Part I of II (Click here to read Part II).
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.
Why is Congo Square considered by many New Orleans musicians to be sacrosanct?
Congo Square was the only place of African descent where slaves were allowed to participate in and practice their homeland tribal culture and music. That developed into the root music for jazz, some aspects of funk, soul, and new gospel music. I always hear African percussion music, as a rule, in the culture; without that knowledge and understanding of jazz and rituals, without that root, I wouldn’t play like I play.
And Congo Square is an integral part of your sound?
Twelve years ago I went back to Congo Square where the music originally started. I consider myself a part of the Afro-New Orleans music of today.
You’ve accomplished so much, what’s your philosophy?
My heart is in understanding that the ideal of jazz is to be the best that you can be and to understand everything. I haven’t found that with other genres. I don’t think Jay Z will sit at the piano for endless hours to learn classical music and jazz music, but I’ll try to learn what Jay Z is doing. Charlie Parker incorporated that as well and John Coltrane played bar tenor jump music. Charlie Parker played the blues, even though some people put him down. He also did records with Slam Steward doing jive talk, an early version of rap music, and he listened to classical. That’s why he was who he was.
If you could sit down and talk to a musician on the Other Side, who would it be?
My holy trinity of the saxophone is Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Sidney Bechet said Congo Square was the most important thing in his music. I understand the culture and know what it’s about and can use it. The long-timers reveal the inside of music to you that you can hear, but you’ll never know. They put stuff from Congo Square in early jazz. When I listen to music of the ‘20s, ‘30s, I can hear it in there. It’s a mind-blowing experience every time I hear it.
You’re from NOLA, so here’s a food question: What food goes best with jazz?
Jazz is “whatever you like, you put with it.” I think gumbo, because it’s inclusive and it’s a traditional food, a specific food, but you can add anything you like in there. Even have had people make a hot dog gumbo. They liked it but I wasn’t particularly good with it, but they liked it.