Remember the Time:
Wendell Harrison represents for Detroit’s golden Era
Robo-Robb, Real Detroit Weekly
December 7, 2011
Think of a time before jazz was a legitimate form of music; a time before high schools and universities taught jazz standards. This was an era where jazz musicians trained in classical forms of music, studying artists like Beethoven and Mozart. Wendell Harrison was no exception.
Playing bebop with his classmates in his free time, Harrison spent his hours in school studying music notation. At the age of six he started learning piano until his grandfather gave him a clarinet as a Christmas present. At 17, he was sitting in sessions with a young Marvin Gaye and perfecting the skills that would earn Detroit its reputation for being the home to the finest musicians in the universe. Mastering various instruments and writing poetry, Harrison is truly a treasure to the city of Detroit.
In the 1960s, after completing school at Detroit’s Music Conservatory, Wendell took off to New York City. His bandmates had convinced him to make the move, after which he immediately found work playing with the likes of Grant Green, Big Maybelle, Hank Crawford and Sun Ra (to name a few). And, much unlike some of his contemporaries, Harrison’s education didn’t stop after leaving the Conservatory. When I spoke with him he was in the middle of scoring music. Wendell’s experiences and curiosity have ensured him a long lasting career in jazz music, not only as a player, but also as an innovator and mentor to others. I was particularly interested in his work with Sun Ra. It was Harrison’s work with Sun Ra that not only added an “avant garde Chicago raw expression” to his repertoire, but exposed him to the future of the music industry through self-publishing and independent music promotion. Harrison refers to the attitude and expression in the songs of Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Sun Ra as rebellious, and “a soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement.”
Leaving New York City to hit the road, he recalls the real segregation that musicians faced while entertaining crowds in the South. As the ’60s turned into the ’70s, he began working with a more diverse group of musicians and promoters who started to embrace the jazz sound, making the genre a more lucrative one. The golden era of jazz may seem distant, but Harrison continues to work with contemporary musicians such as Amp Fiddler, Will Sessions, Carl Craig and even contributed to Proof’s album Searching for Jerry Garcia. He has traveled the world from Africa to Europe to the Middle East and back again. He has also been awarded the nation’s highest honor a musician can receive from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Besides his fascination with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, he voiced a desire for young musicians to “study some of the older art forms of Jazz, which is like a Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Clifford Brown.” He recommends that all musicians “copyright everything so that if you write or create something, you own it … when you write or produce something send it into Washington before you even record it.” It has been years since his last project but Harrison is finally back with his new album, It’s About Damn Time, further proving that while the golden era has passed, the lasting impressions it’s left on its fans and the musicians it’s inspired continues on.
It’s About Damn Time
David Whiteis, JazzTimes
October 24, 2011
Listen to the funked-up take on Clifford Brown’s “Dahoud,” or the hip-hop- and soul-flavored “Love Juice,” and one thing becomes clear: This set showcases reedist Wendell Harrison’s non-elitist aesthetics. He’s been criticized for this eclecticism, and occasionally his juxtapositions can sound forced. (“Love Juice,” with its raw, sexual lyrical content over a background that skews quiet storm, is a main offender.) For the most part, though, the musical and emotional integrity here makes this journey more exhilarating than jarring.
Damon Warmack’s funk basslines set an appropriately streetsy mood for Harrison, who borrows a few JBs-like licks along the way to emphasize the point. His tenor saxophone tone is clean and often mellow but he coarsens it when appropriate, and his percussive phrasing accentuates toughness and grit, especially on funkified workouts like “Urban Expressions.” Guitarist Vaughn Klugh’s slag-metal solos sometimes approach rocked-out overkill, but his Johnny Heartsman-like moans and soul chording provide atmospheric, full-bodied support for his compatriots’ frontline work.
