Detroit jazz great named 2018 Kresge Eminent Artist

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

On Thursday, the Kresge Foundation named veteran Detroit jazz musician Wendell Harrison its 2017 Eminent Artist.

Wendell Harrison plays the tenor sax and clarinet, but over his 60-year career also staked out an impressive reputation as a composer, bandleader and educator.

The honor comes with $50,000, no strings attached. Previous Eminent Artists include artist Charles McGee and the late jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave.

Harrison, 75, plays the tenor sax and clarinet, but over his 60-year career also staked out an impressive reputation as a composer, bandleader and educator. Among other accomplishments, Harrison was a co-founder of Tribe, a key 1970’s Detroit music collective that produced concerts and jazz recordings.

He also founded his own label, Wenha Records.

“Wendell Harrison has been a leader not only on the bandstand,” said Kresge President Rip Rapson, “but in forging opportunities for musicians to record and present their art on their own terms when the commercial world had no interest in doing so.”

Asked what he would do with the $50,000 windfall, Harrison laughed.

“Man, pay some bills,” said the Detroiter, “and try to take a trip. I’d like to go to Zambia or Tanzania to study African rhythms,” a subject he’s already delved into deeply and lectured about.

Harrison, who got his master’s degree in communications last year from Spring Arbor University, is currently at work on a book on how musicians can promote themselves in the digital age.

Wendell Harrison, left, still maintains an active performance schedule. Here, his ensemble plays Grosse Pointe Farms’ Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in early January.

The musician comes from an accomplished family. His father was a sociology professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge, while his mother had a master’s degree and taught in the Detroit Public Schools.

As a youngster, Harrison started studying piano with legendary bebop guru Barry Harris, who mentored many Detroit jazz greats in the 1950s, but in short order Harrison moved on to the saxophone and clarinet.

In the mid-’60s, the graduate of Detroit’s Northwestern High School toured and recorded four albums with alto-saxophonist Hank Crawford, an experience that put Harrison on the national jazz map, for which he’s deeply grateful.

“Hank was a great arranger,” Harrison said. “He’d been music director with Ray Charles for many years and taught me how to arrange for big bands when I played with him.”

In 1972, Harrison and trombonist Phil Ranelin established Tribe, whose mission was to promote and record local black musicians the big record labels mostly ignored.

Later in the decade, Harrison founded his Wenha Records label, producing concerts and live broadcasts on WDET-FM.

More recently, Harrison organized Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble with a front line of six clarinets. In “The Battle of the Tenors” album, recorded live at the 1994 Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival (and still available online), he played both tenor sax and clarinet with the legendary Eddie Harris.

Musicians who left a deep imprint on his music, Harrison says, included Crawford, legendary saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.