The mention of a jazz clarinetist often leads to an obligatory lament over the decline of the fortunes of this instrument in modern jazz. It is true that clarinetists were prominent during the first few decades of the music and that with the advent of bop in the late 1940s they were forced out of the spotlight. But a few brave souls — Buddy DeFranco, John La Porta, Bill Smith, Perry Robinson — kept the tradition alive, and beginning in the 1980s, many new clarinetists came to the fore. Among those who never abandoned the difficult wooden instrument, a privileged place must be reserved for Wendell Harrison.
Harrison was raised in Detroit, where he began his musical studies early on the clarinet, and then on the tenor saxophone. As a teenager at Northwestern High he played with other budding jazz players, among them Charles McPherson and Lonnie Hillyard. Together with his young friends, Harrison studied with Barry Harris, who had developed a comprehensive method for teaching improvisation that has provided the foundations for generations of Detroit musicians. At eighteen, the young saxophonist moved to New York, where he spent a decade apprenticing in a broad range of styles, from the experimental sounds of Sun Ra to the soul jazz of Hank Crawford, with whom he toured and recorded for four years. These influences, added to his Detroit bop training, issued in a unique style that is traditional in timbre and feeling, yet forward looking in harmony and articulation.
After a decade in New York, Harrison returned to his native city, where he joined other musicians to found Tribe, a group dedicated to social change, self-reliance, and musical exploration. Together they published a quarterly magazine and started a record label that provided an outlet for the eclectic, soulful experimental jazz of musicians such as Harrison, Phil Ranelin, Kenny Cox, Marcus Belgrave, and Harold McKinney. For many years these records were collectors’ items, particularly prized in Europe, and now a few of them have been reissued on CD.
Nowadays Harrison leads various groups, but his most original and successful has been Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble, an award-winning group featuring almost the full range of clarinets (including the low bass and even lower contrabass), which brings to the fore his varied talents as clarinetist, composer, and arranger. Joined by guest artist Howard Johnson on bass clarinet and tuba, Harrison appears with his clarinet ensemble at Kerrytown Concert House on Saturday, April 19.