Conversation with Wendell Harrison, Continued

This is the second part of our conversation with reedman Wendell Harrison, which had taken us up to his experiences at MetroArts Detroit in 1970. He made many important connections at MetroArts with other members or the staff, particularly Marcus Belgrave and Harold McKinney. MetroArts was a Federal program which provided an economic cushion for many performers, always struggling to survive. Belgrave had settled in Detroit where he got some work in the Motown studios, as well as jazz gigs with Tribe, a collective with many arms one of which was performance, the others were recording and publication of a magazine simply called Tribe. The magazine turned a profit to Harrison’s surprise. The performing group also included trombonist Phil Ranelin and drummers Doug Hammond and George Davidson.

Harold McKinney came from a distinct background: many members of the McKinney family were involved in the arts. McKinney was highly educated, spoke German and had classical musical training, which did not involve improvisation. He struggled with learning how to improvise, however, but got the hang of it a few years after turning 40 and playing a lot of Horace Silver tunes according to Harrison. Harrison first met McKinney at Joe Brazil’s house, one of the most popular places for musicians to hang out in the 1950s.

Pam Wise came from Ohio with a business background working in finance, banking and health care and her father was a swing bass player. She and Harrison were a great team, and by the early 1980s they had moved in together. Wise brought a more commercial aspect to Harrison’s music and also more strategic business thinking into Harrison’s life. In the 1980s they recorded together for WenHa and Tribe record labels with Wise on keyboards. Harrison also recruited non-Detroit artists to his labels: Leon Thomas and Eddie Harris were the two biggest names. The action on his record labels then moved to distribution and licensing on a national and international scale. The straight-ahead recordings did well and were licensed by a Belgian label.

Wendell Harrison is the recipient of SEMJA’s 2024 Ron Brooks Award. An award celebration and performance will be presented at the Kerrytown Concert House Sunday, February 25, 2024, at 4:00 p.m. and will include a concert with a group he has assembled. The group includes Pamela Wise on piano, Ingrid Racine on trumpet, Jacob Schwandt on guitar, Pathe Jassi on bass, and Louis Jones III on drums.Visit the Concert House website for ticket information.