Skip to content

Wendell Harrison – saxophonist, organizer, entrepreneur and keeper of the jazz flame – named Kresge Eminent Artist for 2018

Detroit

Detroit-born jazz musician Wendell Harrison has been named the 2018 Kresge Eminent Artist. The lifetime achievement award includes a $50,000 prize.

Harrison, 75, is a tenor saxophonist, clarinetist, composer, bandleader, educator, organizer and entrepreneur. His high-energy and expressive playing sweeps through a range of idioms, reconciling modern jazz roots with excursions into funk, fusion and free jazz. He is widely known as a flame keeper of Detroit’s jazz legacy and the co-founder of Tribe, an influential 1970s collective that produced jazz recordings and concerts, published a magazine and continues to provide a do-it-yourself model for contemporary creative musicians.

Saxophonist Wendell Harrison with sax over shoulder
Tenor saxophonist Wendell Harrison. Photo by Noah Morrison

Harrison has been based in Detroit for most of his 60-year career, but he spent much of the 1960s in New York. There he worked with the celebrated mainstream guitarist Grant Green, free jazz icon Sun Ra and soul singer Lou Rawls. He spent more than four years recording and traveling with the bluesy saxophonist Hank Crawford, with whom Harrison made his first recordings.

Harrison’s own bands have ranged from traditional small groups to a unique clarinet ensemble; his notable collaborators have included such leading figures as saxophonists Eddie Harris and Detroit-born James Carter, vocalist Leon Thomas and Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig. Harrison has made more than 20 recordings as a leader and dozens more as a sideman.

Harrison’s work ethic, commitment to self-improvement and personal journey have inspired generations of Detroit musicians. Harrison founded in his own nonprofit, Rebirth, in 1978 as an umbrella for his performing, recording and teaching activities.

Harrison is the tenth metro Detroit artist to receive the Kresge Eminent Artist award since 2008 in recognition of professional achievements in an art form, contributions to the cultural community and dedication to Detroit and its residents.

In addition to the cash award, the Eminent Artist honor includes the creation of an artist monograph that will chronicle Harrison’s life and career. To reserve a complimentary copy of the monograph visit our Kresge Eminent Artist page.

Wendell Harrison blowing his tenor saxophone.
Wendell Harrison: “I’m just trying to carry on the tradition.” Photo by Noah Morrison

Harrison is the second jazz musician to be named a Kresge Eminent Artist; the first was trumpeter and educator Marcus Belgrave (1936-2015), a frequent Harrison collaborator, who received the award in 2009.

The Kresge Arts in Detroit office at the College for Creative Studies administers the Kresge Eminent Artist Award, Kresge Arts Fellowships and the Gilda Awards for emerging artists. The awards and the Kresge Arts in Detroit office are funded by The Kresge Foundation, a national private foundation based in metro Detroit, as part of its Detroit Program. Kresge’s Detroit Program collaborates with civic, nonprofit and business partners to promote and expand long-term, equitable opportunity in the foundation’s hometown.

In the first 10 years, these Kresge Arts in Detroit initiatives of direct, no-strings-attached awards to 178 individual artists in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties have contributed more than $4.5 million to the local film, music, visual, literary, and performing arts communities, including $500,000 cumulatively to the 10 selected Eminent Artists. The awards celebrate and invest in the creativity and accomplishments of Detroit artists, elevate the position and contributions of the creative sector, and strengthen Detroit’s position as a major center for arts and culture nationally and internationally.

“I have always worked hard,” said Harrison. “I would see others get opportunities and awards other than me, but I tried to stay positive, and rather than wait for somebody else to do things for me, I did them myself. I haven’t made much money, but I’ve been able to control what I’ve done. I’m like a long-distance runner who has been running a course of my life. At three-fourths of the distance, I have now been given a pail of water to continue and finish my allotted distance in time. I say thank you to the Kresge Foundation in support of my journey.”

“Wendell Harrison exemplifies Detroit’s tradition of cultural warriors,” said Kresge President Rip Rapson. “Rooted in the jazz masters that preceded him, he found a voice that is indelibly his own, earthy and sophisticated, at once down-home and out-there. He was instrumental in shaping the sound of Detroit jazz in the 1970s and has been so ever since. He has been a leader, not only on the bandstand, but in forging opportunities for musicians to record and present their art on their own terms when the commercial world had no interest in doing so.”

“As our tenth Eminent Artist, Harrison underscores the role of artists – the role of great art – in our community. It lifts us and anchors us. It can bring us to reflect on who we are individually, on the human condition we share, and on what we can do together.”

wendell_ossie.jpg

Wendell Harrison and his mother. She thought music lessons would help a child prone to getting into trouble.

