Person of The Year

“Have you ever seen people build a home?” Donald Harrison asked a roomful of teenagers one Monday night in September at The Music Shed studio in the Garden District of New Orleans. “Well, you start with the foundation. And then you’ve got the support beams. If all that’s not intact, it won’t matter what you do — the whole thing will come crashing down.” Harrison was instructing local high-school and junior-high students, interns in an education program sponsored by the Tipitina’s Foundation, a nonprofit organization developed by one of the city’s iconic clubs. His point was the importance of mastering fundamentals before moving on to the inventive improvisation that makes jazz — like most New Orleans music — special. Harrison knows a great deal about constructing a solo and, these days, whether he likes it or not, a thing or two about building a house. Like so many of his New Orleans neighbors, the first floor of his home in the Broadmoor section is stripped to its beams. By now, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the failure of the levees and the subsequent floods, seem nearly a distant memory: the nights spent sleeping in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency; the difficulty of relocating to Baton Rouge; the first trip back to find his own home seriously damaged and his childhood house, where his mother still lived, mostly torn apart. Stick to the “Sliver by the River,” the high-ground neighborhoods along the Mississippi’s banks, and you might think New Orleans is healing. Take a taxi from Louis Armstrong Airport to the French Quarter, and you’ll find scant evidence of Katrina’s wrath. But New Orleans is two cities now — one inching toward renewal, the other waiting for funding or any clear direction to the future. Favorite clubs still host favorite bands, but many of the musicians now travel from Atlanta or Baton Rouge for gigs. The culture that inspired and still shapes the sound of American music — in the form of jazz musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure Club second-liners, and neighborhood brass bands — remains stuck in some painful limbo. On a corner across the street from Harrison’s home, the elegant front façade is all that remains of another home, leaning precariously against three support beams. That’s what this city is like now — a shell of its former, historically significant self in need of preservation, teetering on the brink of utter collapse, yet still flashing beautiful details. Musicians like Harrison are back in New Orleans, working to rebuild their personal lives as well as the cultural landscape from which they sprang. At 46, Harrison is in a position to grasp and address this crisis more completely than most musicians because his life and career embrace so much of what defines New Orleans culture. In his early teens, he began playing saxophone with Ernest “Doc” Paulin’s brass band, a seminal group for generations of players. He studied at New Orleans Center for Cultural Arts (NOCCA), the finishing school for a long list of jazz stars. He played in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, co-led a band with another hometown hero, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and, later, became an important voice in Eddie Palmieri’s blend of salsa and jazz. An established jazz star who spent much of the 1980s and ’90s in New York City, Harrison is nonetheless best-known to some in his hometown as a Mardi Gras Indian chief and the son of Donald Harrison Sr., who was himself a Big Chief of four different Mardi Gras Indian tribes. “The Mardi Gras Indian rhythms and chants were really the very first music that entered my consciousness,” Harrison said while sitting on the front stoop of his gutted home, squinting in the midday sun. “My mom remembers me tapping out the beats on the side of my crib.” But Harrison didn’t see the link between that formative influence and his modern-jazz career until the late ’80s, when he began participating with his father in those Mardi Gras Indian events he’d experienced as a child. “I didn’t get the connection until I started coming out with the Indians again and my dad was singing [the traditional song] ‘Shallow Water.’ In the back of my head, I started hearing Art Blakey’s drums. And I thought ‘Wow, this is all starting to make sense.’” In 1991, Harrison recorded Indian Blues (Candid) — still the most intriguing combination of jazz and Mardi Gras Indian music I’ve heard — with musicians ranging from Cyrus Chestnut to Dr. John to Donald Harrison, Sr. After his father’s death in 1988, Harrison became a Mardi Gras Indian chief and named his tribe Congo Nation in reference to New Orleans’ Congo Square, the one place in the United States where, during slave days, displaced Africans were allowed to play their native drums. The legacy of black New Orleans residents dressing up like Native Americans and parading on Mardi Gras Day dates back more than a century. It perpetuates not just an African consciousness, but, through costumes and other vestiges of American Indian culture, a bond with another oppressed and unappreciated people. Harrison’s childhood in the 9th Ward was something out of a Norman Rockwell painting — that is, if you’re talking about “The Problem We All Live With,” Rockwell’s 1964 rendering of a 6-year-old black girl being led into the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, the first such integration in Louisiana. Harrison, who was born in 1960, attended Frantz. He understands the music he was born into as a primary statement of African-American pride. “In America people of African descent are taught that where we came from is nothing. We have a day to celebrate Irish-American pride, St. Patrick’s Day, and a great parade in New York to celebrate Italian-American heritage. We have to come to grips that people of African descent are important, too. The pageantry of the Mardi Gras Indians means something.” When Harrison hears people speak today about why New Orleans should not be rebuilt, he hears the comment as another negation he just can’t accept. “That’s like someone saying ‘Your home and your culture don’t matter.’ But we do, and people need to recognize and honor that. Every time I wear the feathers and beads as a Mardi Gras chief, every time I pick up my saxophone and play, every hour I spend with a student, is my response.” “Donald embodies what it means to be a New Orleans musician in terms of historical roots, traditional and modern jazz, and all of the other styles,” said Tipitina’s Foundation Executive Director Bill Taylor. “When we were looking for someone to work with students, we wanted a musician who knew what it meant to grow up here and to succeed on the national stage but who also spoke the language of a New Orleans kid — someone who was proud of all of that, and who could share that pride.” Harrison’s nephew, trumpeter Christian Scott, remembers the giddy excitement he felt as a boy each time his Uncle Donald came to visit. But when Scott approached Harrison about playing trumpet, the games were over. “He was hard on me,” said Scott. “He set the bar high and expected a lot right away. Without saying so, it was as if he was telling me, ‘We come from a place where there’s a standard and a code that you must uphold.’ I got the message: If I wanted to be a part of this important chain, I could not be a weak link.” Harrison likes to return to the moment he first heard Blakey’s drums in his head when his father sang. “I stopped thinking of music in boxes,” he says. He’s held on to that sense as a defining characteristic of his inherited New Orleans legacy, not to mention his musical future. After the hurricane, he raised money to complete a new album leading an electric band, 3D: Volume 1 (FOMP Records), which includes among its guest artists both Eddie Palmieri and Chris Botti. “People will call this smooth jazz,” Harrison said, “but I don’t care.” His recent disc, The Survivor (Nagel Heyer), with Scott among the cast, features a wildly unorthodox version of the standard “Caravan” that employs LP scratching and looped rhythms. The last time I saw Harrison, in October, he was in the front yard of his childhood home. The house is uninhabitable. Harrison’s mother, Herreast, lives in a trailer, temporarily stationed next to the house until repairs are complete. The filmmaker Jonathan Demme and a small crew were there, filming the Harrisons for a documentary that centers in part on the hardships they’ve endured since Katrina, and the family’s centrality in New Orleans culture. Harrison’s mother stood on the step of her trailer and recalled the day, decades ago, that Donald Harrison Sr. came home from Werlein’s Music Store, where, on a whim, he bought a saxophone for his son. Donald picked up his current alto horn and played some of “Amazing Grace” — and swung it hard, as he might have played it in a brass band, while in his teens. A few minutes later, Harrison grabbed a tambourine and, with his sister, Cara, and a nephew, Kiel, by his side singing along, underscored the Mardi Gras Indian traditional “Two-Way-Pocky-Way” with that same rhythm. His mother stood proudly, watching the scene unfold on a block lined with empty houses of undetermined fate. When he finished singing, Harrison put down his tambourine and looked into Demme’s camera. “I’m going to continue to be a Mardi Gras Indian,” he said. “I’m going to play my saxophone. If enough people do their part, everything will endure. But that’s the question: Will people be allowed to do their part?”