Several offerings here recast creations originally recorded with synthesized rhythm tracks: “Pojo,” “Urban Expression” and “Lord Not Another Lover” were included on Harrison’s Urban Expression in 2004, and the sensual thrust and creative spark of flesh-and-blood percussionists (Dan Schmatz, Gayelynn McKinney) improves things immensely. (Elsewhere, drummer Djallo Djakate propels “Dahoud” and the funk ballad “Take Time Out,” which features vocalist Linda Boston.)
Wendell Harrison, who turns 69 in October, has obviously retained a young man’s sense of exploration and adventure, even as his muse has been enriched by wisdom and experience—to say nothing of the righteous struggles for justice he’s been involved with over the years. The range he displays here—from the alley into the bistro; from uncompromisingly adult jazz sophistication to pop-sheened ironic detachment—is sometimes challenging. But for listeners with big ears, it’s more than worth the effort.
Wendell Harrison, “It’s About Damn Time”
Edward Blanco, eJazzNews
August 2, 2011
Detroit jazz legend, saxophonist Wendell Harrison releases his first album in seven years with the very dynamic “It’s About Damn Time” presenting variations of straight jazz, hard funk and soulful rhythms. The founder of the 1970’s Tribe records Detroit jazz collective as well as Rebirth, Inc., a non-profit jazz performance and education organization, Harrison is a lively saxophonist, composer, educator and entrepreneur with more than a dozen albums to his credit as leader.
Except for Clifford Brown’s magical standard “Daahoud,” and “Take Time Out” by Pamela Wise—Harrison’s wife—the ten-piece repertoire is all original material from the saxophonist. Using a piano-less core quartet for the majority of the tunes, Harrison invites guitarist Vaughn Klugh, bassist Damon Warmack and percussionist Dan Schmatz for this project. Amp Fiddler graces the album on keyboards and vocals on the soulful “Love Juice,” while Linda Boston does the vocals on “Take Time Out.”
The funky style is evident on such tracks as the opening “Urban Expressions,” Love Juice,” and the fast-pace “Lord Not Another Lover.” “First Love” and “Pojo” fall in the straight- ahead jazz category along with the best piece on the album, “Where Am I,” where the saxophonist is especially pronounced on a tender tenor solo. Though it has been seven long years since saxophonist Wendell Harrison has produced another jazz outing as leader, “It’s About Damn Time” is certainly well worth the wait. Harrison is prolific on the sax and his compositions are inviting to say the least, a testament to this legend’s staying power.
Wendell Harrison does things his way
Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press
July 28, 2011
“Here’s my thing,” says Wendell Harrison, describing his personal manifesto.
“People can help themselves. You can do it yourself rather than wait for
somebody else to do it for you. That’s been my whole way of life. I don’t make a
lot of money, but at least I’m in control of what I do.”
Harrison, a Detroit-born tenor saxophonist, clarinetist, composer,
entrepreneur and educator, is celebrating the release of “It’s About Damn Time,”
his first CD in seven years. At 68, he’s best known as a cofounder of Tribe, the
legendary Detroit jazz collective that came together in the early ’70s in a
strong-willed act of African-American self-determination, connecting the dots
between music, social justice and community building.
Tribe was a remarkable chapter in Detroit cultural history, and it still
resonates. Ever the strategist, Harrison has cut roughly 18 licensing deals
since the ’90s on behalf of Tribe to reissue vintage recordings on small labels
in England, Europe, Japan and America. Deals range from $500 per single to
$2,500 per album. These records, along with recent collaborations led by Detroit
techno pioneer Carl Craig, have raised Harrison’s profile, lassoing fans smitten
by the Midas touch of Detroit musicians and prompting adulatory retrospectives
in the specialty press.
Yet Harrison’s creative life transcends Tribe, sweeping through a career
lasting more than 50 years, including the better part of the 1960s in New York
and on the road. He has played bebop and post-bop, R&B and funk, dabbled in
free jazz and led a unique clarinet choir. His resume includes work with bluesy
modernist guitar hero Grant Green, grits ‘n’ gravy saxophonist Hank Crawford and
Sun Ra, an avant-garde icon.