“Wendell Harrison epitomizes the exceptional passion, talent and visionary creativity that Detroit is known for,” said College for Creative Studies President Richard L. Rogers. “As a musician, composer, bandleader, co-founder of Tribe, and leader of his own label, Wenha Records, Harrison not only influenced the historic development of improvisation and the trajectory of jazz, he took on inequity and injustice in arts and culture by creating new vehicles of production, distribution and documentation. CCS is honored to partner with The Kresge Foundation to celebrate Wendell Harrison, the 10th Kresge Eminent Artist, an award that celebrates artists whose creative voice and community impact have been integral to the vibrancy of Detroit’s cultural environment.”

“Wendell is like the Energizer Bunny,” said Detroit drummer Gayelynn McKinney, a member of the Kresge Arts in Detroit Advisory Council, which made the final selection of Harrison as this year’s Eminent Artist. “He never slows down. He’s always striving to learn more. All of us in my generation have learned a lot from him. He’s inspired me to go after what I want, and he instilled in us that you have a responsibility to pass along the information to those who come after you.”

Wendell Harrison was born into a family of high achievers on Oct. 1, 1942. His father, a Ph.D., taught sociology at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; his mother, who had a master’s degree, taught in Detroit public schools. Harrison had a lot of nervous energy as a child that often got him into trouble, so his mother pushed music lessons to instill discipline. He started piano at age 5, clarinet at 8 and alto saxophone at 12, eventually switching to tenor sax. He later added flute to his instrumental arsenal.

He caught the jazz bug at Detroit’s Northwestern High School, where he was inspired by slightly older classmates who would later make national names for themselves, including alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer and future Motown bass star James Jamerson.

wendell-high_school_photo.jpg

Harrison as a student at Detroit’s Northwestern High. His classmates Lonnie Hillyer and Charles McPherson would go on to work with the great Charles Mingus; James Jamerson would become an anchor to innumerable Motown studio sessions.

Harrison progressed swiftly and was soon studying with legendary pianist and bebop guru Barry Harris, who mentored many of the Detroit jazz greats to emerge in the ‘50s — Paul Chambers, Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller among them. The fundamentals of Harrison’s own teaching can be traced back to his studies with Harris. Sometimes the lessons transcended the specifics of music theory. Harrison remembers showing up one day not having practiced. “Barry really let me have it,” Harrison recalled. “He said, ‘Don’t ever come to my house unprepared! It disrespects me, and it disrespects yourself.’ I never forgot that.”

Harrison started working professionally at 15, and he graduated from high school at 16. He worked briefly on the Detroit scene, before packing his bags and heading east to the thriving New York jazz scene. His versatility was an asset there, and he worked with jazz, blues, R&B, Latin and avant-garde players. His big break came with Ray Charles band alumna Hank Crawford. Harrison toured and recorded four albums with Crawford from 1963 to 1967. Those included “After Hours,” on which Harrison had his first recorded solo, two gutsy blues choruses with a wailing sound and soulful shouts on the tune “Junction.’’

Unfortunately, the rigors of the road and the proximity to drugs caught up with Harrison, and he found himself addicted to heroin. In 1967 he entered Synanon, the well-known drug rehabilitation and residential center in Santa Monica, Calif. He stayed for 2 ½ years, spending his time reading, learning about business, nonprofits and fundraising. He drove supply trucks and jammed with fellow musicians among the residents, including the famous saxophonist Art Pepper. Harrison also appeared on “The Prince of Peace” (on the Epic label), a jazz-rock cantata recorded with Synanon musicians, including vocalist Esther Phillips.

With a newfound focus and determination to make something of his life, Harrison returned to Detroit in 1970 for what he thought would be quick stopover. Instead, he found his destiny. He began teaching at Metro Arts, an inner-city youth organization, and there became close with trumpeter Belgrave, trombonist Phil Ranelin, and pianist Harold McKinney (father of drummer Gayelynn McKinney).

Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, saxophonist Wendell Harrison, trombonist Phil Ranelin in performance
Photo by W. Kim Heron

Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, saxophonist Wendell Harrison, trombonist Phil Ranelin during a 2011 Tribe reunion.

Harrison and Ranelin co-founded Tribe in 1972 to document their music through concerts and recordings. Tribe was part of a wave of self-determination efforts in the ’60s and ’70s among black musicians that included the contemporaneous Strata in Detroit, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, and the Black Arts Group in St. Louis. Tribe was among the most ambitious and successful in the country, taking on a broader community focus with the publication of Tribe magazine, which Harrison edited with assistance from journalist Herb Boyd and others. The magazine, which lasted until 1977, explored subjects such as economic injustice, school busing, abortion and police brutality.

