Jazz Fest Minutes: Words and Music with Donald Harrison, Jr.

Apr 11, 2013

Donald Harrison, Jr. — saxophonist and Mardi Gras Indian chief.

Saxophonist, composer and Mardi Gras Indian Chief Donald Harrison, Jr. started learning about Mardi Gras Indian culture firsthand and early.

“The first time I put on a suit was at two years old for the Creole Wild West," Harrison said. I was a little chief of the Creole Wild West. I had on a dark blue and white suit my father made for me. I remember them running and going fast up and down in feathers, flying and singing.”

He says his mother talks about how he used to play drums on his crib. "They should have gotten me a drum set instead of a saxophone," he said. "I think I have a natural affinity for rhythm.”

And a thorough grounding in the powerful connection between music and dance.

“One of the great things was that my mother used to make us dance the popular dances. So some kind of way that got into my psyche that you should also play music. When I started to play, it makes you want to dance.”

Harrison started playing alto sax at 10 years old, and made a couple of key musical connections while still in his teens. The first: joining Doc Paulin's brass band.

“Dr. Michael White was playing clarinet at the time. I stayed close to him. I was like, that sounds like the right stuff right there — I’ll try to stay close to him and steal every note possible.”

The next, hooking up in New York with drummer Roy Haynes.

“I joined his band when I was 19," Harrison said. "The great thing about truly brilliant musicians is they never stop growing. He’s one of those guys who every day is, it’s going to be fresh. It’s phenomenal to be around that. I was around Roy for 15 years.”

Donald Harrison, Jr. plays Jazz Fest with his band Friday, April 26, then takes part in a Sidney Bechet tribute Saturday, April 27. He’s also set to sit in with the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra.