At 75, Wendell Harrison has been “the flame keeper of Detroit’s jazz legacy for 60 years. Now that multi-decade career has earned him the Kresge Eminent Artist Award.
Harrison is one of only nine artists to be honored with the award since 2008. He receives an unrestricted $50,000 prize in recognition of his professional achievements in his medium, contributions to the cultural community and dedication to Detroit and its residents.
Along with the award comes an artist monograph, which will chronicle Harrison’s life and career and will be released later this year. It will be distributed to the public at no cost. (You can preorder it by sending your name and mailing address to email@example.com.)
“Wendell Harrison exemplifies Detroit’s tradition of cultural warriors,” says Kresge President Rip Rapson. “Rooted in the jazz masters that preceded him, he found a voice that is indelibly his own, earthy and sophisticated, at once down-home and out-there. He was instrumental in shaping the sound of Detroit jazz in the 1970s and has been so ever since. He has been a leader, not only on the bandstand, but in forging opportunities for musicians to record and present their art on their own terms when the commercial world had no interest in doing so.”
From modern jazz to freeform and fusion, and even some funk, Harrison has proven himself in the music world.
“Wendell is like the Energizer Bunny,” says Gayelynn McKinney, Detroit drummer, 2014 Kresge Artist Fellow, and Kresge Arts in Detroit Advisory Council member, which selected Harrison to receive the honor this year. “He never slows down. He’s always striving to learn more.
“All of us in my generation have learned from him. He’s inspired me to go after what I want, and he instilled in us that you have a responsibility to pass along the information to those who come after you,” he says.
Playing music is only part of the musical resume Harrison has spent decades infusing in Detroit’s culture Along with playing the tenor sax and clarinet, he is also a composer, bandleader, educator, and entrepreneur.
“I have always worked hard,” he says. “Rather than wait for somebody else to do things for me, I did them myself.”
Most of his career, which started at 15, has been spent in Detroit. At that young age he fell in love with jazz while at Northwestern High School. There he was inspired by slightly older classmates, who would later make national names for themselves, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer and future Motown bass star James Jamerson.
Harrison talks about his early life during a interviews with students at Lathrup High School shown in this video.
Harrison did have adventures away from Detroit. He spent much of the 1960s in New York, where he worked with the legendary Lou Rawls, along with mainstream guitarist Grant Green and free jazz icon Sun Ra. He got his first big break with Ray Charles band alumna Hank Crawford. He toured and recorded four albums with Crawford from 1963 to 1967.
Unfortunately, around that time Harrison found himself caught up in the drug scene and became addicted to heroin.
In 1967 he entered Synanon, the well-known drug rehabilitation and residential center in Santa Monica, Calif. He stayed there for 2 ½ years, reading, learning about business, nonprofits and fundraising. While he was there he jammed with fellow musicians among the residents, including the famous saxophonist Art Pepper. Harrison also appeared on “The Prince of Peace” (on the Epic label), a jazz-rock cantata recorded with Synanon musicians, including vocalist Esther Phillips.
The time he spent at Snynan gave him a new lease on life, and he came back to Detroit in 1970. He thought it would be a short stay. Instead, he found Detroit offered him all needed or wanted for his new life. He began teaching at Metro Arts, an inner-city youth organization, where he formed a bond with trumpeter Belgrave, trombonist Phil Ranelin, and pianist Harold McKinney (father of drummer Gayelynn McKinney).
From 1972-77, Harrison and Ranelin had a group called The Tribe, which played a combination of modal post-bop, populist jazz-rock and streaks of free-jazz abstraction. The band produced jazz recordings and concerts, published a magazine and continues to provide a do-it-yourself model for contemporary creative musicians.
Ranelin eventually moved to L.A. ending The Tribe’s reign, but the spirit remained with Harrison as he became involved with more music groups and non-profits.
He collaborated with saxophonists Eddie Harris and Detroit-born James Carter, vocalist Leon Thomas and Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig. Harrison has made more than 20 recordings as a leader and dozens more as a sideman.
You can listed to some of his music in the videos below.
He also created his own non-profit, Rebirth, which handles his teaching, performing, and recording. His personal label is Wenha records.
Harrison even produced radio concerts for WDET-FM, which featured artists that came into town like saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, clarinetist Don Byron and the late pianist Geri Allen, an international star who grew up and began her career in Detroit.
The world of publishing has also been kind to Harrison. He has written instructional books on jazz, and currently working on “The Fundamentals of Marketing and Promotion for the 21st Century Musician,” with his former professor, Robert McTyre.
Kresge is by no means the only organization to honor Harrison. He has been named a Jazz Master by Arts Midwest and spent part of the 1990s internationally touring with the Michigan Jazz Masters.
“I’m just trying to carry on the tradition,” says Harrison. “That’s what Marcus and Harold did. I’m trying to represent the high caliber of artists from Detroit dedicated to jazz improvisation.”