A Serious Jazz Take on "Old Town Road"? Big Chief Donald Harrison, Jr. Has Got It Covered

Aug 23, 2019

Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” the country-trap single and pop-cultural juggernaut, just ended its record-breaking run at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, after a staggering 19 weeks. But while its chart-topping dominion may be over, its impact keeps rippling outward. It was probably only a matter of time before a jazz musician took the reins.

Donald Harrison, Jr. — prominent alto saxophonist, veteran jazz educator, Big Chief of the Congo Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group — was the person to do it.

His instrumental version of “Old Town Road,” made with a New Orleans rhythm section, is an attempt to harness the renegade spirit of the original within the hybrid style that Harrison calls “Nouveau Swing.” The track has just been released as a single on Spotify and Apple Music, and can also be heard below.

It opens with a brooding ostinato in G-sharp minor, just as the original does (to the extent that an “original” version can accurately be traced). But there’s a bounce in the bass line, and Harrison’s entry on alto is pure post-bop swagger. Yep, he’s gonna ride ‘til he can’t no more — but at his own clip, in any direction he chooses.

Curious about the inspiration for the track, and the way it all came together, I called Harrison this week. We talked about how “Old Town Road” connects to jazz history (really) and what it means to bring such disparate musical elements together in a way that breathes. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

This has been the summer of “Old Town Road.” Do you remember how it first hit your radar?

I was looking through music on YouTube, and there was a video of Lil Nas X performing his song for a country-music audience. The energy of his performance caught my eye. I really enjoyed it. I said, ‘This kid is doing something that I’ve been trying to do for jazz music, which is unite people.’ Then I started thinking about what I could do with that in a jazz context.

You mention bringing people together, and the song has absolutely proven itself in that regard. But when did you become aware of the controversy around its exclusion from Billboard’s Country chart?

For me, music is inclusive. That’s a statement I’ve been making for a long time. So once you say this is exclusive to only these artists, it becomes something motivated by prejudice. That’s really unfortunate. Maybe he’s not a master of country music. But I don’t think he was trying to be. He mixed different forces together and came up with a new sound.

And the back story of that sound is fascinating: a darkly atmospheric Nine Inch Nails sample that gets mixed with a trap beat. There’s something about that amalgamation that must feel familiar to you, coming from New Orleans.

Really, it’s the history of jazz music. I consider myself a jazz artist who adds other things to it. Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, John Coltrane – these were people who added to what the music already was. Now, it’s a little different because those guys actually mastered jazz music, and then added to it. I don’t know that Lil Nas X has mastered certain styles of music. But he is a person who, in my estimation, figured out how to put different elements together and come up with something that touches everybody who hears it. Whether you love country music, or love trap music, or love Nine Inch Nails, you have to commend him for that.

He’s also such a magnetic performer. He comes out with the fringe jacket and the cowboy hat…

[Laughs]

…and I wonder how that speaks to you. When we talk about presentation, and the power of embodying a persona, what insights can you share as someone coming out of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition?

Credit Demian Roberts / Flickr

First of all, I’ve renamed what I do. I consider myself a participant in Afro-New Orleans culture now, because I’m coming out of Congo Square. Some of the older guys told me that when they were masking, they were masking African culture. There’s different factions who consider themselves Mardi Gras Indians, which is a term that was made up in the ‘70s. But that’s a convoluted subject.

It’s an important distinction, though, and a terminology that I can use, going forward.

Right. Anyway, this morning I was looking at George Clinton. When he started putting on those outfits, people paid attention. I just feel like this kid, Lil Nas X, the way he dresses, he was bringing different factions together, and all the things that he may be into. The tradition I come from, it’s understanding that our cultural attire tells a story linked to antiquity. You have to understand all of those elements and then, just like jazz music, try to push it forward and create something that speaks to who you are. So, you know what? Maybe the way he dresses — the cowboy hat and the multicolored clothes that he wears — maybe he’s adding those elements to speak of himself. Which is the same thing I’m doing, to speak of who I am as a chief.

Back in June, the Postmodern Jukebox posted their cover of “Old Town Road,” with Miche Braden on vocals. It’s a lighthearted pastiche, which is their stock in trade. By contrast, when I heard your version, I was struck by the seriousness of the intention. How important was that to convey?

There are different ways of approaching songs. My first inclination is to make sure that the history of this music, which we call jazz, is present in what we play. The idea of reaching for your highest level is always there. I felt that this was a vehicle where we could do that, and also try to be true to the essence of trap music, with some country and some bebop in there, some John Coltrane. Take all those elements and move some ideas forward, from a perspective of understanding and connection to the universe. From my deepest convictions, so that it would be serious, and feel serious.

Speaking of trap rhythm: your nephew, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, is another improviser who has incorporated it into his music, in a way that feels very organic.

Right. He calls his style “Stretch Music,” but I consider it an offshoot of Nouveau Swing. We came to a compromise: Now he says: “No Nouveau Swing, no Stretch.” I’ll go with that. [Laughs] But I was fortunate in that I had already told my drummers to learn how to play the trap beats on the drum set, so that they would be comfortable with playing that kind of music but with the feeling of a human being. The young kids I teach, I tell them to learn bebop and all the different styles of jazz, from New Orleans jazz to Albert Ayler, and everything in between.

And the musicians on this single — unless I’m mistaken, these are all New Orleans musicians of a younger generation.

Except for Chris Severin, the bassist, who’s actually a little older than me. He’s playing in a way where you can hear a little bit of the hip-hop influence, but you can also hear that he’s a seasoned jazz person. The drummer, Thomas Glass, he’s about 20 years old. He’s one of my students. And the pianist, Shea Pierre, went to Oberlin but he was one of my students as well. All of these guys are adept at a lot of different styles of music. And that’s key for me. That we can go play Sidney Bechet one minute, and then Charlie Parker the next minute. And put them together.

You play that recognizable vamp from “Old Town Road,” and then you introduce a second vamp. Where did that counter-vamp come from?

I just felt it needed another element for what we were doing. So in the studio I said “Let’s just put this in here. It’ll make the song have more feeling in it, and be more exciting.” That’s why I did that. At first it was a little unbalanced, but when I heard it over I said “No, we came up with a good thing here.” And actually, everybody who hears it, that’s the part they can’t get out of their mind.

Have you performed this song live?

We haven’t, as of yet. And we’re playing in New York in October, so we’re going to debut it then. We’re going to be at Smoke, and reintroduce Nouveau Swing.

Donald Harrison, Jr. appears at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club from Oct. 3-6.