Accomplished Jazz Saxophonist Makes Major Acting Debut

International Musician, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Accomplished Jazz Saxophonist Makes Major Acting Debut


Growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, music, jazz music in particular, has always been part of the fabric of Donald Harrison's life. One of the earliest jazz memories this saxophonist of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) has is when his father would play the 1942 bebop tune "Salt Peanuts" to calm him and his rambunctious siblings down. "We would start singing along and then he would go back to reading the paper," Harrison says with a chuckle.

When Harrison was still a child, his father, the late Donald Harrison, Sr., a legendary Congo Nation Big Chief in New Orleans, bought him his first saxophone, which he played for one year but, like many young people, decided to move on. But Grover Washington's hit, "Mister Magic," inspired him to dust off his saxophone when he was a junior in high school. After perfecting the song, and realizing "the girls sort of liked it, as well as the musicians" Harrison joined his high school band and never put down the saxophone again.

In 1979 Harrison relocated to New York City. He has played with the likes of Art Blakey, Doc Paulin, McCoy Tyner, and Miles Davis, but his early "jazz heroes" were Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Parker and Coltrane made him appreciate jazz on a whole new level. "I grew to love how difficult and beautiful it was," Harrison says. "It was so beautiful, in fact, that I couldn't grasp it. I gained a tremendous respect for it."

Returning to New Orleans 10 years later, Harrison says there is no other music culture like The Big Easy's. "It is the only place in the world where jazz is part of everyday life," he says. Harrison feels a special connection to Congo Square, famous for its African American music. Following in his father's footsteps, Harrison is now Chief of the Congo Nation, helping to keep alive the secret traditions of Congo Square.

The history of the area also inspires Harrison's music, including his 2002 album, Spirits of Congo Square. "I've always been an advocate for Congo Square," Harrison says. "Studying the history of drum patterns, singing, and response chants of the area is so important."

Harrison looks at music as a big tapestry with threads woven together. He rejects the idea that every style of music has its own box. "I take different styles of music from different sounds and weave them together," Harrison says. "In all types of music, there is a connection and when it all comes together it becomes its own sound."

Recently Harrison took on a new endeavor when he was cast to play himself in the Jonathan Demme film, Rachel Getting Married. …

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