Wendell Harrison: Community Jazz History Interview


Video opens with series introduction…

Then: Harrison plays the clarinet in his home for the camera. The tune is Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Interview begins around 3:56.

Harrison: Rebirth is a nonprofit arts agency that promotes artists in the Michigan area, as well as nationally. Sometimes we do school concerts. We just got through doing a school concert that was co-sponsored by the National Endowment [for the Arts], and we did about fifteen high schools. And this is to introduce the bebop jazz to students, music students as well as the general populace of the school. Then sometimes we do tours around Midwest, like in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, sometimes Kentucky, whatnot. All of the efforts is actually geared to promote jazz and promote its excellence out of Detroit.

We also produce records. We have a recording studio also. And we also publish books, which currently we’re publishing “The Be Boppers Method Book”, which is distributed all over the world by Jamey Aebersold and Carl Fischer. That’s primarily in the colleges and high schools and some of the stores across the country.

Also, I’m dealing with a New York group, Cecil McBee, Kirk Lightsey, and Doug Hammond. We’re planning a tour in January and February [1990] throughout the Midwest, and some places on the East coast with that particular unit.

Also, Rebirth, we are in the process of presenting The Jazz Hand Orchestra with Joe Williams coming up in January [1990] also. We’ve been featuring artists like Eddie Harris, Leon Thomas, Freddie Hubbard. We brought Freddie Hubbard in with a forty-piece orchestra with strings and we brought in Lew Tabackin and also Mark Murphy. So, we’ve been pretty involved in trying to get the music out on all kinds of levels, including doing workshops in various locations.


Gabriel: Okay. You talked about this New York group with Cecil McBee, and [inaudible] and they sound pretty interesting. How’d you get to be associated with them?

Harrison: Well, I’ve known these guys for a long time. We used to hang out and play together in the early ‘60s and ‘50s.

Kirk used to play at the Hobby Showbar [Hobby Bar]. Cecil McBee used to do a lot of performances with Harold McKinney and myself. Then I moved to New York in the ‘60s, and started performing with Grant Green and Hank Crawford, Sun Ra, Betty Carter, different artists. And then they followed me. They came later. I think they went into the service at that time, then they came later and started performing. I think Cecil was with Charles Lloyd, Yusef Lateef, bunch of folks. Kirk Lightsey was with Damita Jo and Dexter Gordon for a long time.


And while these guys was touring with these different units, I came back to Detroit. And now we finally decided to hook up and try to actually get some of this music out, because we did an album that would be on CD in December [1989]. And they’re playing a lot of my original compositions as well as Pamela Wise’s compositions, and the album will be really promoted all over the world.

Primarily I like the feel that they have, and they’re really keeping the Detroit legacy alive in terms of the way we approach jazz and the way we conceptualize jazz, Cecil McBee and Kirk Lightsey. Doug Hammond is an old friend. He produced the album that was released on my label back in ‘75 –

Gabriel: That wasn’t the Rebirth label?

Harrison: That was the Tribe label. This is back in ‘75. I’m pretty sure it was called “The Sea of Nurnen.” [Reflections In The Sea Of Nurnen] And plus I met him in the ’60s also. So these guys are comrades and artists I just really enjoy performing with.

The distinctive sound of Detroit is refined. I’ll give you the opposite. Like, Chicago is like a raw sound. Blues come out of this Chicago, raw blues, let’s say avant-garde, you got Sun Ra from Chicago. The Chicago Art Ensemble [Art Ensemble of Chicago] is from Chicago. Then you have 1000 blues singers.

Now, Detroit kind of takes the approach of refining. It’s a feeling but it’s an intellectual feeling. Whereas you have people like Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Paul Chambers, Donald Byrd, all these people came out of Detroit and they have a highly developed, technical approach to playing jazz. You can hear a lot of intricate bebop line and the technique is really highly developed. As opposed to playing just like raw concepts and whatnot. It’s very thought out.

A lot of these guys would just practice hours and hours and hours in the basement, in the attic or wherever, in parks, with tunes before they will even go to the stage with it. Really work it out. You don’t find that in other areas of the country. People are really studious around here. It’s actually, it’s a conservative approach to playing jazz, very conservative. It’s analyzed, it’s rehearsed, and nursed. And it’s really, when you see these guys perform, they’re really together.

