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Lezlie Harrison: Jazz ambassador, radio host and vocalist on her new album ‘Let Them Talk’

Lezlie Harrison
Lezlie Harrison

I love Lezlie Harrison. Who doesn't? She's got tons of fans for her on-air work at WBGO, especially her popular weekend program Come Sunday. She's an excellent travel companion on the station’s annual South Africa trip and now she gets to show off her singing skills as well on a brand new album called Let Them Talk. And that's exactly what we did in a conversation about the new project and a whole lot more.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Or read the conversation, below.

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: I am delighted to be talking to my good friend and colleague, Lezlie Harrison, who all of you know from her wonderful job curating and hosting Come Sunday and all the other great work that she does at WBGO. But did y'all know she can sing as well? Lezlie, how are you doing?

Lezlie Harrison: I'm good.

The secret is out and people are talking about it.

I'm excited about it and I'll get to talk to you, which is delightful.

I had heard you before on the radio, but when I started working at WBGO and I got a chance to meet you, I just instantly fell in love with you. That happens to you a lot, doesn't it?

But I fell in love with you too. It happens a lot, but it has to be mutual for me. I remember running down the hallway.

We were like the little white boy and little Black boy in that commercial. I think like minded spirits attract. I think that one of the gifts that you've been given is that spirit of connection. I have a friend who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, who said that she saw your picture on the website and said, “I like her,” and then started listening to your show as well. I think the quality you have is elegant, but regular at the same time, elegant, but approachable.

Thank you so much. Someone else said to me, “You're not a diva and that's what I like about you.” I’m like, “Thank you for that.”

I like that. But you got the diva presence working. You've got that.

You have to show up in the room. One must enter the room properly.

There is nothing wrong with that.  The show that you're doing Come Sunday, here on WBGO, tell us a little bit about how that show evolved, how you came to do that.

At WBGO, we play America's classical music and the roots of that music where blues and jazz and R&B were involved. I said to our CEO [Steve Williams], “I would love to do a show, a gospel show, maybe mix it up a little bit” because that was the one thing that I thought was missing on Sunday mornings. I came up with this concept of Come Sunday, kind of blending it with gospel music, music that I grew up listening to in my grandparents’ home.

I'm a granddaughter of a Methodist preacher so I heard that music a lot in the house, and of course on Sunday mornings in church. I'm like, “It would be great to have a Sunday morning show at WBGO.” Steve Williams was like, “Yeah, go ahead and go for it.” It started out as two hours, playing some classic gospel and hymns and spirituals and blending it a little bit with some inspirational music. It's been a success. I love curating it because it just takes me back to my grandparents’ home and being in that kind of environment with those church people.

I think along with the gospel roots and all of that, that you seem to have an affinity and connection with spiritual music—all together.

It's just the music. My mother and my uncle both played organ and piano so I heard a lot of that music growing up. I also heard a lot of classical music. I love the organ so much because of my connection to it with church. Give me an organ trio. Then it’s on and popping.

You’ve got an organ trio too that you've used for your latest album. The trio is pretty incredible. You told me about it when I first saw you and now it's a real thing. You’ve got a single that is getting some airplay, “Fly Like an Eagle,” which if I'm not mistaken, we premiered on WBGO on Favorite Things didn't we?

We did. I thanked you on my CD. I don't know if you have a physical copy, but to hear your record on the radio and also a radio station that I work for, it was like, “Oh my God.” I knew you said you liked it which made it even better.

Let's talk a little bit about the record, the band, the songs. It seems to me that when it comes to selecting your material, you really cover a wide range of genres. I guess it reflects your life experience.

I grew up listening to what my parents had. Everything from Miles Davis to Carole King to Chicago. We had the mass choirs. I loved growing up listening to radio also. I love music from the 70s, soft rock, classic rock. I just love good music with good lyrics and then try to put them in my own voice. Bring my spirit to it as well with a good band.

Talk about your connection with a “Fly Like an Eagle,” because that's a song that I always really loved.

