The jazz musician and educator discusses Detroit's rich music history and what he's contributed.
As a kid, Wendell Harrison hated piano lessons – but he fondly remembers his first music teacher, Clarence Hewitt Sr., who went on to open a variety of stores in metro Detroit under the name Hewitt’s Music. Most importantly for Harrison, Hewitt introduced him to the clarinet. In a real sense, that’s where his music journey began back in the ’50s and early ’60s. You could even say “Old Man Hewitt,” as he affectionately calls him, helped to foster a love of music that has taken Harrison around the world as a performer.
Growing up on LaSalle Street, Harrison, now 75, describes a bustling Detroit where a burgeoning black middle class – recently migrated from the South – bought houses, worked in factories and made sure their children had music lessons. Detroit was a place where jazz greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and others would come into town and stay awhile, according to Harrison.
The Blue Bird Inn, a black-owned establishment, featured some of the most important musicians in jazz history, and Harrison absorbed these lessons, great and small. “Because of the work, the economy was hot,” Harrison says. “You had a lot of jazz clubs in the community bringing in national artists. I used to hear (saxophonist) Sonny Stitt at the Blue Bird; used to hear Joe Henderson playing at the Blue Bird.”
He eventually took up jazz studies with Barry Harris and others, using every opportunity to play and expand his knowledge. After high school, Harrison decided to follow in the footsteps of his idols and move to New York. The experience gave him the chance to play – and record – with Sun Ra, Grant Green, Eddie Jefferson and other notable names. Years later, Harrison spent some time on the West Coast and recorded with Art Pepper.
By the ’70s, and his return to Detroit, he launched record labels Tribe and WenHa, as well as the publication Tribe magazine, which provided news on Detroit happenings including politics and music. Harrison continued recording, but the industry eventually upended in the late ’90s. And when his European gigs slowed down shortly after the turn of the century, he decided it was time to go back to school – in his 60s.
Harrison earned a bachelor’s degree in 2014 for organizational management and, in 2017, a master’s in communication from Spring Arbor University.
Today, he follows his creative whims and doesn’t plan too far ahead. That’s exactly how he prefers it.
“I’ll work on some stuff and keep pushing it and keep pushing it, and all of sudden I’m in a new place. I don’t know how I got there, but I’m interested,” Harrison says. “At this point, I want to go to Africa and learn about these different polyrhythms. I’m interested in East Africa. I want to deal with East Africa and be able to come back and teach those concepts in a jazz curriculum, as well as write a book on that experience.”
Upcoming free events:
Wendell Harrison Ensemble presents “Exploring Jazz & Its African Rhythms”
1-3 p.m. Dec. 10
Rivera Court, Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward Ave.
Workshops for Kids and Seniors
10-11 a.m. Dec. 12-13
DIA Film Theater
5200 Woodward Ave.