Clarinetist, saxophonist, composer, bandleader
Jazz saxophonist and clarinetist Wendell Harrison has long been known for taking his music into his own hands. Co-founder of the short-lived but legendary Tribe record label and collective in the 1970s, Harrison went on to found Re-birth, a record label and jazz education organization, as well as the WenHa label on which much of his output, as well as that of his wife, pianist Pamela Wise, has been released. But, like Tribe, Rebirth/WenHa does not serve as an outlet for self-promotion. Numerous well-known jazz artists, including pianist Geri Allen, clarinetist/saxophonist James Carter, and bass player Robert Hurst have participated in Rebirth's programs. Through his solo work and his Mama's Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble, Harrison has also attempted to gain more widespread respect for his often neglected, yet versatile, instrument of choice.
Harrison was born on October 1, 1942, in Detroit, and attended the city's Northwestern High School. His classmates included trumpeter Lonnie Hillyard, alto saxophonist Charles McPhearson, and percussionist Roy Brooks, all of whom helped spark his interest in jazz music. Like Hillyard, McPhearson and Brooks, Harrison began formal jazz studies with pianist Barry Harris. Harrison also attended the Detroit Conservatory of Music, which is now a part of the city's College for Creative Studies. At the age of 18 he headed for New York, and began playing saxophone and clarinet with a number of jazz legends, including vocalists Eddie Henderson, Sarah Vaughn, and Ella Fitzgerald. In addition, he backed up the enigmatic keyboardist/bandleader Sun Ra, and for four years in the 1960s served as a member of saxophonist Hank Crawford's band. Harrison appears on Crawford's 1966 Atlantic records release Mr. Blues.
Harrison also began using heroin while in New York, and in 1970 he returned to Detroit after a brief stint on the West Coast, determined to kick his drug habit. He moved back into the house where he had grown up, built a studio in the basement and converted the second floor to offices and a practice room. He began teaching with pianist Harold McKinney and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, both local jazz luminaries, and producing concerts as well. He also got married.
In 1971 he joined with trombonist Phil Ranelin, who had moved to Detroit from Indianapolis and was supporting several Motown artists, to form Tribe, a record label and musicians' collective. The business end of the venture was originally called W. Harrison and Associates. Like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music in Chicago, the Black Artists Group in St. Louis, and the Underground Musicians' Association in Los Angeles, Tribe used the vehicle of music to convey a growing black political consciousness. In addition to Ranelin and Harrison, the group included McKinney and Belgrave, pianist Kenny Cox, drummer Doug Hammond, and trumpeter Charles Moore. The group performed together live and on one another's albums, releasing them on the Tribe label.
The collective also produced a quarterly magazine dedicated to musical and political revolutionaries and to political issues of the day. Harrison found that investing his energy in Tribe turned him away from more harmful endeavors. "I had been recuperating from the drugs for two years, so these things were something to keep me out of trouble and give me a focus," he told Jim Dulzo in a 2001 interview for Jazz Times. "When I came here, I just turned the negative into a positive and said, 'Well, I could do a lot of things.' So I just started doing them." While short-lived, the collective made a significant mark. "This combination band, label and promotional machine may have been a little scruffy and down-home, but it packed a strong musical punch remarkable for its unorthodoxy," Dulzo wrote. Harrison released two LPs on Tribe, 1973's Message from the Tribe, which he recorded with Ranelin, and his first album as a bandleader, An Evening with the Devil, was released in 1975.
By the late 1970s Tribe had disbanded, and Ranelin moved to Los Angeles. Harrison remained in Detroit and, divorced from his first wife, married jazz pianist Pamela Wise. Along with Wise and McKinney, he started a new organization, Rebirth, to promote concerts and provide jazz education programs. Rebirth had originally served as a label dedicated mainly to the work of Harrison and Wise, but that function was now served by a new, associated label called WenHa. Harrison recorded two albums for Rebirth, Birth of aFossil and Reawakening, both released in 1985. Rebirth also produced live concerts and radio broadcasts and featured a wide range of artists, including trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and pianist Ellis Marsalis.