I always loved it and it was like, “Feed the babies, feed the children.” It’s one of those songs that is timeless because the message is timeless. I love the hook and I love the groove of “Fly Like an Eagle” and I'm thinking “That's a pretty good song to do now.” I started doing it in gigs and the audience loved it. I'm like, “Well, maybe I can do it and maybe Steve Miller might not disapprove.”

I like what you did too, because you slow it down a little bit so you actually get into the groove of this song and also into the intent of it because it really is a song of encouragement.

“Feed the babies, save the children.” It does have a social message to it. I have to be mindful of that. If I could sing a song or write a song about voting, I would certainly include that.

Music just permeates everything that we do and you think about what it is that you're listening to. Think about the music we listened to, coming up with Earth, Wind and Fire and Marvin Gaye. In all of these songs there was intention. In the songs themselves and the lyrics and as well as the music that also adds a lot to the success of a song like this. You are actually getting some play, aren't you?

I'm getting some play. I'm really excited because this is my second record. I put the first one out during the pandemic with no support. I did it myself with just hope. Corey Weeds approached me about recording after he came to see me live. He said, “I want that band and that material.” I was like, “Okay.” Cory is the president owner of Cellar Live. I'm like, “Okay, I can continue with this mission,” and now to hear it on radio and hearing it out in the world makes me really happy.

Tell us about the band too. You mentioned the fact that you love an organ trio, which I do as well. There's just that instrument has so much variety and so much warmth in it. You got a hot band.

I first heard Ben Patterson on piano. When he said he played organ, I'm like, “Oh, let's try that out.” He's so grooving. There’s Ben Patterson, Pete Zimmer on drums and Matt Chertkoff on guitars. I asked Matt to produce it for me because I just love the soulfulness of all of their playing.

I always call him Reverend Patterson because he actually played for church, but he's primarily a piano player and also an organ player. We went through some of the material that we actually do in performance. Matt and I did some tweaking of some of the arrangements and then we all kind of tweaked a little bit of the arrangements. There are songs on the album that I've always wanted to record. I love “Let Them Talk.” I love those old soul songs. There's a lot of that there.

What are some of your favorites on the album?

“Let Them Talk” and “A Lover is Forever.” I had a lover who was the love of my life at one point. We broke up and he was like, “We're going to always be friends.” He brought that song to me and I'm like, “Okay, yeah, we'll be forever.”

You owe him. You are now bonded together on this project.

I love all of the songs on Yesterday, so I do a cover of the Beatles. Anything that has a slow groove with the organ, give it to me.

In addition to being an artist, a radio presenter and a curator of music, you're also a little bit of a musical activist. I want you to tell us a little bit about your part in The Jazz Gallery, how that came to be and why that is important.

The Jazz Gallery is like an incubator for the youngest generation of jazz musicians and composers. We started out as an art gallery back in 1995 with Dale Fitzgerald, Roy Hargrove and myself. We started it really as a space for Roy Hargrove to rehearse the big band in because he was really bothering neighbors and Dale was Roy's manager. We got this beautiful space downtown for Roy to rehearse in.

We started talking about Roy wanting to do a big band, so it became an incubator for Roy putting this big band together, but because we also saw the potential in doing something more with it, it became a gallery. Then we got the piano from Bradley's that belonged to Paul Desmond and we started doing live performances. We brought in an artistic director, Rio Sakairi, and now we've become a real serious institution for nurturing young artists and giving them a platform, a place to not just to have a gig, but to actually work on material and present it in front of a live audience. Most of them become quite famous and MacArthur winners and such.

I'm really proud of that. Being an advocate for and an ambassador for this music because I love jazz. I love Black music. I love to be in any capacity to promote it, whether being on air, on stage or just one on one with somebody.

An incubator like this is something that's so needed. That interpersonal connection between artists is everything to keep the music going. The creativity is born in that and throughout the history of this music, those jam sessions, the places where you could actually get up and play. All of that is so critical to the survival of jazz.