And every year you have people coming out of the area. Like you have Geri Allen, she’s playing piano. She’s from Detroit. Bob Hurst, Kenny Garrett. All these guys, those are the recent people that came out of Detroit just making a national debut on different albums and stuff like that. Geri’s got her two or three albums out on her own. And you have Bob Hurst, he was with Wynton Marsalis and now he’s with Tony Williams, and Kenny Garrett’s on Miles’ [Davis] album. He’s dealing with Freddie Hubbard and he’s on Woody Shaw’s album. Plus he’s got his own albums out. And every year it seems like somebody is coming out of here that is hitting the national scene with the Detroit bebop concept.

In the ’50s, everybody and their mother had a record contract at that particular time. It was a new thing to go, all these companies was dumping their money into jazz and getting it out. See jazz wasn’t, back in the ’50s, jazz wasn’t considered music in terms of being endorsed by the institutions. It only became America’s art form in the 70s. You didn’t have jazz bands, like for instance, over at Northwestern [High School]. I graduated from Northwestern. Northwestern nowadays has a beautiful jazz band, and a highly developed jazz band under the direction of Ernie Rodgers.

When I was there, it was a concert band and a marching band. You had a B-Band and A-Band of that, and you had to sneak into the band room and practice bebop ‘cause they wouldn’t allow you to practice bebop in the band room. They called it “noodling around.”

We had a band director by the name of [Francis] Hellstein. We’d come in there and try to play “Donna Lee” or “Ko Ko.” “Stop that fiddling around! If you want to play that, you have to go home.” [laughs] You know. So we had to sneak into the band room.

One morning, thing that really turned me on, I was in school about eight or nine o’clock, and I heard Roy Brooks and James Jamerson and Charles McPherson play a tune called “Coco,” which is “Cherokee,” a bebop line off of “Cherokee.” And that wiped me out. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “What kind of music is this? What is this?” I couldn’t, I knew about jazz, but the way these guys was playing the music and articulating the music was really was impressive. It was taking tempos like [claps hands on knees] that were real fast tempos. They would be playing, they wouldn’t even move, and the notes would be, like Charles McPherson and he was sitting down just like this, and he’d be playing sizzling tempos and wouldn’t move. His technique was superb.

Jamerson, everybody thinks he’s a Motown Fender funk bass player. But when I met Jamerson, he was playing like Ray Brown, playing an upright bass like Ray Brown. And all his motivation came out of the bebop idiom. Most musicians that wrote for Motown were bebop musicians. They wanted to actually make some money and really support themselves, because playing bebop, you never did really make that much money, playing jazz. So like these guys would actually make a lot of money writing pop tunes and arranging pop tunes for people like Diana Ross. All the Motown – Gladys Knight – all the Motown artists. And that’s indicative of the thing all over the world. Jazz musicians have to go out in other areas playing commercial music to actually make a living.


Harrison: The reason I want to try to focus on bebop because bebop is one of the art forms in the idiom in the jazz style that’s really misunderstood, in terms of the approach and concept. The straight ahead sound with, say, the modal sound like Trane [John Coltrane] is, is widely accepted and is widely promoted, as opposed to the bebop sound, which was actually segregated music because Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, those musicians got their thing together just like you see these youngsters getting the rap thing together, it’s like a subculture and all of a sudden you see it all [spreads arms], promote it. Bebop came about the same way. These guys was often in clubs and, and practicing in bars, and after-hour places, you know, and the music was actually developed like that. And then record companies started recording it. I’m not sure who was the first record producer that approached Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. But they started promoting and recording this music and that’s when it became popular. But keep in mind it was still a segregated thing, as opposed to black musicians, unlike today, they wasn’t playing with white musicians, as much in the ‘40s, in the ‘50s. So the culture, it was hard for them, for white musicians to actually get the bebop tradition or the bebop concept.

Same with women. Women wasn’t actually piano players, women piano players. It was hard to actually find a woman piano player, black woman piano player or a white woman piano player that could play bebop, ‘cause bebop was created in the bowels of the black community. People didn’t want to go down there and hang out. You know what I mean? They didn’t want to go down there and hang out. You might get shot, and it wasn’t a proper thing to do.

