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Donald Harrison first met Biggie Smalls on a stoop in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. Harrison, then in his early 20s, was playing alto saxophone in drummer Art Blakey’s band at the time, having moved to New York City from his native New Orleans. His was the arc of a rising star, among a cadre of players that critics had dubbed “young lions” for their promise to revive jazz’s former glory. “Biggie was just Chris Wallace back then, maybe 13 or 14,” Harrison says. It was nearly a decade before Wallace, as Notorious B.I.G., would release Ready To Die, establishing him as a rapper of singular force and presence, hip-hop royalty until he was shot to death in 1997. “But even then you could tell Chris was brilliant, that he was special,” Harrison says, talking by phone from his home in New Orleans, to which he returned in 1990. “I was passing by, and he just said hello. We started talking, and it grew into a friendship. He was a lot younger, but he wanted to learn about music. And that was all I needed to hear." Despite his “young lion” beginnings, Harrison, 60, was never a neo-traditionalist. Rather, he is among the most open-minded and freest-thinking of modern jazz musicians, with a breadth of experience that emboldens this attitude; he has played hard bop and bebopwith Blakey and Roy Haynes; funk with the Headhunters; Afro-Carribean jazz with Eddie Palmieri; and soul-jazz with Dr. Lonnie Smith, among others.
Shortly after that first meeting, Wallace was at Harrison’s Fort Greene house nearly every day. Harrison gave Wallace homework. He had him listen to Charlie Parker, to hear how he constructed phrases and how he created a new sense of rhythmic flow. He had him scat a Cannonball Adderley solo, listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s vocals. “We worked on tonguing and speed and agility,” Harrison says. “I loved rap, but wanted him to understand that it’s important for listeners to hear every word, each note.” They worked on enunciation. “It’s such a simple thing, but it's powerful.” In Wallace, he sensed the discipline that had facilitated his own mastery.And maybe, in the power, boldness and confidence Wallace would soon project as Biggie Smalls, in the sense of community radiated by rappers in general, Harrison recognized something of his own roots in New Orleans. For all his acclaim as a jazz saxophonist, bandleader and educator, Harrison is best known to some in his hometown as a Big Chief, carrying on the legacy of his father, who was Big Chief of four different communities of what were then called Mardi Gras Indians and which Harrison now refers to as Afro New Orleans Cultural Groups.
[caption id="attachment_37453" align="alignleft" width="1023"] Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. (Photo: CHuck Taggart/Flickr)[/caption]
Dressed in 8-foot-tall, 6-foot-wide feathered and beaded suits and accompanied by "queens," "spy boys" and others, Big Chiefs are announced by drumbeats and chants; they bark out, with impeccable cadence, improvised lines that blend boasts, promises, threats and spiritual uplift. Little compares with the sight of a mass of colored feathers and sparkling beads, extending the whole of a man into a giant, walking soft sculpture, which is one big part of the ritual and pageantry of this tradition; it reveals little but two eyes aglow with purpose. “That glare in the eye, that look of supreme confidence,” Harrison says. Much like rappers at the top of their game.Harrison remembers a young Chris Wallace doing an approximation of a Lindy Hop in his Fort Greene home. “Because he knew what I know,” Harrison says. “That jazz and hip-hop and all the music connected to these styles are dance music. It is meant to move our bodies as well as our minds and spirits. It’s all part of transcendence.” When Harrison performs at the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, he moves easily from a bebop tune to funk, sometimes setting down his alto saxophone to grab the mic and sing or rap and to dance, “because it’s all one thing,” he says. Last year, at Manhattan’s Zinc Bar, he led a quintet that included DJ Logic, who scratched on dual turntables and manipulated samples drawn from a library Harrison has compiled and composed.
[caption id="attachment_37454" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, Brooklyn. (Photo: Biography.com)[/caption]
So it should have come as no surprise when, in 2019, Harrison gathered his quartet in a studio and recorded his own version of “Old Town Road,” with which rapper Lil Nas X topped the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking 19 weeks. By then, Lil Nas X had already remade his own hit, this time joined by country-music star Billy Ray Cyrus. “I was checking out jazz on YouTube, and this song popped up as one of the side video suggestions,” Harrison says. “I was intrigued because I saw a brother with a cowboy hat. I was amazed at the creativity of how the music blended country and ‘trap’ music. I loved Lil Nas X’s dancing, confidence, and swagger.” He also heard some of his jazz colleagues calling the song “garbage.” “I recorded a jazz version to show them that this song could be taken seriously, and to demonstrate how jazz is open-minded and inclusive,” he explains. “And I knew my whole group would play to a new set of rules.” He created an accompanying video, which he researched and edited himself, that traces the history of African-American dance styles.
“To get to where I am,” Harrison says, “I first learned through playing with the innovative masters of every era of jazz. I played with New Orleans jazz masters who were playing in the ’20s. I played with icons from the swing era. I played with bebop masters. I played with post-bop, modal, free, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Puerto Rican, Afro-Brazilian, fusion, smooth, organ, and jazz masters of many styles. I played with blues masters from Mississippi, Louisiana, Memphis and Chicago. I learned other styles of music from the master innovators of funk, soul, classical, and then started hearing those styles blended with jazz. And I found my sound, which is another hybrid swinging beat, because I took hip-hop seriously.”