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American Routes Shortcuts: Donald Harrison

Donald Harrison

This is American Routes Live from Marigny Studios with jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison and Quintet. I talked with Donald between songs about his life in music, from growing up in New Orleans to playing with Art Blakey in New York, and putting his own stamp on modern jazz.

Donald Harrison: Well, I realized in high school, two things happened. One, I read Charlie Parker’s quote, “If you didn’t live it, it won't come out of your horn,” and it had a profound effect on me. I realized that since I came from New Orleans, and all of the generations who innovated jazz were still alive, I made it my mission to go live playing with every generation of jazz masters to be good enough to play with them. And some kind of way I was fortunate and got some luck, and I was able to play with all of those generations. And then I started hearing that everything is connected and the connections between all the music.

Nick Spitzer: Well, your family is special in the city. I mean I've heard the stories of your mom and dad playing records and talking it all over and the power and importance of raising your consciousness. Say a little bit about your mom and dad.

DH: One thing is that we listened to all types of music at home, and I never felt the need to not like a kind of a style of music. You know, we listened to music, the UNESCO series of African music, Ravi Shankar and Indian music, musicals, everything, every era of jazz, “Mr. Big Stuff,” Etta James, everybody, Charlie Pride, you know.

NS: Did you say Charlie Pride or Charlie Parker?

DH: Charlie Parker, and Charlie Pride. And Maceo Parker. I told Maceo I call him and Charlie Parker the Parker brothers. And he's one of the fathers of funk saxophone.

NS: Oh just amazing.

DH: Yeah he's a force of nature as Charlie Parker was. And he's my hero.

NS: Quite a family there. I mean you all have been able to cut many paths, and you've helped New Orleanians of all kinds raise their consciousness and their way of thinking about their humanity and how different we are and how connected we are at the same time. It's an amazing service the Harrisons have provided us.

DH: You know, you just get up and do your best. I always say my motto is, do my best and get out of the way. So, you know if you get up every day and you did your best, and that's all you can ask of yourself and anybody else can ask of you. And these gentlemen, they’re a testament to hard work. My family– look at my two nephews, three nephews, and my daughter; they're all hard workers. And you can see–my nephew plays trumpet, Christian Scott, he also started in this band.

NS: Amazing Christian Scott.

DH: A lot of young guys, and we’re still like a family. We got a gigantic family now. NS: Well three of the folks you got here in the younger generation are your students. I mean, in the same sense you learn from your mom and dad and Art Blakey and all the different people you went out in the world with, they've learned from you.

DH: Yeah. We learn from each other because they know a lot of stuff, so sometimes I'm asking them questions. “Did you hear this?” And they say, “yeah, man.” They play it for me and show me how, and we put things together. So I'm passing down what I learned from the old masters, and they’re teaching me the stuff that the young people are doing. So it's a simpatico.

NS: Yeah. Well speaking of–I'm not going to say speaking of old masters, but maybe not a student necessarily, you’ve got Detroit Brooks down here.

Detroit Brooks: If you’re around Donald, you’re a student, because you're always learning, he's always giving out information. You know he's uh, the Art Blakey of New Orleans.

NS: I mean it's interesting to me that, you know, you're an explorer too. You grew up with trad, I'm assuming, but you were out here playing with the complete Harrison rainbow of sound.

DB: Yeah. Well, I was blessed because I grew up gospel, basically, from the gospel background, and I got to meet Donald through Willie Tee. And I mean this has been a blessing in my life.

NS: Donald, what do we got coming up here?

DH: Well we were talking about Charlie Parker, and this is a song I wrote for him. It's called “One For Bird.” Original title was “Christopher Jr.” but many people didn't know that his middle name was Christopher and that he had a suffix Jr. So I said, “Let's call it ‘One for Bird.’ They'll get it then.”

NS; Yeah. Bird. Everybody knows Bird.

DH: You ready?

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at