Harrison's soprano saxophone was stolen during a 1979 tour, and since that time he has mainly played clarinet, advocating for greater respect for the instrument among jazz musicians. In an interview with Regina Lynch-Hudson of the Tennessee Tribune, Harrison expressed the belief that Europeans appreciate the history of jazz, and the clarinet as an instrument, more than do the Americans. "They throroughly study the roots of the instrument and where it comes from," he said. "They know more about us than we do. I am here to not only create quality sound, but to vividly translate the language of jazz clarinet in a world where it's misundersood." Harrison's first WenHa release, 1991's Duke Ellington tribute Forever Duke, featured his solo clarinet prominently, as well as showcasing a five-piece clarinet ensemble. His next studio release, 1994's Rush and Hustle, is attributed to Wendell Harrison and the Clarinet Ensemble (Harrison, Ernie Rogers, Harold Orr, Greg Koltyck, Paul Onachuck, and Ken Hobenstreet, with special guest James Carter). The ensemble is alternately known as Mama's Licking Stick. The album drew critical acclaim. In a 1995 review, Down Beat 's Thomas Conrad wrote, "This album is a true sleeper, full of revelations and delights."
Harrison delved into more experimental territory with the 2002 Entropy Stereo Recordings release of Eighth House: Riding with Pluto, a collection of solo soprano saxophone and clarinet improvisations. Harrison's Tribe endeavors have also garnered renewed notice with the Universal Sound release of Message from the Tribe: An Anthology of Tribe Records 1972-77, which concludes with the politically charged Harrison track "Tons and Tons of B.S." Harrison was awarded a Jazz Master award from Arts Midwest in 1993, and he has composed for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 1996 he toured Africa and the Middle East with the Michigan Jazz Masters. He has continued to teach jazz workshops to youth through Rebirth, but in 1998 he told David Zych of Jazz Times that performing takes top priority. "Playing comes first for me," he said. "Because, in order for me to teach it, I have to play it."
For the Record . . .
Born on October 1, 1942, in Detroit, MI; married first wife, 1970 (divorced); married Pamela Wise (a jazz pianist), late 1970s. Education: attended Detroit Conservatory of Music.
Freelance musician, 1960–; member of saxophonist Hank Crawford's band, 1960s; founded Tribe label and collective with trombonist Phil Ranelin, 1971; released first album as bandleader on Tribe, 1975; founded Rebirth/WenHa label and jazz education organization, 1978.
Awards: Arts Midwest Jazz Masters Award, 1993.
Addresses: Office—Rebirth Inc., 81 Chandler, Detroit, MI 48202, phone: (313) 875-0289, fax: (313) 875-0807, e-mail: [email protected]
(With Hank Crawford) Mr. Blues, Atlantic, 1966.
(With Phil Ranelin) Message from the Tribe, Tribe, 1973; reissued, P-Vine, 2004.
An Evening with the Devil, Tribe, 1975.
Birth of a Fossil, Rebirth, 1985.
Reawakening, Rebirth, 1985.
Fly by Night, WenHa, 1990.
Live in Concert, WenHa, 1990.
Forever Duke, WenHa, 1991.
Live in Concert, WenHa, 1992.
(With The Clarinet Ensemble) Rush & Hustle, WenHa, 1994.
(With Harold McKinney) Something for Pops (live), WenHa, 1994.
(With Eddie Harris) Battle of the Tenors (live), Enja, 1998.
Eighth House: Riding with Pluto, Entropy Stereo Recordings, 2002.
Urban Expressions, WenHa, 2003.
(Contributor) Message from the Tribe: An Anthology of Tribe Records 1972-77, Universal Sound/Soul Jazz, 2004.
Be-boppers Method Book, vols. 1 and 2, Rebirth, c. 1988.
Down Beat, May 1995.
Jazz Times, March 1995; June 1998; September 2001.
Tennessee Tribune, August 16, 2000.
"Wendell Harrison," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 29, 2005).
"Wendell Harrison," Grove Online,http://www.grovemusic.com (June 29, 2005).
WenHa/Rebirth Jazz Website, http://www.swiftsite.com/ WenHaJazz (July 1, 2005).
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