[!] Oral History/Interview

An 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 Interview -
(by Lucie Blue Duffort)

Oral Tradition and Global African Music:

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 I’m 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 that’s tangible is our obligation. We enrich each other by sharing our experiences. It’s always about life, not about these labels and subdivisions we hang on it, because if you can’t relate it to your life it’s 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 didn’t 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 don’t look back far enough. There are piano players back in New York who haven’t listened back further than 1960. Well, they’re not going to get it. If you’re not listening back to Jelly Roll Morton, listen to Jelly Roll. See what was going on back then, there’s 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? You’ll never come close. Go back and see where their ideas came from so you can understand them before trying to go past them. You’ve got to master the craft. Then you’ll become one of them. There’s 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. We’re copycats. You’ve got to do your homework or else what you’re 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 can’t learn from the books anyway because you can’t write the music down. You won’t 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. You’re the apprentice. The master has to qualify you before he gives you the information. He won’t give it to just anybody, anybody doesn’t have a right to it. You have to earn the right to it. In the written culture, you don’t have to pay a price to get anything. You don’t have responsibility coming down. The master-apprentice means towards knowledge is a tradition. The master is not successful when you succeed in doing what he’s doing, he’s successful when you have exceeded what he is doing. When they give you everything and you have gone beyond, then they’ve done their job. They’re 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 aren’t going to eat. So if you’re motivated, you’re going to learn. Unless musicians today can get turned onto a progenitor, they won’t get turned on.

The closest I come to defining jazz is with what we are trying to do now with Karlton [Hester]. We’re 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. It’s all a matter of communication. There’s 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 don’t 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 it’s in the black community, and white people don’t go there anymore. You have to listen. Because when the living history disappears, you won’t be able to get back to it.

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Living Encyclopedia of Global African Music
Received: 06/01/2002
Posted: 07/24/2002