[!] Oral History/Interview
Interview with Dr. Nelson E. Harrison
Conducted and transcribed
by Lucie Blue Duffort in April 2002 as part of Dr. Karlton E. Hester's course
Music 80Q: History of African Music (University of California, Santa Cruz) and
the Santa Cruz Global African Music Festival 2002.
- Preface to the
(by Lucie Blue Duffort)
Oral Tradition and Global African
At the heart of African history,
or global African history, we find oral tradition. Stories and myths passed
down between generations were not
transcribed in the way that we find in Western history books. In this way experiences remain fluid, alive, physical. War stories, celebrations, and learning all become embodied by the storyteller or teacher, and stories that denote culture come to define it through community. This desire for a sense of history and meaning through historicized execution continues in the expansion of a global African network. In the same way that the Jali-bards who told history through song in the Lambango tradition learned their craft through careful apprenticeship and the Ewe drummers learned complexities through slow absorption, the musicians attempting to expose musics evolving from African traditions- jazz specifically- need to look to mentors as a guide to history, and history as a guide to future.
Nelson Harrison is a veteran trombonist, arranger and composer and inventor of his own instrument, the trombetto. His most recent project has been the compilation of lyrics to 88 jazz standards into a book entitled The World According to Bop. It has received high praise from performers and composers alike. In the following, he explains the significance of his work and its importance to the learning process of jazz music.
- Interview Excerpt -
All Im doing now is honing
my creative abilities and sharing my experiences with the world. Being able
to share experience and put it in a form thats tangible is our obligation.
We enrich each other by sharing our experiences. Its always about life,
not about these labels and subdivisions we hang on it, because if you cant
relate it to your life its not useful information for you.
I wrote the lyrics because when I was a teenager listening to that music I could really hear them talking. There was a conversation there but I didnt have enough life experience to know what they were saying. So when I got older, I started to write on this music I had lived, and I knew what it was saying. I found that as I was writing the songs began to speak to me. I captured what I sensed as a kid. It began to coincide with me because I lived that life and that was my era.
I can hear in the music of young musicians today that they dont look back far enough. There are piano players back in New York who havent listened back further than 1960. Well, theyre not going to get it. If youre not listening back to Jelly Roll Morton, listen to Jelly Roll. See what was going on back then, theres a lot going on. Listen to Art Tatum, Eubie Blake, Earl Hines. Listen to them! These guys were playing. You think you can do better than that? Youll never come close. Go back and see where their ideas came from so you can understand them before trying to go past them. Youve got to master the craft. Then youll become one of them. Theres a field called neuro-linguistic programming that discovered back in the sixties that 99.9% of what we learn as human beings we learn by imitation. We do not learn it by intellect and reasoning. Were copycats. Youve got to do your homework or else what youre going to say is going to be meaningless! You have to get the records because none of the riffs are in the books. All the background riffs that they play- I wrote lyrics to those. I wrote background lyrics to those riffs. You cant learn from the books anyway because you cant write the music down. You wont get the accents and the phrasing and the meaning behind it all.
When you want to learn something,
you have to seek out a master. Youre the apprentice. The master has to
qualify you before he gives you the information. He wont give it to just
anybody, anybody doesnt have a right to it. You have to earn the right
to it. In the written culture, you dont have to pay a price to get anything.
You dont have responsibility coming down. The master-apprentice means
towards knowledge is a tradition. The master is not successful when you succeed
in doing what hes doing, hes successful when you have exceeded what
he is doing. When they give you everything and you have gone beyond, then theyve
done their job. Theyre not going to hold the information back, but even
Jesus said Blessed are the hungry for they shall be fed. If you
are not hungry, you arent going to eat. So if youre motivated, youre
going to learn. Unless musicians today can get turned onto a progenitor, they
wont get turned on.
The closest I come to defining jazz is with what we are trying to do now with Karlton [Hester]. Were calling it Global African Music. If you learn it through that cultural stream you can play it with anyone in the diaspora and it can be understood. The rhythms are there. The scales are there. Its all a matter of communication. Theres something in that configuration of sound that reaches deep inside you and makes you feel good. We have one jazz club left in Pittsburgh, and if you walked in the door today it would feel exactly as it did thirty years ago. But people dont go there. The ones who experience it, the ones who actually go there say Wow, I never knew. I say Well, you finally got here. But its in the black community, and white people dont go there anymore. You have to listen. Because when the living history disappears, you wont be able to get back to it.
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