drums and sing and dance and participate in the culture you did in Africa, and it coalesced into a New Orleans sound but it still has African roots in it, and you still can hear that music today, and it influenced the music of New Orleans in a profound way, it still is influencing the music of New Orleans in a profound way, I call it a root incubator <laughs>.

Jo Reed: That's a good term.

Donald Harrison: Yeah, and what's tremendous to me is that it helped to inform music that went worldwide, so not only did it contribute to New Orleans music, it contributed to the music of the world, and it still does.  So it's amazing to see a tradition that goes back to antiquity from the beginning of mankind most likely that is still being perpetuated right here in the United States of America, it's a beautiful thing, it shows that we're all connected.

Jo Reed: When did you actually begin to play an instrument?  How did you come to not just listening and dancing, though that's fabulous, but actually picking something up and beginning to play?

Donald Harrison: Well I first started playing saxophone because my father was walking past the music store, Werlein's Music Store, and he saw a saxophone in the window, and he decided that it was my saxophone <laughs>.  I had no clue, so he purchased the horn, and I was in elementary school, and he gave me the horn, and I played it for maybe a year, year and a half, and then I stuck it in the closet, then one day Grover Washington was playing Mr. Magic on the radio, and I Ioved the song, I said, "I remember I had a saxophone," so I got the saxophone out, and I started learning Mr. Magic. I told my father, "Listen, I can play this song that was on the radio," and he was like, "That's very good son," and I remembered the old jazz records we used to listen to, so he pulled out a Charlie Parker record, he said, "Try to learn this for me, I love Bird," and then I started practicing Charlie Parker, and I said, "Well, it's going to be a lot of work to do this," <laughs>, but I fell in love with Charlie Parker at that moment, and I've been chasing The Bird ever since.

Jo Reed: Well you've played with a lot of musicians who've played with Charlie Parker.

Donald Harrison: Starting with Roy Haynes when I was 19 and, you know, Art Blakey and Walter Bishop, and just a lot of guys that played bebop, that was to get the lessons of what they discussed with Charlie Parker, and also going on a bandstand and working those lessons out.  One way I would do things with Roy Haynes is I would play something on the record, and then Roy would say, "No, we didn't do it like that, we did it like this, we did it for this reason."  So I stayed with him 15 years, and over that period of time I was given so many lessons about bebop from people like him, and just being around all those great musicians, Dizzy and Max Roach, and just asking them a million questions, even Miles, I asked Miles a lot of questions about Charlie Parker, and then Lester Young and the people that he played with, and one of the happiest moments of my life was when I was in the middle of my tenure with Roy Haynes, and he said, "You're my bebop brother," because he knew how much I loved bebop, and I was so overtaken I guess I looked like I was about to cry, I probably was, he said, "Don't you go crying on me," but I was just so happy Roy Haynes called me his bebop brother, I mean that's what it's about for me.

Jo Reed: I'm wondering, Donald, if you can remember, you know, we mentioned the rich and varied musical traditions in New Orleans, you could have gone in a number of directions musically, do you remember what it was about jazz that just completely grabbed your heart?

Donald Harrison: Well I always felt that jazz was the music you could express the entirety of your being in, you could be yourself, and the ideal was to be the best that you could be and to know as much as you could know and to play from a loving perspective, I always felt that those ideals were something I wanted to live up to and to share.  While I was in high school I read a statement by Charlie Parker where he said, "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn, and there's no boundary line to music," and I said to myself in high school, "Well, you come from New Orleans so you can get the whole history of music inside of you like Charlie Parker said."  So then I set out on a quest to play with every era of jazz musicians, the people who made it up, and that actually happened, I got to play with every era musicians from New Orleans who was playing in the 20's, people who played what they call swing music, the Kansas City people, and a lot of beboppers, free jazz, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Caribbean with Eddie Palmieri, one of the greats, and everybody in between.  So I was able to get an idea of how all of these gentlemen and ladies put their music together, so I feel like I carry what Charlie Parker said inside of me now, I lived it, so it comes out of the horn.