[Editor: Harrison here misses, or perhaps purposely ignores, the opportunity to mention someone like Terry Pollard who was in the Blue Bird house band even if only as an exception that might prove the rule he is describing.]


Harrison: Bebop is my past. I was raised in it but I do cross meter and odd meter concepts and tunes. Sometimes I do avant-garde with Sun Ra back in the ‘60s. So a lot of his concepts rubbed off on me. And I was with Hank Crawford in the ‘60s also at a young age, about four or five years, in fact, I got about ten albums recorded with him as a bandleader. He showed me how to write and actually play the blues. I had gigs with Big Maybelle. Yeah, I used to work with Big Maybelle and a lot of blues singers. Worked with Lou Rawls. So I’ve got the blues concepts in me also. Then I worked with people like Chuck Jackson and Marvin Gaye. I could go on and on and on and on and on.

So I got a lot of these different concepts inside of me. I feel that pop music or funk music is a part of me. Fusion is a part of me, bebop is a part of me. Even classics, you know, I feel that’s part of me also. Although these other art forms are primarily developed and created out of the black community, especially the bebop thing, so I usually promote that as my past, ‘cause that’s talking about my heritage.

Sun Ra, they think he’s really out. But I played some legit gigs with Sun Ra. We would play some of his compositions like “Space is the Place” and “Venus,” and the “Saturn” tune and stuff like that. But I used to go to some of his rehearsals or play gigs with him — I played in Harlem at the Baby Grand with Sun Ra — and he played like Fletcher Henderson. He played Duke [Ellington] compositions like “Prelude to a Kiss.” He played “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Satin Doll.” I guess at that particular time it’d be considered a commercial gig and people will get up and dance to Sun Ra’s music. Then we’d go downtown to his apartment, on Third Street, and he would put on pot of beans and black-eyed peas, and before we rehearsed, he would feed everybody. And at that time, Clifford Jarvis was in the band and Ronnie Boykins. I was taking John Gilmore’s place cause he was with Art Blakey at the time, and Pharaoh [Sanders] was with [John] Coltrane. So I enjoyed myself for what it was.


Harrison: The Sun Ra experience was very educational. He was self-motivated and self-contained. You know, ‘cause he would put out these recordings, he would promote these recordings, and the media would catch or pickup on these things and actually do reviews on his albums, and then he would actually book himself as well as contract other booking agencies to sell it, and to sell the band. That’s a heck of a concept to be a self-sustaining like that. Rather than most artists after you deal with the art for ‘em, they’re looking around for somebody to come and promote ‘em, you know what I’m saying? Or they’re looking around for somebody to actually do something for them or actually put some money behind them or record them and book them and do the job. That’s great. But the thing is, get it together for yourself first and be able to market yourself and sell yourself and develop your own business strategies to market yourself. So when somebody else comes up and offers to promote you, you got some kind of awareness of what is all about and what you going to get in return and what you want that person to do. The main thing, managers and producers is working for you, as the artist, as opposed to the artist working for managers and producers. ‘Cause the music is first and we all trying to work for the music and work for the betterment of the music in terms of getting it out. A lot of people think it’s the other way around. That the artist is working for the management company or the producer or the agency. The agency is supposed to be involved in the process to be a servant to the music and servant to the artist to get the music out to the world. And they are supposed to be humble in that particular situation, in that position. But that’s my concept.


Harrison: Dealing with odd meters, that’s like African heritage, actually a African birthright. You go to Africa, you see, you hear all kinds of odd meters and rhythms out of their rituals and out of their particular local sound, you know, in their area. Over here, all you hear on the radio is 4/4 rhythm all the time, which is European influence and I guess it stems from marches and polkas and things like that. But this is American society and it’s dominated by a European concept, so you have 4/4 all the time. All [emphasis] the time. So as a jazz musician, to actually stimulate my playing and expression, I try to deal with odd meters. And I got that from Sun Ra also. He would write stuff in ⅞, 9/8. And sometimes he would have like two, three meters going on at once, polyrhythms and stuff like that. 4/4, then you have a 6/4 happening, then you might have a 5/4 and then you might have a 7/8 on top of that, you know. Multi-rhythmic.

