Donald Harrison & The Congo Square Nation

One of New Orleans’ most celebrated living jazzmen, Donald Harrison merges his two primary musical influences, jazz and the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, to create a resplendent celebration of New Orleans music and culture.


[audio:|artists=Donald Harrison & The Congo Square Nation|titles=Spirits of Congo Square]
  • Jazz & Mardi Gras Indian Traditions
  • New Orleans, Louisiana

From the Dean’s Desk »

“Big Chief” Donald Harrison Jr. is a saxophonist, singer, percussionist — whatever it takes to play the styles of music he frequents like jazz, traditional Mardi Gras Indian music, smooth jazz, and hip-hop. With The Congo Square Nation, the Big Chief dresses in big, feathery, and traditional garb while singing and chanting over bouncy Mardi Gras beats. This one will be a guaranteed party.

Professional bio

Called “The King of Nouveau Swing,” jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison has been hailed as “one of the most important musicians of the new millennium.” Harrison’s unique approach to jazz merges acoustic swing with New Orleans R&B, hip-hop, second-line and reggae. As Harrison said in a recent interview, “I travel through so many different styles of music, it’s all part of me.” Not only can he play it all, but Harrison also composes in classic jazz, R&B, smooth jazz, hop-hop and classical idioms. He is a committed teacher who has nurtured some the brightest young players in jazz.

Harrison emerged from the deep “straight-ahead” jazz tradition in New Orleans that links King Oliver to Charles Mingus. At a young age, he emerged as one of the most exciting players in modern jazz. His life’s musical journey found him playing with Roy Haynes at age 19, before going on to work with Jack McDuff, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Terrence Blanchard, as well as a version of the Headhunters. Uniquely, Harrison has performed as a hip-hop MC and, during a stint living in Brooklyn, was an early mentor of rapper The Notorious BIG.

Even as the influence of his music has spread, Harrison has remained deeply connected to New Orleans, a place where contemporary jazz expressions are strongly linked to, and nourished by, the city’s unique and rich folk culture. As a boy, Harrison was schooled by his father in Mardi Gras Indian tradition, with its spectacular hand-sewn costumes, elaborate rituals, music and processionals. The late Donald Harrison Sr. was a legendary “Big Chief” of the Creole Wild West, the Cherokee Braves and the White Eagles tribes, before founding the Guardians of the Flames in 1988. A champion of the Indian tradition, he passed along his love of it to his son.

Like his father before him, Donald Harrison, Jr. is a “Big Chief” of a New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Congo Square Nation, which will join him at this year’s festival. In and out of full Indian regalia, the group will create an exciting musical interplay between New Orleans folk tradition and the contemporary jazz idiom that Harrison has come to epitomize.

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