Jo Reed: You decided to go to the Berklee College of Music.  What informed that decision, and why did you decide to leave New Orleans and study at Berklee?

Donald Harrison: I decided to go there because it had such a great history of producing some of the greatest musicians, and I wanted to be around all these great musicians, I actually studied with Bill Pierce who was the first person to tell Art Blakey about me <laughs>, and a number of other people, but he was my teacher, and Joe Viola a great saxophone instructor, a number of other notable instructors, but the thing I loved about Berklee is you had professional musicians who had been there and done that, so they were teaching you from that perspective, and that's something I picked up that I use as well.

Jo Reed: You played with Art Blakey for quite a while, and I know this was pivotal in your life.  You mentioned Bill Pierce was the one who introduced you to him, but how did you end up playing with him?

Donald Harrison: Yeah, well Art Blakey is one of the greatest teachers of anything <laughs>, but we're fortunate that we had him in music because he noticed everything and he remembered everything, so he passed down great information to the young people, and then he was such a great musician on top of that, so he was maybe a one of a kind situation, and he had a great, in my estimation, ear for talent.  I met Art, he came to Boston, and he was playing in the-- I went to see the band of course, if you have any sense <laughs> as a young jazz musician, you should go to see Art Blakey.  So I went to see Art Blakey, and Bill Pierce was playing with him, and Bill brought me in the dressing room, and he said, "Art, this is my young student, he can play."  Well I was like, "Wow, that's nice of Bill," and then Art in his voice he says, "Well where's your horn."  Well I said, "I left it at the dorm," he said, "You never leave your horn at the dorm, go get your horn and come back and play."  So I ran to Berklee <laughs>, and I got my horn, and I came back, and I sat in, Art was very nice to me, and he said, "One day you'll be a Jazz Messenger," and I was like, "Okay, Art, I believe you," it seems that will never happen at the time.  So anyway the Marsalis Brothers joined Art's band, and then when they were leaving it came true, so I joined the Jazz Messengers and stayed for six years.  It was like you said and like other people saying who played with him, "One of the greatest experiences of my lifetime," because he teaches you how to play with his drums, with his words, and how he is as a human being, and the fact that his plan was to turn as many musicians into leaders is a great thing that I picked up from him.

Jo Reed: Well he was so good at just giving young musicians encouragement and a platform and Jazz Messengers kind of says it all with what Art Blakey was doing.

Donald Harrison: Yeah, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers is a great institution, and the fact that he really knew how to take what was available, like if he did an interview he would bring us along, everything he did where he could let people know about young musicians he did, that's another key component this just sharing his spotlight with us young kids, his shine with other musicians to the fullest that he could.  Every night he mentioned us like we were the second coming of the greatest thing in the world <laughs>, you know, he said, "These gentlemen have respect because they earned it," he would say all these wonderful things about us every night because he believed in us.  One of the things he told me, "Everybody has talent, you just have to work hard at it, and it will manifest what you have inside, and once you find yourself then people will find you because you have a voice then, you have something to say when you find yourself and to stay on your path, everybody has a different path.  All the so many great lines, I could sit here for hours just going through the Art Blakey anecdotes.

Jo Reed: But I'm sure aside from influencing you as a young musician, when you began teaching and reaching out to younger musicians yourself I'm sure Art Blakey was on your shoulder, and having that experience provided a lot of guidance I would think.

Donald Harrison: Yeah, I mean I use-- actually a lot of the older musicians, they were really nurturers, but Art Blakey, it was his extreme plan to nurture the next generation, and I picked up on that.  I remember saying to myself if I could just do some of what Art Blakey did I would be really happy.  Over the years I've been around a lot of young people, younger than myself, and seen them go onto great things, and sometimes I pinch myself at the great musicians who played with me when I was just starting out, it's really unbelievable, and I hope that I'm making Art Blakey and Roy Haynes and all the other guys who gave me a shot, took me in when I wasn't ready, and showed me the ropes. Ron Carter is another guy I've been around for about 15 years now who's been such a great mentor, and he's another musician who's taught countless people, I mean he doesn't get the notoriety of helping so many people as Art Blakey, but he is the finishing school right now, and a lot of people go through his school, and I am one of them.