One of the guys that really made this popular, commercially, was Elvin Jones and John Coltrane. When they were playing a 4/4 concept, you could hear 3 going on, 3/4 going on. You could hear 6/8 going on at the same time. You could hear three different rhythms going on at the same time when these guys are playing. Everything they would play would be in three, so that concept really became popular in the 60s. Basically. Of course, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard dealt with a lot of odd meters.

We have a book that we published as Rebirth called “Compositions in Odd Meter.” And Roy Brooks has a composition in there called “Five for Max” that’s in 5/4. Eddie Harris has his “1974 Blues,” which is in 7/4 time. And Pamela Wise has got a tune in there called “Fly by Night” which is in 11/8. And I have a tune entitled “Spank,” which is in ⅞. We create these different books for our development, play tunes and composition that will be challenging so we can actually develop ourselves as musicians, not necessarily to make money, but we constantly try to strive for the excellence of the art form.


Harrison [with clarinet now]: My Mother started me off on piano, keep me out of the street, give me something to do, and for cultural awareness and that kind of thing. Well, I went to elementary school, and I couldn’t take the piano and play it in the band, so we had orchestras back in those days. So I played clarinet in the orchestra in elementary school, intermediate school, high school until I ran into these jazz musicians in high school. Lonnie Hillyer and Charles McPherson, [James] Jamerson and Roy Brooks. There was about four or five others in that band at the time.

But the clarinet is an instrument that’s not really recorded today like it was in the early 1900s. Like today, in the rock bands, you see the lead guitar, in the rock bands. In the jazz band, you hear the trumpet and saxophone, and they’re the main lead instruments of the day. Alto saxophone, trumpet, guitar, that kind of thing. In the early 1900s, it was the clarinet that was popular, and the cornet and violin, and it was really recorded a lot. Sidney Bechet and, and you got people like really became popular Benny Goodman and Buddy DeFranco and Jimmy Hamilton, John Carter, all those guys with Duke Ellington’s band. Those guys had to play, they played clarinet, saxophone, and all the saxophones.

A clarinet is a real strange instrument. It’s a classical instrument. It has a wood sound to it. And it’s an old instrument. The first construction of the clarinet was in 1690, a guy by the name of Johann Christoph Denner was the first guy that constructed the first relic of a clarinet. And then years later the Albert system was constructed, in Germany, and then Theobald Boehm or Boehm. It’s B, O, E, H, M. He constructed the Boehm system which is the clarinet of the day. And which plays in tune pretty well. Those other clarinets, it’s hard for them, in fact, I got an Albert system up there now. They came out of a museum in Steubenville and Pamela Wise’s Father gave me that. It’s out of, it’s hard to play in tune and it only has 13 keys. The latest, the Boehm system’s got 15 keys, so it’s a lot better. But it’s not as easy as the saxophone.


Harrison: The clarinet has four octaves. [demonstrates] That’s an E in four octaves, I will demonstrate the different registers. [demonstrates]

Now that register is the lowest register, and they call that the chalumeau register. It’s a French word for dark and solemn. I think they create that sound to imitate the organ, little tunes on the organ at that particular time. [demonstrates]

I’ll play it for you again. [demonstrates]

Now, the next register or tones is the throat tone section of the clarinet,


Which is really soft and that’s controlled mainly by the throat. You can go out of tune or in tune by, by opening and closing your throat, then…


Now: the next section is the clarion section, which is the clearest section.


That’s the third section, which is another sound altogether.

All these sections got their own sound, their own fingerings, and they’re almost like instruments unto themselves. Now the last section is the acute register.


Yeah, that’s the acute high register of the clarinet. It’s like dog register. The trick is to play all these different registers and tones with dexterity and make it sound like one instrument. That’s the trick. And that’s the most difficult thing on the clarinet, unlike the saxophone or flute.


So that’s a lulu, getting in and out of these registers, and trying to make sense with it.



The thing on the clarinet, like that wood sound and that open sound, every time I play it, people really get a kick out of hearing it because they’re starved for that particular sound. It’s not recorded. And if you’re a clarinet player, it’s kinda hard too, because you don’t hear it on the radio, like your saxophone and trumpets and stuff like that.

