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Donald Harrison brings "the whole lineage of the music" as a 2022 NEA Jazz Master

Donald Harrison at the 2014 NYC Winter Jazzfest.
Jonathan Chimene
Donald Harrison at the 2014 NYC Winter Jazzfest.

This evening at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, The National Endowment for the Arts will inaugurate four new NEA Jazz Masters, bestowing this nation’s highest honor for living jazz musicians. We’ve been celebrating the new class of honorees this week, and we close out the series with alto saxophonist, bandleader, and cultural activist Donald Harrison, Jr.

Harrison brought his band to WBGO for a live broadcast in October of 2019, demonstrating the hybrid jazz and R&B style that he calls “nouveau swing.” He also spoke with me by phone about how that concept applies to his cover of Lil Nas X's viral hit "Old Town Road."

Harrison has been a prominent voice in modern jazz since the early 1980s, when he emerged in a post-bop peer group known as the Young Lions. But his story begins much earlier — in his native New Orleans, where his father, Donald Harrison, Sr., was a prominent figure within Mardi Gras Indian culture, a rich byproduct of Black and Native American contact during the years of antebellum slavery.

Donald Harrison, Jr. has extended that legacy as Big Chief of the Congo Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group. He is this year’s recipient of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, and as he told the NEA, he was born to the role.

I've heard that New Orleans is the northernmost Caribbean Island, but I like to think of New Orleans as a part of America. My father, of course, was part of the culture. He was the Big Chief of five different groups during his lifetime. He brought me around the old-timers that were connected to antiquity. So when I listen to the records from the ‘20s, I'm actually hearing things that go back to Africa and how they use them on those records. I feel like I'm the embodiment of the whole lineage of the music.
Donald Harrison, Jr.

Big Chief Donald Harrison, Jr. will perform a hometown show at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, on April 29. But first, he appears this evening at the SFJAZZ Center, in the 2022 NEA Jazz Masters tribute concert. You can watch a live webcast tonight at 10:30 p.m. Eastern, at wbgo.org.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.