Jo Reed: As you said, you were with Art Blakey for six years, and your fellow New Orleanian, Terrence Blanchard, was there too playing trumpet, and you left and you two formed a quintet.  You were in New York now, living in New York.

Donald Harrison: Right.  You know, Terence Blanchard and I joined Art Blakey's band together, and as you know Terence is a tremendous talented individual and trumpeter, and then we stayed with Art Blakey for four years, trying to figure out how to get close to the level of Art Blakey <laughs> on the bandstand, and writing music because that was one of the things that Art made us all do, and then Terence decided that we should leave Art Blakey's band and start our own group, and I said, "Okay, I'll go," and then we started a group, and the idea was for each of us, in my estimation, to learn from each other.  It was like two groups, well I guess three groups, Terence's group, my group, and then the group together, so it was-- what I thought it was a unique idea.  So I was bringing of course the traditional music from New Orleans with "New York Second Line."

Jo Reed: I was just going to say, "New York Second Line", and not only because I am from New York, that is a great song.

Donald Harrison: Oh thank you <laughs>.  "New York Second Line" was one of the first songs I think that merged the second line sound with a New York vibe.  I was surprised it became a thing in New York, a lot of guys were learning how to play second line after that song.  Terence brought in some lovely ideas, and I started bringing in R&B stuff underneath the jazz, and I was experimenting with the Miles Davis sound, and then Terence started experimenting with the Miles Davis sound, so we were listening to each other and growing as a group and as individuals, such a wonderful experience.

Jo Reed: Well you and Terence played together for five plus years, then when you moved on from that partnership you returned to playing with Roy Haynes and Art Blakey, and I read you said you felt that you needed a firmer, better foundation in bebop, did I get that right?

Donald Harrison: Yeah, that's one of them, I'm working on bebop, so if Roy Haynes called me today <laughs> I still would go.  If any of the masters call me I'm going, it's always more to learn from those gentlemen, my mindset is to always learn from those guys.  I really wanted to approach the music from having experiences with all the bands in all the different eras, and learning the ideas of those musicians, and then seeing where it would take me.  I wasn't trying to make up a style that came just from me, I wanted a style that was connected to people, to dancing, to music, to the universe, and to the firmament of the understanding of all the people before me.

Jo Reed: I want to talk about another game changing album that you created which is Nouveau Swing, and Nouveau Swing is also a type of music.  Can you define nouveau swing?

Donald Harrison: Yeah, well the name nouveau swing is a term that describes music that is swing, but it has influences of today's what I call dance music, because I always in the clubs dancing, and then I heard one day that all this stuff is connected, I heard the connection, you know, connecting points.  So I was playing this music in Paris, and a young person came up to me and said, "Oh, you're playing nouveau swing," and I said, "I like that, nouveau swing."  I said, "Can I use that name and you won't be mad at me?"  And he was like, "Yeah, you can use the name," so I started calling it nouveau swing music because it's got a new melt to it because when you put hip hop and swing together it's going to feel different, but I still feel like it's dance music because people still get up and dance sometimes, and I still feel like it's jazz, and I was happy when the first review of Nouveau Swing came out in DownBeat, the critic said, "It is jazz," so he was confirming that it was jazz music <laughs> because I..

Jo Reed: You lived in New York until 1999, but you kept coming to New Orleans, I mean for family obviously, but also for teaching.  You were involved in a mentoring program sponsored by the New Orleans Public School System, and that was a big commitment going back and forth.  Can you talk about why that was so important to you?

Donald Harrison: Well yeah, you know, I taught in college, but by the time they get to college they have their own ideas, and sometimes it's hard for them to take other ideas seriously in college.  So then I realized junior high school students and high school students, they take in more information in that they don't have natural blockers, and then just ingest information and then they take it and do what they want.  So I decided I wanted to teach those ages and just give them as much knowledge of what I had, and to help them to do what they wanted to do in music as well.  So I learned that it was more give and take with the younger musicians and that they were still at a point where they were open to new ideas.  So then I started teaching them, and they started getting scholarships, and they started landing good gigs out of high school, so it was working.  I found out that they were believing in my idea that you should learn all types of music then take it where you want to take it, it was opening up ideas and spreading the gospel, I was doing the work of a jazz messenger <laughs> in another realm.  So I just kept going with it because every year more shiny, bright faces had believed and what they saw in the other students, you know, success breeds success as the older generation would tell me every time they would give me a lesson, pass it on, so I'm doing that.

