Part II of II (Click here to read Part I.)
In-demand alto saxophonist, educator, composer, innovator and a member of the Mardi Gras Indians’ culture, Donald Harrison says he’s a boundary-free jazz musician that evolved from being born in multi-cultured New Orleans. Harrison created “Nouveau Swing,” jazz that merges with R&B, hip hop, rock and soul. He’s played with symphonies and jazz greats: Miles Davis, Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Lena Horne and Dr. John.
What tune would you play for someone not familiar with jazz?
Maybe I’d play my tune I wrote to help people understand, New Hope, and Mr. Cool Breeze, a vocal thing I did in New Orleans about jazz. They put it on public TV. Then kids started calling me the Nouveau Swing guy; I have a line, “This is Nouveau Swing.” They’d come up to me and say “Mr. Nouveau Swing,” so I knew it was something that if it got to the public the right way, people would pick up on. It was surprising that I couldn’t walk around without kids walking up to me and singing “Mr. Nouveau Swing.” That made me happy.
Please complete this sentence: The other day I heard this tune ______ and decided to add it to my repertoire because ______. I hear so much music I can’t even begin to expound upon it! [laugh] What I’ve been listening to is trap music, the rhythm of rhyming and putting the music together with hip hop – I sort of know the history of hip hop – and how different beats came along. Trap is the most modern version of hip hop, so adding this version to hip hop. My thought is jazz is about going to the highest level, so I try to look for the silver lining in things and reach for that with music, instead of what many are trying to do with trap music.
Other than the alto saxophone, what instrument do you appreciate the most?
Drums and piano. Both are percussive instruments. The piano has all the orchestra possible at the fingertips. You can also see all notes on the piano. When you’re teaching, as I do, it has that visual element, the notes.
What musical era would you like to have been a part of?
The 1920s. Everything was being formed. Jazz music had become a style that was taking over the world at that time. All the key players that were putting it together were alive at that time, except maybe Buddy Bolden. Those guys – King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and the rest of the really important people – were playing America’s music and, later, of the world. They were putting those sounds together, taking everything around them and creating a new genre of music that had blues, soul, African elements, European elements and forming a new process to relate to the music. It was an exciting time.
You pay homage to those older musicians who taught you so much; what do you teach your students?
“All I want to do is show you guys everything I know. Hopefully, you’ll practice, get it together and you’ll take it where you have to take it for yourself. Be yourself and hopefully you’ll have a career where you can maintain yourself financially, and play the music you want to play in your lifetime. Spread some love, some knowledge, wisdom, and make people happy all over the world. May have to pay some dues like I had to do to get a little freedom in life, but if you’re willing to do it, it’ll probably pay off for you. Like a bank account, you can’t take out what you didn’t put in.”