William & Mary

Donald Harrison Joins Department as Artist-in-Residence

HarrisonIn fall 2006 the department welcomes world-renowned jazz saxophonist and composer Donald Harrison as its Class of 1939 Artist-in-Residence for the semester.

Mr. Harrison has performed at major national and international jazz venues and festivals since the 1980s. He brings his virtuosic performance and compositional gifts to the department's jazz studies program.

Mr. Harrison joins the William and Mary community after months of touring, performing at national and international jazz festivals and other major jazz venues. Recently he appeared with McCoy Tyner Trio at New York's Blue Note, as well as at the Toronto, Ottawa, and Playboy Jazz Festivals. In mid-June Harrison toured with Latin jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri's ensemble, the Afro-Caribbean All-Stars, which also featured electric violinist Regina Carter and tenor saxophonist, David Sanchez. During July Harrison toured Europe. In September he will lead his quintet at the Chicago Jazz Festival as part of its tribute to New Orleans jazz.

Over the years, Mr. Harrison has worked with many young musicians, ranging from directing an education program at New Orleans's famed nightclub and foundation, Tipitina's, to befriending Christopher Wallace, better known as the rapper the Notorious B.I.G, a.k.a., Biggie Smalls. His experience as a saxophonist and composer and his commitment to working with young musicians promises to greatly enrich the department's music program.

Harrison, one of today's major jazz voices, draws his musical influences from several sources. Living in New Orleans's upper Ninth Ward neighborhood as a child, he grew up steeped in the city's brass band and other musical traditions. While in New Orleans he began his jazz studies with Ellis Marsalis (the father of Wynton and Branford), as well his longtime creative association with trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard.

After a year at Baton Rouge's Southern University Harrison attended Berklee College of Music, in Boston. He first rose to national prominence in 1982 as a sideman (along with Blanchard) in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, which also launched the careers of Branford and Wynton Marsalis (whom Harrison and Blanchard replaced). In the 1980s Harrison recorded with both Blakey as a sideman and as a leader with Blanchard. During the 1990s he briefly led his own quartet before joining Latin Jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri. After leaving Palmieri, Harrison reformed his quartet and continued to tour and record. He has recorded more than a dozen albums both as a leader and sideman with a host of jazz's illustrious elder statesmen as well as his contemporaries.

Mr. Harrison also has another side to his artistic personality. He is Big Chief of the Congo Nation Mardi Gras Indian tribe. The Mardi Gras Indian tradition dates back to slavery and is the last surviving indigenous African masking tradition in the United States. Men and women spend a year sewing elaborate feather and bead costumes, and on two days a year (St. Joseph's Day and Mardi Gras Day) they mask. That is, they parade to drum, tambourine, and vocal chants through New Orleans neighborhoods, engaging in a contest of pageantry and verbal virtuosity as the various tribes greet one another. Interviewed about the tradition on National Public Radio in February 2006, Mr. Harrison has emerged as a major spokesperson about the Mardi Gras Indians.

Mr. Harrison comes to William and Mary from New Orleans. He has become a symbol of New Orleans hope and revival. Among the many hundreds of thousands affected by the storm, he lost his home in the flooding. Undaunted, he has drawn upon tragedy, contributing a version of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" to the New Orleans tribute compact disc, Our New Orleans. In the months following the storm he went into the studio to record The Survivor, mixing his style of modern jazz with traditional New Orleans rhythms and Mardi Indian chants. This past spring his jazz mass was performed at the historic African-American Catholic church, St. Augustine (in the historic Tremé neighborhood). His appearance at JazzFest 2006 the last Saturday of April is hailed as a landmark. In addition to performing straight-ahead jazz, Harrison donned his Mardi Gras Indian costume and performed with a brass band and sang Mardi Gras Indian chants.