Jo Reed: You keep teaching and mentoring young musicians, and I do want to talk about some of the great jazz musicians you've mentored, but I have to begin with the unlikely mentee, The Notorious B.I.G., who you worked with when you lived in Brooklyn.  Could you please tell us about him and how you worked with him?

Donald Harrison: Well most people know a young guy in my neighborhood that I used to see all the time as The Notorious B.I.G., but I knew him as Chris, and he would stand on the stoop when he was around 13 years old and engage me like he was 40 years old instead, <laughs> this 13-year-old kid.  So we were just having conversations initially, and then he said he liked music, and he saw that I played music, and we discussed music, and he talked about rap, and I talked about jazz, and then some kind of way we decided that he would come to my house, and in my mind I was going to make him into a jazz musician, in his mind he was going to record some rap music with me <laughs>.  So I was teaching him jazz, and then he started saying he wanted to deal with rap music to me.  So then I said well I'm going to help him put some of the lessons I learned from jazz into rap music, and we worked on that for about five years, he was actually able to put a lot of the ideas that I was telling him about jazz into a rap context, but the thing that's amazing is there's a lot of positive messages in what he's doing that we discussed.  He knew the language of the young people, and I knew the language of positivity, so he knew how to put those messages in there underneath the messages of hard work and to love yourself.  So that's why he has murals everywhere, because the young kids are hearing someone tell them that they're important, so that's the thing that we worked on that he was able to achieve, the positive messages to young people who might be hopeless, maybe it saved a life.

Jo Reed: Yeah.  You moved back to New Orleans in '99, and you've mentored great players, not just great players but great diverse players, players who play a variety of music, and you bring them into your quintets, into your quartets, you play with them, you give them a platform, you did exactly what Blakey did.  People like Max Moran, or Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, or Joe Dyson, and I've seen you perform with these players, and it really is spectacular, you know, it's such a shared stage.  I really would like you to talk about what you tried to impart to them and what it feels like to play with them.

Donald Harrison: Well and I try to choose people who mostly work hard, and who are open, and I find that those types of people their talents will manifest.  So with the ones that have been associated with me, that's what they all do, and I always tell them to take everything seriously, there's a lesson in everything, and to, you know, don't another style of music down because if you try to do it you will learn that it's not as easy as you think, and when you try to do it then you will gain respect for what it is.  Try to dance like Michael Jackson, when you realize that you can't <laughs>, and that it would take a lot of work, you should gain respect for what he's doing because it's very difficult.  Well if you hear anything and you try to do it and it's difficult then it teaches you the importance of everything around you and that there's a lesson in everything if you want to take the lesson, and then some of the other things I teach them is if you learn to do something you can choose not to do it, but if you don't learn it you can't choose to do it, but most times when you learn to do something you do do it <laughs>.  So, you know, these are I mean a few of the simple ideas, and so if you work hard and you're consistent it will manifest, these young people they love the music and they do that, and over time they find their voices and it does come to fruition.

Jo Reed: Well coming to fruition we can take Esperanza Spalding for example, she was your mentee, and it has to be so special then for you to perform on one of her albums, that must be a very, very cool experience for you.

Donald Harrison: Yeah, I mean it's performing on people's records that play with me is beyond compare, Christian Scott, my nephew, I mean he warms my heart to no degree, and Esperanza Spalding, Christian McBride, Jon Batiste, you know, all these guys, Trombone Shorty, being around them and the fact that we really in my estimation love each other is a beautiful thing.  I'm just very fortunate that we were able to share ideas.

Jo Reed: Your commitment to this really deepened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when so many musicians left the city, and you really became such a tireless advocate for the music.  Can you tell about the work that you did that encouraged musicians to stay?  I know for example you began employing high school students in your bands.

