Jazz saxophonist and clarinetist Wendell Harrison has long been known for taking his music into his own hands. Co-founder of the legendary Tribe record label and collective in the 1970’s, Harrison went on to establish Rebirth Inc., a non profit jazz performance and education organization in the 80’s. Numerous well-known jazz artists, including pianist Gerri Allen, saxophonist James Carter, Eddie Harris vocalist leon Thomas and trumpeter Woody Shaw , just to name a few, have participated in Rebirth’s programs. He also created WenHa the record label and publishing company which released many of his recordings, as well as that of his wife, pianist Pamela Wise. Through his solo work and his Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble, Harrison has gained more widespread respect for the clarinet, this often neglected, yet versatile instrument.
Harrison was born on October 1, 1942 in Detroit and attended Northwestern High School. His classmates included trumpeter Lonnie Hillyard, saxophonist Charles McPherson, and percussionist Roy Brooks. All of whom sparked his interest in jazz music. Like his classmates, Harrison began formal jazz studies with pianist Barry Harris. He also attended the Detroit Conservatory of Music which is now know as the College for Creative Studies. While in Detroit he performed with Motown stars Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and the legendary Sammy Ward. Shortly after in 1960 the young Harrison headed for New York. He began performing for some of the world’s premier jazz artists: guitarist Grant Green vocalist Eddie Jefferson, and the great Sun Ra. He teamed up with trumpeters Marcus Belgrave, Jimmy Owens and Howard Johnson to perform and tour with saxophonist Hank Crawford. Wendell can be heard on Hank’s earlier recordings: Double Cross, Dig These Blues, Mr. Blues, on Atlantic Records. Wendell learned how to compose, write and arrange for multi ensembles during this time in his life.
In 1970, the fast paced New York and the road began taking its’ toll on Wendell. He moved to California for a short period. While resting and practicing at the Synanon Center, he met vocalist Esther Phillips and saxophonist Art Pepper. Under the direction of Greg Dykes they recorded an album(reissued on CD) entitled The Prince Of Peace which received world wide recognition. This experience also enhanced his writing and arranging skills. Harrison headed back to Detroit in 1971. He began teaching music at a multi arts complex for youth, Metro Arts founded by Dr. Amelita Mandingo. While teaching at Metro Arts Wendell met pianist composer Harold McKinney and rejoined his friend Marcus Belgrave. Wendell also met trombonist Phil Ranelin who had moved to Detroit from Indianapolis. Together they formed the Tribe record label and collective. Tribe used this vehicle to convey a growing black political consciousness. The group also included drummer and composer Doug Hammond, pianist Ken Cox and trumpeter Charles Moore. They performed together live and on one another’s recordings releasing them on the Tribe record label. Tribe also published a magazine, a quarterly monthly publication dedicated to musical and political revolutionaries and political issues. The magazine was published by Harrison’s company, The Harrison Association. Tribe had pretty much disbanded in 1975, but Phil Ranelin and Wendell were instrumental and getting all of the Tribe recordings reissued to various labels. This unique organization packed a strong musical punch on the international scene. Techno music guru Carl Craig discovered in his global travels that Tribe still was gaining popularity on the underground techno music scene internationally which was unheard of considering they haven’t performed together as Tribe in over 30 years. In 2007 Carl reproduced the Tribe group with Marcus, Wendell, Doug and Phil. They have a single on the market entitled It’s A New Day on the C2 Planet E record label and is also touring globally. The newly Tribe produced CD will be forthcoming in 2009. Other Tribe reissues can be found on several web sites including DustyGroove.com.
Wendell and Harold McKinney founded Rebirth Inc. in 1978, another successful organization whose mission is to educate youth and the greater community about jazz through workshop and concert presentations throughout the Midwest. The organization is based in Detroit and funded by several foundations and corporations. In teaching and presenting many of Rebirth’s programs he found that students needed a method to help them learn jazz improvisation and perform like the masters. So he authored the Be Boppers Method Books I & II which is an invaluable aid to young musicians wanting to build their improvisational skills. The book also contains a play along CD and is distributed internationally by Jamey Aebersold.
Harrison’s campaign for the often neglected clarinet instrument has added a new spin on his list of accomplishments. The unique Mama’s Licking Stick clarinet ensemble features each member of the clarinet family including E flat soprano, B flat, alto, bass and contra bass clarinets. Chamber Music America, a prestigious granting organization based in NYC has awarded Harrison many grants in support of his unique clarinet ensemble. Some of the programs have included New Works and Creation, Jazz Residency and French American Culture Exchange projects. There are several recordings available on Mama’s Licking Stick; Rush and Hustle, Live In Concert (both which feature James Carter on bass clarinet) and Forever Duke released on the WenHa record label.
Wendell continues to thrive as a musician, educator and entrepreneur, creating new and innovative projects such as: vocalizing and scat singing, composing new music for the clarinet ensemble, touring on the techno music scene with Carl Craig, recording with young musicians. Detroit continues to produce the best talent in the world and that is found to be true with the great jazz master, Wendell Harrison.
Spring Arbor University -MBA Communications 2017
Spring Arbor University - Bachelors Degree of Science, Organizational Management major 2014
Wayne County Community College, Detroit-Associates of Arts Degree 2012
Highland Park Community College
Detroit Conservatory of Music (now known as Center for the Creative Studies)
Northwestern High School-Detroit
AWARDS AND HONORS
KRESGE EMINENT ARTIST AWARD -2018
Chamber Music of America Residency Award 2017, 2007, 2004
Detroit City Council Ward-Jazz Entrepreneur-Educator and Culture community Warrior-2016
City Of Detroit- Unsung Musicians of the Motown Empire 2012
Chamber Music America French American Exchange Award 2008
Detroit African American Music Festival Jazz Master Award 2006
Wendell Harrison Rebirth -Lathrup High School Achievement 2005-2006
Art Foundation of Michigan Commission Award
Chamber Music of America Commission Award 2002
Detroit City Council Publishing Award- The Be-Bopper Method Book-1984
Metro-Times- Hall of Fame- 2000-2017
United States Congressional Recognition Award –1994
Wayne County Distinguished Service Award-1995
Legends of Jazz International Hall of Fame-1995
Detroit City Council Jazz Master Award-1994
Arts Midwest Jazz Masters Award 1993
Arts Serve Michigan Commission Award 1992
International Jazz Educators award -1988
Metro-Times- Best Clarinetist 1984
The National Endowment Composer Award-1974
Photo by Barbara Barefield