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Musician carries his city's torch
To many listeners, the brilliant jazz saxophonist and New Orleans native Donald Harrison embodies the spirit of the city, particularly in this Mardi Gras season.
His late father, Donald Harrison Sr., was one of Louisiana's most revered Mardi Gras Indian chiefs, leading the Guardians of the Flame tribe in uncounted ceremonial parades.
As he drove from his temporary home in Baton Rouge to New Orleans last week, the younger Harrison spoke to the Tribune about Mardi Gras, music, race and culture in New Orleans.
You're going to be spending Mardi Gras in Chicago, when you open Tuesday night at the Jazz Showcase. Are you sorry you're going to miss the festivities?
I'm not going to miss Mardi Gras. I'm taking my tribe, the Congo Nation, into Treme [a New Orleans neighborhood] and Uptown. After the parade, I'll catch a plane to Chicago.
What did your father teach you about the value of indigenous Louisiana culture?
I learned from him not to listen to all the things that I saw on TV and read in books that were telling me that I [as an African-American] was less than someone else.
The main thing is that all human beings are equal, and [Mardi Gras] is a way to show that we have a culture that we came from and that we didn't just pop up [in America] all of a sudden.
Where were you during Hurricane Katrina?
With my family, in New Orleans, Uptown.
We got stuck in that horrible situation for four days. When we finally got out, our homes were destroyed.
What was it like experiencing that disaster?
It was very confusing. While I was here, they were telling us that if you left town, you would die.
When I finally got over the bridge, which was two blocks away from the Convention Center, everything was dry. It was so easy to move after that.
What did you do after your four days in the devastated city?
I was holding my saxophone and my hard-drive above my head, while wading through water, to leave.
We were able to drive out and get to Baton Rouge, La. We drove another 24 hours to get a hotel room, because there was so much pressure on the city.
I didn't want to go too far. A lot of people I know went to Houston, Austin. I even had a cousin who went all the way to Nebraska. Now that's far.
After Katrina, your first performance was in front of thousands of people at the Chicago Jazz Festival. What did that show mean to you?
It was one of the happiest moments of my little lifetime. When I was in New Orleans and surrounded by water, I couldn't even conceive how it would be in Chicago, playing at the Jazz Festival, and I wanted to play that so bad.
I just didn't think it would happen at all.
I didn't have any clothes, so I bought a little discount outfit in Chicago.
How do you feel about New Orleans' future?
At first, I couldn't conceive how they could bring it back. It's so much work, it's mind-boggling.
But I'm starting to believe that it's possible.
What has happened to New Orleans culture?
A lot of musicians are in different cities and displaced, and a lot of them are [elsewhere] in Louisiana and driving back to play when we can. I go in at least once a week.
Many articles have shown that the city's African-American population has decreased dramatically. What does that mean for New Orleans?
Right now, it seems like there's a slight holding on to martial law. Maybe the African-American male is targeted right now, a little more [than before] as being a person of interest.
Unfortunately, sometimes I'm a little apprehensive about moving around, especially at nighttime.
I sort of feel like this is a test for the soul of America.
Does America understand the value of New Orleans?
There are people who understand that New Orleans has influenced the culture of the world and has been an important part of American history. They're working beyond the call of duty to help.
And there are those who may feel like it shouldn't come back, and it's not important.
Maybe some people should re-evaluate the feeling that other people are unimportant, that other places are unimportant.
Because if some places are unimportant, then at some point you're going to be unimportant.
Are you optimistic about life in the Crescent City?
All I can do is what [jazz legend] Art Blakey said: "Light your candle and hope that someone will see it and you'll light their way."
America always has tried to help out. We're not a perfect country, but in the end, it seems like we try to do the right thing.