Donald Harrison: Yeah, I mean we just try to pass on as much information as we have to musicians, and to get as many opportunities for them as possible, my father he used to call me the pragmatist <laughs>, because I always thought about what was practical and what was needed first, and the first thing you need to do is become proficient.  So with teaching we work on being proficient, and then finding a way to get employment for the young musicians, that's the second part that maybe some people don't really understand, that when you teach people they also need you go out and talk about them and find employment when they live in an area that-- that's another thing, I took to do with the same verb as teaching and to hire some of the young musicians, and to give them as much exposure that helped them understand what it takes to be successful in college, fortunately a lot of them get scholarships.  So all of these different things that you have to figure out how to impart to young people and then let them go about the task.

Jo Reed: Well you're the artistic director for Tipitina's Foundation's internship program.  Can you fill us in a little bit about the foundation and the internship and the opportunities that it gives to students?

Donald Harrison: Yeah, well they were the students who came through the Tipitina's intern program were part of a plan I had to turn musicians into professional musicians by the time they were graduating high school and to give them information that they taught in college so they would be at the junior level if they auditioned for any college.  We had some success in all of those areas with students testing out of the first two years of college or something like that, then getting a full scholarship, so that was the plan, and basically, I was just passing on information I got through all those years of playing with all those great musicians, so it's just a circle.

Jo Reed: What was your idea about the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans cultural group?  You were the founding leader of it.

Donald Harrison: Well as far as I know I coined the term Afro-New Orleans because I was playing with Eddie Palmieri who called his music Afro-Caribbean, and I was around Chucho Valdes who plays Afro-Cuban music, and I was around people who played Afro-Brazilian music, and I knew that we were playing music that was influenced heavily by Africa, so I said, "This is really Afro-New Orleans culture," that's the reason I have the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans group because that's what it really is, so I wanted people to focus on that aspect of New Orleans music and pay homage to these people who were in Congo Square who found a way to transcend everything that they were going through and come up with a beautiful tradition that influenced the world and hopefully one day the recognition of what happened in that place and its contributions to the world will be on the tip of our tongues, and everybody understands that, that is another of my dreams.

Jo Reed: You keep recording and performing as a leader, but you're also with a great jazz supergroup, The Cookers, which includes as luck would have it 2022 Jazz Master, drummer Billy Hart.  Now I want to know how you go with The Cookers, and the other thing I really want you to talk about is you are one of the younger members, so let's discuss.

Donald Harrison: How I got with The Cookers, my understanding of it is this, they called me to go to Europe and play three concerts with them, two or three concerts, so I looked at the members and I was like, "Yes, I want to play," <laughs>.  I actually had to clear some dates to go play with them.  After we finished the three dates they brought me in a dressing room and they said, "You're a member of The Cookers," and I was like, "I am?"  I was auditioning and didn't know I was auditioning <laughs>.  So I mean it's another band, The Cookers, where I'm again being mentored, but they don't speak about mentoring me, they just the way they play <laughs> I’m being mentored, and my classmate for the 2022 NEA Jazz Masters awards Billy Hart is one of the greatest drummers in the history of music, so standing in front of him, I stand in front of him on the bandstand, and hearing all that great music every night I just tell him thank you, because I tell all of them thank you for what they bring to the table, so I feel fortunate, I feel like they are the post- Miles Davis, John Coltrane generation finishing school, it's like playing with guys who came along in the late 60's and 70's, and being part of that like I'm playing in that era, but also moving it forward into today's time, so it's a lot of good things coming out of that and a lot of balance.

Jo Reed: And I also want to talk about your recent work with orchestral music.

Donald Harrison: Well I've been doing collaborations with orchestral music lately.  So I wrote a piece and then I got it recorded by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, it's called "Congo Square."  It starts with a chant, then the second movement is classical music influenced by Congo Square, and the third movement is the jazz band with the orchestra where the music is influenced by classical music and Congo Square and jazz merged together.  When I get the money I'll work on the fourth movement where we add the cultural participants inside the music, but that's where it is right now.