Musically, Tribe’s aesthetic suggested a gritty mélange of modal post-bop, populist jazz-rock and streaks of free-jazz abstraction. Harrison’s 1972 recording “An Evening with the Devil,” which features his compelling original compositions and performances of furious intensity, even includes some fiery poetry. “I grew up in a bebop paradigm, but I’ve always leaned toward experimentation too,” said Harrison.

Tribe formally disbanded in 1977 after Ranelin moved to Los Angeles, but its spirit has lived on in Harrison’s subsequent activities and other musician-run organizations and nonprofits that blossomed in Detroit.

Moreover, Harrison has aggressively pursued licensing deals with companies worldwide that have kept reissues of Tribe recordings in circulation in America, England, Europe and Japan. Original Tribe LPs have become highly sought collectors’ items, sometimes commanding more than $1,000.

Harrison and other Tribe principals have reunited periodically, including a high-profile showcase at the 2008 JVC Jazz Festival in New York. In addition, techno artist and producer Carl Craig has championed Tribe’s legacy, hiring Harrison and Belgrave for concerts and producing a widely celebrated Tribe recording, “Rebirth” (Planet E/Community Projects). Harrison continues to do concerts with Craig at home in Detroit and abroad.

“What Wendell didn’t realize at the time in the ’70s was that what he was doing with Tribe would extend the impact of Detroit to the rest of the world,” said Gayelynn McKinney.

Since forming the Rebirth nonprofit organization in 1978 to present and preserve jazz, Harrison has recorded prolifically as a leader on his own label, Wenha Records. For many years he also produced concerts and live radio broadcasts on WDET-FM featuring visiting stars such as saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, clarinetist Don Byron and the late pianist Geri Allen, an international star who grew up and began her career in Detroit.

pianorecords03250_print_glossy_noahelliottmorrison-3.jpg
Photo by Noah Morrison.

Harrison has records arrayed on his piano, from his Tribe days to his 2013 project “It’s About Damn Time.”

Harrison continues to produce recordings for other artists, among them his wife, noted pianist and composer Pamela Wise. Harrison has also become an active music teacher, and for the last 10 years has been a resident artist in Detroit high schools through an initiative of the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation.

In the late ’70s, he began to reinvestigate his first reed instrument, the clarinet. In the ’90s, he created the Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble whose front-line of six clarinets creates a sound of dark mystery and surprise in a repertoire that spans swinging jazz, Latin and even classical genres. On recordings like 1994’s “Rush and Hustle,” Harrison’s gruffly expressive clarinet tone and animated phrasing are all his own. On “The Battle of Tenors,” recorded live at the Detroit Jazz Festival in 1994, Harrison plays both tenor sax and clarinet, locking horns with saxophonist Eddie Harris to exciting effect.

While continuing his musical pursuits, Harrison has pursued college degrees in recent years. After passing his 70th birthday he earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational management (2014) and a master’s degree in communications (2017) from Spring Arbor University.

Having written previous instructional books on jazz improvisation, he is currently completing “The Fundamentals of Marketing and Promotion for the 21st Century Musician,” with one of his former professors, Robert McTyre, for publication later this year.

In 1993, Harrison was named a Jazz Master by Arts Midwest, and in the mid-’90s he toured internationally with the Michigan Jazz Masters, a band that also included his former Tribe associates Belgrave and Harold McKinney, both of whom have since passed away.

Harrison says has been thinking about Belgrave and McKinney, both renowned mentor-educators, since learning about his Kresge Eminent Artist award.

“I’m just trying to carry on the tradition,” said Harrison. “That’s what Marcus and Harold did. I’m trying to represent the high caliber of artists from Detroit dedicated to jazz improvisation. When I was coming up in the ’50s and ’60s, you had to have your identity as a musician. Things are a little homogenized today, but I’ve always tried to be unique.”

,

Watch YouTube performances of Wendell Harrison playing and singing Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology,” playing the original composition “Boomerang,” and as part of the Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue at 2011 Concert of Colors. (Subsequent to the posting of this article, Kresge published a monograph on Harrison’s life and career. Monographs and films of Kresge Eminent Artists can be found here.)

Hear examples of his work in a Spotify playlist.

Kresge staff is working remotely, and our offices are closed until further notice.  See our promise to partners during COVID-19.
+