So you really have to — you’re going to do a lot of studying and research and put a lot more energy into it in terms of trying to perfect the sound. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve got a clarinet ensemble happening over here every Wednesday to work on that sound and develop dexterity and keep something happening, or eventually we gonna grow to about, it’s only five now. We want to grow to about twenty clarinets, and we’re gonna go on the bandstand and play things like Scott Joplin tunes and Bird tunes as well as Trane tunes, original kinds of compositions also. Playing odd meter.

Now, we have right now bass clarinet, alto clarinet and B-flat clarinet. I’ve been working with Louie Barnett on the clarinet, Paul Onachuk. Charlie Gabriel, [Thomas] “Beans” Bowles is going to be playing the bass clarinet. Yeah. So that’s, that’s what we stirring up again, we all, all the time is, something new happening all the time.


Harrison: I started playing when I was 14, 15, and we would play like high school proms, a place called the Urban League, Ferry Center, house parties and union halls, stuff like that. And actually the scene back in those days, you could make a little bit. I’ve made a lot of money in terms of helping me with my school clothes and dealing with schoolbooks and stuff like that.

I started traveling with Claude Black we went to Cleveland with Claude Black. And I went to Syracuse when I was 15, with a big band with Teddy Harris. And Choker Campbell’s band, I think it was, call it the Powder Puff Review. It had a bunch of dances, chorus line dances, things like that. And the clubs, that’s how I started, was playing the different weekend dances and weekend clubs. I was too young to actually play in the club, or be employed in a club, ‘cause I was still in high school, but I used to sneak into the clubs and hear people like Miles Davis and Sonny Stitt and sneak in to Klein’s Show Bar, I mean the Blue Bird, all the time. I used to go to the West End and see a lot of people playing.

And then eventually, when I, like in the summertime when I wouldn’t be in school, I would travel to different cities with different jazz musicians. For the most part they had jam sessions, Chit Chat Lounge, they had jam sessions Mondays where musicians would come all over to sit in. Klein’s Show Bar had jam sessions on Sunday, with the Yusef [Lateef] band. If you go down like Rosa Parks Boulevard, between the Boulevard and Clairmount, you had about five or six clubs. You’d go club hopping, they had a club on every, every block. You start at Hazelwood with the Eagle Show Bar, then the next block you would go to the Spot Bar. Next block would be a Klein’s Show Bar, it was a Chit Chat Lounge, down near Virginia Park, 12th, at that time it was called the 12th. You could go from Clairmount to West Grand Boulevard, and hit quite a few clubs, and everybody was playing bebop and blues, blues and bebop, and, yeah, it’d be crazy if you couldn’t learn from, from all that music going on at that particular time.

Gabriel: Who were some of the bands?

Harrison: Well, I used to hear Teddy Harris before all the time at the Spot Bar. It was Washboard Willie, it was blues, jazz and blues always went together. Yusef [Lateef]. You had James Jamerson and Earl Van Dyke at the Chit Chat.

People who go bar hopping from block to block. Now you got to go from one town to the next.

It was so much recording activity happening in New York at that time. It was actually, to get wherever it was developed and get the hell out of town [laughs] to New York and get a record contract, you know? So most guys left when it was about 15, 16, 17, as soon as they would get out of high school, because at that time you didn’t have music in college. In other words, jazz music wasn’t in college at that particular time.

Nowadays you’ve got jazz programs, curriculums and colleges and whatnot. But no one was really interested in going further in their education on the formal level in music because it wasn’t represented in the schools. I got a scholarship to Wayne, and I never did use it, because I learned how to read and write music, the music I wanted to know about, on the road with Hank Crawford, work shopping with Jimmy Owens and Howard Johnson, and those people. Marcus Belgrave was in the band at that time. And that’s the way it was. And you could make a living. You could really [emphasis] make a living playing music in the ‘50s and ‘60s.


[End credits over a blue screen with Harrison soloing]

Community Jazz History Series

Featuring Wendell Harrison, Bebop Rebirth

Produced by Larry Gabrie

Edited by New Vision Communications

This series was made possible by a grant from:

Neighborhood Builders Alliance

Michigan State Housing Development Authority

Neighborhood Grants Program

Copyright 1989

Graystone International Museum

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