Jo Reed: I look forward to hearing that.  You were also a consultant to the T.V. series Treme, and appeared in it, and there were actually not one but two characters that echo your experience, one character could not encompass it.  Talk about your experiences working on that show, and what parts of your life are reflected in it, and I understand it's fiction.

Donald Harrison: Well Treme was in my estimation one of the only shows that let musicians play their music as they played it, and it was focused on doing that, and I'm happy to say that David Simon and I worked on that aspect of the show together, and that we talked to each other about how many great musicians we could get into the series.  He had been following me, unbeknownst to me, and the first time I met him I think I was playing in New York, and he came to me and said, "I'm doing The Wire, and we love your music," and then he said, "You have any music we could put in The Wire?"  And he did, and then a little later he came to me and said, "We're going to do a show about New Orleans, and we want you to be a part of it, and there are going to be two characters based on you <laughs>, and you're going to work as a consultant."  I was like "Huh?  What?  Yes <laughs>."  So then we started working together, and we were able to put this show together called Treme that tried to talk about the things that were happening in New Orleans and highlight the great music from New Orleans and tell stories of how it is and how we could look at it to make it a better place.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you finally, what does it mean for you to be named an NEA Jazz Master?

Donald Harrison: Well, being named an NEA Jazz Master is one of the greatest honors that a jazz musician can have, and when you look at the list of musicians who have been awarded this honor, it's mind boggling in the contribution to the universe.  This music that we call jazz is one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind, and I always said, "I don't want to be the greatest, I just want to be the greatest me," and if I can get close to achieving what some of these great artists like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, if I can get a small percentage of that understanding in what I do it means a lot because they have stretched the possibilities to the stratosphere, they have opened up every possibility in the music that there is.  The ideal of being the best you can and knowing as much as you can sets the precedent, there's not too many things that I see where that is the ideal, those are the ideals, the music is saying be the best that you can be, the music is saying work as hard as you can, the music is saying give everything you've got.

Jo Reed: And I think that is a good place to leave it.  My heartfelt congratulations, and thanks for everything you do, for the wonderful music that you make, and the wonderful musicians that you mentor.  Thank you.

Donald Harrison: Thank you.

Jo Reed: That is the recipient of the 2022 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, Donald Harrison.  Mark your calendars for March 31—that’s when 2022 Jazz Masters will be celebrated. Keep checking for more information or follow us at NEAArts on twitter.  You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts—follow us on Apple or Google play and then leave us a rating—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.

Music Credit:

“NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

"New York Second Line" from the album New York Second Line, composed by Donald Harrison, performed by the Terence Blanchard/Donald Harrison Quintet. Concord, 1983

"Nouveau Swing," from the album Nouveau Swing, composed by Donald Harrison, performed by Donald Harrison et al. Impulse!, 1996.

Saxophone Improvisation, performed by Donald Harrison, September 2021, New Orleans



Donald Harrison, Jr. may have been named a 2022 NEA Jazz Master for his advocacy work, but this hard-swinging improvisational saxophonist is also a brilliant player as evidenced by his performances and recordings with musicians like Ron Carter Terence Blanchard, Miles Davis Lena Horne, Eddie Palmieri the Notorious B.I.G., and the powerhouse jazz group the Cookers.  Yet, Harrison’s passion for preserving and celebrating the music and culture of his hometown New Orleans is unmatched.  He founded the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group to honor the cultures brought from Africa that found root in New Orleans and then traveled the world. Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Harrison, who had been a dedicated teacher and mentor for young musicians, increased his activism and worked tirelessly to help musicians remain in the city.  An intentional and avid student of some of the jazz greats, Harrison has devoted himself to passing down the lessons he’s learned to younger musicians. And he has mentored some extraordinary jazz artists including Jon Batiste, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Trombone Shorty, and Esperanza Spaulding. And in this podcast, Harrison talks about it all—from the importance of Congo Square to New Orleans and to jazz, to his playing with and learning from Art Blakey and Roy Haynes,  his commitment to learning music from all the eras of jazz and passing that knowledge along to his students, and, of course, his thoughts about the music itself.

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