Under the umbrella of Rebirth, the nonprofit organization dedicated to jazz
that he founded after Tribe disbanded in 1977, Harrison has recorded more than a
dozen albums as a leader, written method books, led in-school programs and
produced countless concerts and live radio broadcasts featuring visiting stars.
The recession has cut Rebirth’s annual budget by half to about $40,000, but
Harrison soldiers on.
“Wendell never rests,” says trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, a key member of Tribe.
“He’s always on a quest. His energy is a gift.”
A strong second act
It has been a bumpy ride at times, and one way to look at Harrison’s life is
as a morality play in two acts. A debilitating addiction to heroin nearly closed
the show before intermission, but since overcoming drugs and returning to
Detroit in 1970, his career blossomed in ways that no one, least of all
Harrison, might have predicted.
Harrison lives in a towering, cluttered house just east of Woodward near New
Center that he shares with his second wife, Pamela Wise, a pianist and Rebirth
executive director. There’s a cramped recording studio in the basement and a
first-floor den crammed with a piano, his recent and reissued CDs, old Tribe LP
covers and a gaggle of framed awards and citations.
On a nearby table rests a textbook, “American Politics and the
African-American Quest for Universal Freedom,” that Harrison is reading for a
class he’s taking at Wayne County Community College. “I always have to keep my
mind active,” he says.
On this blisteringly hot afternoon, Harrison wears shorts and a T-shirt. A
big man, he is built a bit like a former linebacker, but his countenance is
gentle, and when he smiles his eyes light up and dimples dance across his round
“It’s About Damn Time” finds Harrison in a populist mode, his gutsy tenor
boogying on top of dance rhythms, vamps and electric bass and guitar. His solos
have a homespun, sometimes quirky character, favoring visceral exhortations over
technical fireworks and flashy harmony. The breezy melodies, grooves and
circumscribed improvisations lack the experimental edge of Tribe, and Harrison
says the music is pitched at younger fans who have recently discovered his
vintage records or his work with Craig.
For once, Harrison did not have to finance the project himself, finding a
patron in John Shetler, a 31-year-old Detroit jazz fan who sells automotive
paint for Sherwin-Williams and does a weekly jazz show on AM 1610 (The Station)
in Hamtramck. Shelter says Harrison knows what he wants, but at this point in
his life he welcomed letting someone else do the heavy lifting of production,
marketing and financing.
Harrison was born to highly educated parents. His mother was a Detroit
teacher with a master’s degree; his father, a PhD, taught sociology at Southern
University in Baton Rouge, La. His mother and grandfather pushed music lessons
as a way to instill discipline in Harrison, an excitable child. He started piano
at 5, clarinet at 8 and alto sax at 13.
He fell in love with jazz, and played well enough by 15 that he began
studying with the great pianist Barry Harris, a bebop guru and key mentor on the
Detroit scene. Harrison left for New York at age 18 in 1960.
He never became famous but he worked steadily in many idioms — jazz, blues,
R&B, Latin. But in 1963, while traveling with Hank Crawford, the grind and
boredom of the road and the proximity to junkies in the band proved a volatile
cocktail. “I’m thinking I’m young and strong and can’t be defeated,” says
Harrison. “At first it was once a week, then every other day, then every day.
When I got back to New York, I had a habit.”
He struggled with heroin for five years, retreating into hospitals on several
occasions. Finally, he entered Synanon, the controversial drug rehabilitation
and residential center in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1967 and stayed 2 1/2 years.
Though Synanon imploded in the ’70s in the wake of cultish paranoia and criminal
behavior among its leaders, its methods — an isolated campus, tough love,
individual and group therapy, including the notorious Synanon “game,” a form of
attack therapy in which patients released pent-up hostilities in brutal verbal
sessions — worked magic on many addicts.
Harrison spent his time reading and learning about business and fund-raising.
