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American Routes Shortcuts: Donald Harrison Jr.

Donald Harrison Jr.
Donald Harrison Jr.

Donald Harrison is known as a modern jazz saxophonist here in New Orleans, and although he grew up hearing parades and funerals in his youth, his major influence was at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, under his teachers like Kidd Jordan and Alvin Batiste. Harrison spent years in New York City as one of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and later co-lead a modern jazz band in New York with New Orleans trumpet player Terence Blanchard. But Harrison never forgot his New Orleans roots…a place where jazz is still dance music. He also came home to his father Donald Harrison, Sr.’s traditions of song and street performance, suited up in sequins and feathers as a Mardi Gras Indian chief leading the Guardians of the Flame. Donald Harrison told me that his rooted, but worldly musical eclecticism began at home. 

Donald Harrison: We learned a lot, read a lot of books, and also participated in all of New Orleans culture, and listened to music from Hank Williams to Charlie Parker and African drumming and Ravi Shankar to Bach and Brahms.

NS: What is it that actually gets you to pick up a horn or whatever you pick up and say, you know, “I want to play that.”

DH: When I was in high school, Grover Washington had a big hit out called “Mister Magic.” So I picked the saxophone up and started learning “Mister Magic,” and I came home and told my father I knew “Mister Magic,”and he said, “Yeah, that’s really great. You remember Charlie Parker?” I said, “Yeah, yeah.” He said, “Play that.” So he put it on, and I was like, “Oh!”


DH: That’s when I really became immersed in trying to learn how to play jazz.

NS: How did you meet up with the great drummer and bandleader Art Blakey?

DH: Well, I had a teacher by the name of Bill Pierce. He was with Art Blakey. So they came to town, and I think Wynton Marsalis was in the band at that point too. So I was hanging out backstage, just talking, and Bill says, “Art, I want you to meet someone,” and I guess I was around eighteen years old. So Art Blakey immediately says, “Where’s your horn?” I was like, “Oh, I left it at the dormitory.” He tells me to go get it, and you don’t say no to Art Blakey. I go and get my horn and sit in with the band. He told me, “Yeah, you can play, man. I’ll be calling you sometime in the future.” And so, I guess when the Marsalis brothers were leaving, they held an audition in New York, and Terence and I were chosen by the maestro.

NS: Terence Blanchard.

DH: Yeah, Terence Blanchard.

NS: Your fellow New Orleanian on trumpet.

DH: We joined Art’s band.


DH: Art had a keen sense of who had potential, and he gave everybody a shot, you know. That’s what I love about him.


NS: I’m looking at a photograph of you and Terence Blanchard, you know, you look like two young lions. Through the ‘80s, you and Terence really worked hard together to make an awful lot of music. Tell me about your association with Terence. He’s on trumpet of course, and you’re on the alto sax, I guess, mainly.

DH: It’s a special spark that I think we can give each other. Things happen that don’t happen with anyone else but him.

NS: I noticed when I listened over to some of the tracks you all had worked on, I mean for example you’ve got a tune called “Birth of the Abstract” [laughs] referencing Miles Davis and I suppose referencing-

DH: Blues and the Abstract Truth, Oliver Nelson.

NS: Oliver Nelson. So you’ve got “Birth of the Abstract,” which sounds kind of like it’s titled.

DH: Yeah it’s actually my musical representation of Picasso. It’s cubism, they’re in their own little boxes. So the drummer’s in his own space, but he’s still with the bass player. We’re together, but we’re all in different compartments.


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