A Conversation with Wendell Harrison

We sat down on a recent afternoon with veteran Detroit reedman Wendell Harrison to discuss his long career in music, which has taken him from “Baby Boy” wonder to a respected Kresge Eminent Artist in 2018. He has accomplished so much that we will devote two consecutive articles in this newsletter to his career.

Wendell’s father (Walter) hailed from Louisiana and Texas and received a Ph.D. in Sociology from Cornell University. Wendell was born in Detroit in 1942 and his early musical training included piano lessons at five and later clarinet (he struggled to get it “not to squeak”) and a Martin alto saxophone. He moved on to the tenor sax when he attended Northwestern High School.

At Northwestern Harrison met aspiring jazzmen like altoist Charles McPherson, trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer and, eventually, their teacher/mentor pianist Barry Harris, who lived in the neighborhood. Hillyer had earlier adopted Harris’ approach to improvisation and told Harrison about it. Harrison’s mother wanted her son to go into professions like law or medicine and not become a “musical bum,” as she put it. Harrison was a good student and graduated from High School at 16 years of age. But a music career was tempting, and one of his first gigs was at the Fox Trap in Cleveland. He was inspired by fellow Detroiter Bernard McKinney (Kiane Zawadi) who was gigging with drummer and bandleader Max Roach.

At 19 Harrison took the big leap to move to the Big Apple, as did other Detroit jazzmen in the latter half of the 1950s. He joined Sun Ra’s Arkestra, of which Bernard McKinney was already a member. He also gigged with guitarist Grant Green at Minton’s in Harlem. Around this time Harrison started what became a long-term relationship (15 years) with John Coltrane’s ex-wife Naima. She had played an important part in her husband’s career where she took care of business matters to allow him to focus on music. According to Harrison she was also what we today call bi-polar, and she was also accustomed to supporting a musician who had been an addict.

Harrison also joined altoist Hank Crawford’s band, which backed Ray Charles and in turn led to his first recordings on Atlantic Records from 1963 to 1967. This is where he first encountered trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who would play an important part in Harrison’s career once he returned to Detroit. Joining Crawford on the road also led him into heroin addiction and time spent in prison, “the tombs” in lower Manhattan. He eventually kicked his habit while a part of the Synanon drug rehab program in Santa Monica, California. At Synanon, which housed a phalanx of jazz musicians, he met and recorded with vocalist Esther Phillips. By 1966–67 Harrison was clean from drugs and he returned to Detroit to start a new chapter in his life. He soon found work in the MetroArts program where he joined forces with Belgrave and pianist Harold McKinney, two pivotal people in his career, as we will see in the second part of our conversation.

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. Visit the Concert House website for ticket information.