He drove supply trucks and jammed with other inmates who were musicians,
including the famous saxophonist Art Pepper, who in his landmark autobiography,
“Straight Life,” notes that Harrison “really played well.”
Getting off drugs at Synanon grounded Harrison. “It boosted my confidence and
gave me a sense of direction,” he says. “Before then I was a flake. The
hardships you go through give you conviction. My knowledge comes from
Harrison landed in Detroit in 1970 for what at first was a stopover. But
scared of slipping down the rabbit hole of addiction in New York, he began
teaching at Metro Arts, a federal Model Cities Program.
Tribe evolved in 1971-72 with Harrison, his first wife Patricia and
trombonist Phil Ranelin the formal organizers; it came to include concerts,
records and a magazine in which young firebrand writers tackled topics like
black-on-black crime, Detroit politics, economic injustice and music.
An au courant Afrocentrism infused the entire enterprise, though white
musicians were also involved. Tribe was part of the era’s zeitgeist of
self-determination that gave rise to other co-ops like the Association for the
Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, the Black Arts Group in St. Louis
and Strata in Detroit.
“Tribe was part of what a lot of the country came to admire about Detroit,”
says guitarist-composer Spencer Barefield, who created the Creative Arts
Collective in Detroit. “The idea at the time was you needed to go to New York to
get discovered, but it was Detroit musicians who said ‘Screw New York, we’ll do
it without them.’ Tribe was a prototype.”
Tribe’s musical brew was uniquely Detroit — a gritty fusion of R&B, funk
and jazz rhythms, spacey vamps, post-bop improvisation, free-jazz freak-outs,
percussive exotica, poetry and consciousness-raising themes. Things could get
pretty wild, but the music stayed connected to the vernacular of the street.
Tribe kept Harrison clean, and once it had run its course, the die had been
cast for the rest of his life. He’s still shocked at the renewed interest in
music he and colleagues made 35 to 40 years ago, and he’s proud to have earned
his status as a cultural warrior. “It says something about sticking to positive
goals,” he says. “I’m alive. I’m doing things. I could be a lot worse off.”
Jazz with a funky populist streak
W. Kim Heron, Metro Times
July 27, 2011
Wendell Harrison has gigged on the celestial road with Sun Ra and recorded in the most challenging (and perhaps least listener-friendly) format of the unaccompanied saxophone disc. He’s fronted likewise daunting clarinet choirs (off-putting in concept, perhaps, but not execution, it should be noted). But lest there be any confusion, all the way back to the Afro-centric Tribe collective of the ’70s, in which he was the chief organizer-conceptualist, there’s been a funky populist streak in his music. It’s just a matter of whether it’s on the surface or more subtly below. In fact, it’s no stretch to say he has a sweet tooth for pop confections that’s sometimes even gotten the best of him (especially when ambitions trumped production values).
But his appropriately titled It’s About Damn Time gets the right mixture of the straight ahead, the pop and the populist — and just enough sugaring. The track “Take Time Out” goes back to at least 1980 when it appeared on his Dreams of a Love Supreme LP with Miche Braden carrying the mid-tempo soul-burner vocals. Three decades in affordable studio technology make a big difference, and this time, with vocals by Linda Boston, the production by John and Ann Shetler does the track justice. In the guest vocal department, Detroit funk maestro Amp Fiddler is also on hand for a Wendell Harrison-Pamela Wise composed exercise in lubriciousness: “Love Juice.”
Harrison followers will hear other familiar pieces here. “Pojo,” “Urban Expression” and “Lord Not Another Lover,” for instance, all appeared as recently as 2004’s Urban Expression, and they’re improved here with less cluttered arrangements and real drummers (Djallo Djakate, Gayelynn McKinney and Dan Schmatz) replacing the previous programmed percussion. Kudos, too, to guitarist Vaughn (cousin of Earl) Klugh and bassist Damon Warmack.
Still undocumented in Harrison’s bag of genres is his gypsy swing music. No doubt that, too, is just a damn matter of time. —W. Kim Heron