Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Harrison, Donald (Jr.)

Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison rose to prominence as a member of groups led by drummers Roy Haynes and Art Blakey, and has gone on to adopt a multi-faceted approach to jazz which is enriched by the traditions of his native New Orleans, yet welcomes contemporary styles.

Donald Harrison Jr. was born on June 23, 1960 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Donald’s father, Donald Harrison Sr., was known as “Big Chief.” His father was a dancer and singer who would often perform with the Guardians of Flame Indian tribe during Mardi Gras festivities.

Harrison first became interested in music through his father’s artistic pursuits, often performing with his father in different activities. Upon first listening to jazz, Donald found inspiration in the work of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. He was drawn to these artists by the originality in their musical voices

Donald studied music at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, which was managed by pianist Ellis Marsalis. While attending school, he performed with trumpeter Terence Blanchard in local rhythm 'n' blues bands, and marched in a brass band under the leadership of trumpeter Doc Paulin.

Upon graduating, Harrison attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a year before transferring to the Berklee School of Music in 1979. While living in Boston, Donald led a trio that included pianist and fellow Berklee student Makoto Ozone. In 1980, he joined a group led by drummer Roy Haynes, forming an association which would last into the 1990s.

The following year, Harrison performed with organist Brother Jack McDuff. In 1982, Harrison moved to New York City to further his career, where he and Terence Blanchard replaced saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in Art Blakey’s The Jazz Messengers. Harrison’s recording debut with Blakey was the 1982 album Oh, By the Way, which featured Blanchard, pianist Johnny O’Neal, tenor saxophonist Bill Pierce and bassist Charles Fambrough.

While still performing with Blakey, Harrison and Blanchard began to lead their own quintet. Upon graduating from Berklee in 1983, Harrison recorded the album New York Second Line with Blanchard, pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. The group continued to record while performing with Blakey, releasing the album Discernment in 1984.

Harrison spent 1985 recording and touring with Blakey, culminating in the live video Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Live at Ronnie Scott’s. During this time, Donald continued to find work as a sideman and recorded with drummer Tony Williams and pianist Don Pullen.

In late 1985, Harrison decided to leave Blakey in order to expand his career as a leader.

In January 1986, he performed on Blanchard’s album Nascense on Columbia Records. In October of 1986, Harrison and Blanchard sought to recreate the repertoire of alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy and trumpeter Booker Little, culminating with the release of the live album Eric Dolphy & Booker Little Remembered Live at Sweet Basil. For the project, they were able to reunite the original Dolphy/Little rhythm section of drummer Ed Blackwell, bassist Richard Davis and pianist Mal Waldron.

In December 1986, Harrison received a call stating that trumpeter Miles Davis was interested in having him join his band. Donald went to the trumpeter's home, where he received CDs of music to learn, and was hired without an audition. His first gig with the group was in Syracuse, New York where he shared the stage with saxophonist Bob Berg. Donald ultimately decided to leave Davis's group to focus on his own group.

In the late 1980s, Harrison began to receive work performing on soundtracks and scores for movies. In 1988, Donald played on the soundtrack to director Clint Eastwood’s movie Bird. The same year, he performed on the score to director Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing.

In 1989, the quintet Harrison co-led with Blanchard broke up amidst contract disputes with CBS Records, which had originally signed Harrison as a solo artist. The same year, Donald began to perform with Blakey once again while continuing to pursue a freelance career. The following year, he continued his association with Spike Lee by serving as a technical consultant for his movie Mo' Better Blues.

In 1991, Harrison formed a quartet that included pianist Stephen Scott, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Carl Allen. The same year, Harrison traveled to Bahia, Brazil with guitarist Larry Coryell and drummer Billy Cobham to make the video Larry Coryell: Live from Bahia.

Harrison continued to explore his New Orleans roots in 1991 with the release of his album Indian Blues. The album was an attempt to capture the music of Congo Square, the legendary park in New Orleans where slaves were allowed to dance and perform music. The album featured contributions from Carl Allen, bassist Phil Bowler, pianist Dr. John and Donald’s father on vocals.

Around 1992, Harrison performed with pianist Eddie Palmieri in a group that included trumpeter Brian Lynch and trombonist Conrad Herwig. In 1994, Donald performed in director Richie Namm’s concert video An Evening with Lena Horne alongside the famed singer. In the mid 1990s, Donald rejoined Roy Haynes’ group before leaving to focus on his own quartet.

A highlight of his time with Haynes was the recording of the albumTe Vou!Released in 1994, the album featured Christian McBride, pianist Dave Kikoski and guitarist Pat Metheny. On “James,” Harrison and Metheny effortlessly combine their tones giving the melody a round and full musical contour. Donald’s refined sound is further augmented by Haynes’ performance where he adds slight rhythmic articulations to support him.

On August 22, 1997, Donald released his debut album for Impulse! Records entitled Nouveau Swing. The title comes from a type of music that Harrison created that takes jazz and combines it with contemporary dance music. The album included Allen, McBride, and pianist Albert Wonsey

Harrison spent that late 1990s and early 2000s writing and recording with his group, where he experimented with everything from smooth jazz to hip hop. In January 2005, Harrison performed on Palmieri’s album Listen Here! A shining example of Donald’s work on the album is the ensemble’s rendition of pianist Thelonious Monk’s song “In Walked Bud.”

Harrison proves to be especially skillful with the Latin feel of this version, by adding a smooth harmonic color to the melody. During his solo, Donald employs a variety of rhythmic structures including short staccato bursts and extended sixteenth-note phrases. The implementation of several rhythmic designs makes for a surprising and exciting solo.

In 2007, Harrison was awarded the Arts Council of New Orleans Community Arts Award for his exceptional contributions to the arts community in New Orleans. Jazziz magazine also named him "Person of the Year" because of his longstanding commitment to arts education.

On August 25, 2008, Harrison released his latest album The Chosen. The album features several originals as well as covers of “Mr. P.C.” by John Coltrane and “If I Were A Bell” by composer Frank Loesser.

The same year, Harrison appeared in director Jonathan Demme’s movie Rachel Getting Married as a fictionalized version of himself. Donald contributed the song “Rachel Loves Sidney” to the soundtrack. 2008 also saw Donald being named the “Ambassador of Music” by the Big Easy Music Awards.

The following year, Donald performed on organist Dr. Lonnie Smith’s album Rise Up! On the song “Come Together,” Harrison provides a powerful back round line behind Smith’s interpretation of the melody that easily pops out of the arrangement. Donald displays an advanced intelligence of funk styles by employing more fluid legato lines that play off of the smooth timbre of the organ.

Harrison maintains a prolific performance and recording schedule with his current group, Congo Nation.

Select Discography

As a leader

Black Pearl (1988)

Full Circle (1990)

For Art’s Sake (1990)

The Power of Cool (1993)

Nouveau Swing (1997)

Free to Be (1999)

Spirits of Congo Square (2000)

Kind of New (2002)

Heroes (2004)

Survivor (2006)

The Chosen (2008)

With Art Blakey

Oh, By the Way (1982)

New York Scene (1984)

Blue Night (1985)

Live at Ronnie Scott’s (1985)

With Terence Blanchard

New York Second Line (1983)

Discernment (1984)

Eric Dolphy & Booker Little Remembered Live at Sweet Basil (1986)

Crystal Stair (1987)

With Roy Haynes

Te Vou! (1994)

With Eddie Palmieri

Listen Here! (2005)

With Don Pullen

The Sixth Sense (1985)

Dr. Lonnie Smith

Rise Up! (2009)

With Tony Williams

Foreign Intrigue (1985)

Contributor: Eric Wendell