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The Lessons of Wendell Harrison


Thank you, Rick (Rodgers). Rick, as all of you probably know, is now a short-timer as president of the College for Creative Studies. Rick’s retirement becomes effective next June, so this will be the last time Rick and I share a stage for one of these Eminent Artist monograph presentations. Rick and Rip will no longer be a stage act, I’m sad to say. We are passing into history like Simon and Garfunkel, Sam and Dave, Laurel and Hardy.

All joking aside, we can only hope that the trustees of the College for Creative Studies will appoint a successor with Rick’s boldness of vision. We trust it will be someone, like Rick, who sees arts in many of the ways that we do. Particularly, we trust it is someone who connects the dots of individual artists to the arts community to the wellbeing of the community writ large.

Thanks to Rick, the college has been a partner through the entirety of our Kresge Arts in Detroit experiment to elevate the arts community through direct support to artists themselves. And for that we will be eternally grateful.

I want to recognize staff from The Kresge Foundation here tonight, particularly Kresge’s Detroit Program, which is responsible for our arts work in Detroit as part of a vision of promoting and expanding equitable opportunity in Kresge’s hometown for its current and future residents.

I also want to give a shout out to the team of Julie Pincus and Sue Levytsky, the creative team leading the content and design of our Eminent Artist monograph series. And I want to recognize our Kresge Communications Department which supports Julie and Sue in creating the book each year and organizes this event to bring the book to the public.

And my gratitude is extended to every person in this room tonight to celebrate the arts in Detroit and our 2018 Kresge Eminent Artist, Wendell Harrison. This is a city in mourning after the recent passing of Aretha Franklin – her loss is a bold reminder of the power of art to carry a message from Detroit around the world. And it should heighten our appreciation of all of our artists, all the stars in our constellation.

I also want to thank our supportive hosts here at the Detroit Institute of Arts, an institution that we at Kresge have had a special bond for decades.

Kresge was founded here in Detroit in 1924 by retail pioneer Sebastian Kresge to promote human progress. Our support for the DIA goes back at least to 1949 and continues today. Most recently it includes the “Grand Bargain” five years ago through which Kresge was able to join with partners in philanthropy and other sectors to speed the city’s emergence from bankruptcy, to lessen the bankruptcy’s blow to municipal retirees and to save the DIA from irreparable damage.

I’d like to also note that 60 years ago – in 1958 – Kresge made a major investment toward erecting the skylight over what was then called the Garden Court. That space is where we beckoned you from tonight – it was subsequently renamed the Kresge Court.

This museum has a special meaning for our Eminent Artist Wendell Harrison as well.

Tribe, the musical collective that Wendell cofounded, had its first major performance here on this stage in 1971. And Wendell has performed here, in various parts of the museum, hundreds of times since then. We know he’s proud to have this as our venue tonight – and we are too.

Wendell Harrison is the 10th Kresge Eminent Artist, chosen, like his predecessors, for lifelong contributions to his artform and contributions to metropolitan Detroit’s cultural community. This is an honor he has accepted in the year that also marks the 10th cohort of Kresge Artist Fellows and the naming of four new recipients of the Gilda Award for Emerging Artists. Over a decade that’s meant more than $5 million in the pockets of 200 artists.

We’re happy to have with us here tonight a number of our Kresge Artist Fellows. And I see here our Eminent Artists Patricia Terry-Ross, Leni Sinclair, Ruth Adler Schnee and Bill Harris. Again, our thanks for your attendance.

Every year as we research and produce the monograph, we find the story of a young person who connects with the deep traditions of an art form. They become enthralled, obsessed. They discover their gift. And they learn from the best. They build on what they’ve learned. They overcome challenges. They break down barriers and they share what they’ve learned with the world.

It’s the same story, but it feels new with each artist.

Here is some of Wendell’s story. His mother sent him to music lessons at age 5 in hopes of channeling his noisy, nervous energy. It did that and more.

In high school, slightly older classmates recognized a jazz musician in the making and took him under their wings.

Wendell eventually took lessons from Detroit’s bard of bebop, the legendary teacher Barry Harris. That helped ready him for New York, where, as a young man of 19 in 1961, he found himself in one of the most dynamic scenes in the history of jazz.

He was hired by, among others, the saxophonist Hank Crawford, a key voice in the Ray Charles band that helped invent the sound that we now call soul music.

Other musicians were going in different directions in New York in those years. They were exploring new degrees of freedom. Wendell was part of that, too, jamming with the likes of Sonny Rollins and Don Cherry. He even worked with the farthest-out of the out-there bandleaders, the hard-to-describe Sun Ra, who told him to play “like the ocean in a storm, like a hurricane.”

And after a decade, Wendell brought all of those lessons back to Detroit where he has been ever since growing as an artist – and sharing them as a teacher and mentor.

He cofounded the collective of musicians called Tribe, which was dedicated to self-determination: Musicians promoted their own concerts, produced their own records, controlled their own publishing. And in an offshoot of the musical organization, Wendell teamed up journalist Herb Boyd and others as the publisher of TRIBE magazine. During the 1970s, the magazine unabashedly presented current events, politics and culture from an African-American perspective.

In the wake of the Tribe collective, Wendell created his own record label and a nonprofit organization to produce, present, record, distribute and teach young people in particular about this great musical tradition to which he belongs.

I could tell you more about Wendell’s work with youth. About the dozens and dozens of musicians from around the country that he has brought to Detroit to perform and broadcast on (public radio station) WDET. About his innovative clarinet choir and about his myriad other musical projects. About the musicians who inspire him and who he has inspired in turn.

But I won’t do that because:

  1. Each of you will go home tonight with your very own copy of the Wendell Harrison monograph, and
  2. We have Wendell Harrison himself right here to tell you some more about his journey and illuminate it with music along with his wife, music and business partner, Pamela Wise on the piano.

So, please join me in welcoming them to the stage.

Ladies and gentlemen, Wendell Harrison and Pamela Wise.