So many people say that jazz is dying and I think so many young people that are doing things don't have a platform to show that this is not a dying art form. It has a lot of legs so I want to always be able to be part of the community that makes sure that it stays at an elevated level.

You've got your talent, you've got your activism, your connection to music, which comes from your gospel roots all through today. But you've also got an amazing look. You modeled, didn't you?

I did model at one point in Paris.

What was that like? Tell us about that.

I just always wanted to live in Paris. One day I just packed up my stuff and moved. I had gone there for the summer with my mother for a couple of weeks. I'm like, “I'm coming back here in October.” She said I never told her, but I called her from the airport and I said, “Hey, I'm on my way to Paris.” I had a place to stay. I had met a photographer in New York and she was following me around a bodega and she happened to be this beautiful French photographer. I started hooking up with her and just kind of getting my feet wet a little bit. Instead, that morphed into my first recording opportunity. I didn't really have singing as a thing to do. I wanted to act and here I am in Paris singing at a party and someone overheard me and it turned into something else. It wasn't the modeling that took off. It was the singing that took off so I just kind of stuck with that.

In addition to all of that, you're a bit of a citizen of the planet. Growing up in New York and North Carolina, and then Boston also thrown in there as you got older and then performing on stages across Asia, Russia, Europe, and hosting WBGO South Africa experience. You really are a citizen of the planet aren't you?

I am, because you get to see yourself when you travel the world. I've always wanted to travel and to be able to do work that gets me out there in the world. I love meeting people. I love sitting down and asking, “Please invite me to your house and to have dinner with you in your little house in Thailand,” or “Please invite me over to have dinner with you in Russia somewhere.” Making new friends, while also representing the music and the culture.

 I would imagine that your family's pretty proud of you. How does that feel for you?

My parents have passed away, but I know that they were proud of me. Whenever I accomplished something like this, I said, “Mommy, Daddy, I did it.” They didn't know I was singing. I became a singer late in life and they were like, “What?” My whole family and my friends were like, “What's she doing now?”

 I'm sure they were used to being surprised by you though.

My mother wanted me to be in business. I didn't even learn how to type until I was in my thirties. I feel I was destined to be in the theater. I really wanted to be in that world. When I started performing as a singer, my mother who was a musician also was like, “Oh, please child. Don't let this girl, don't let her mess up.”

Did your mother sing?

She didn't sing. She played piano and organ because she had to play in the church. She ended up being a banker. She left all that alone. I took up the mantle. I know that they're proud of me and that makes me feel good.

I think parents always want us to be able to flourish in life and to be able to be self- sustaining so they will push us towards those traditional careers. It's got to be one of the scariest things in the world for a parent to have an artistic kid. “Oh no. How will they pay the rent?”

On the way to being this I did a lot of things because my thing was, “Please don't ever call home and ask for money unless it was absolutely necessary.” But I made it, and I know I made them happy. I know that feeling because there were times when I'm like, “What am I doing?” But I knew I was onto something and I'm glad I stuck with it.

It's the things that they have taught us that have allowed us to do all the things that we do. What are some great life lessons you learned from your parents that have been successful for you or helpful in your life and career?

Just to keep working. To have a job and be successful at whatever you choose to do and don't go to jail.

That is some advice.

Don't go to jail. I’ve got to tell you, when my mother dropped me off at college, she said two things. She said, “Don't get pregnant and don't go to jail and always wear clean underwear in case you're in an accident.”

Universal wisdom from the elders. Let me just say, if you haven't heard it yet, you are certainly going to enjoy Lezlie's new project. We're hearing “Fly Like an Eagle” everywhere from the album, Let Them Talk. We don't mind at all, do we?

We don't mind if they talk. Naming the album when we were thinking about what we should name it, I'm like, “Okay, let them talk, because people are going to talk anyway.” We talk with professionals, we're talkers.

Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to work with you because you have been an idol of mine as I was coming up. When I wasn’t even in radio yet, I was listening to you.

Here we are and it's a beautiful thing, isn't it? Looking forward to hearing you live too. Hopefully I'll get out there to support this project.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.