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Black History Month Profile: Wendell Harrison

Wendell Harrison

Jazz saxophonist and clarinetist Wendell Harrison has long been known for taking music into his own hands. Harrison was born on October 1, 1942 in Detroit, Michigan, and attended Northwestern High School in Detroit. His classmates included trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer, saxophonist Charles McPherson, and percussionist Roy Brooks, all of whom sparked his interest in jazz music. Along with his classmates, Harrison began formal jazz studies with pianist Barry Harris.  He also attended the Detroit Conservatory of Music which is now known as the College for Creative Studies.  

While in Detroit, he performed with Motown stars Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and the legendary Sammy Ward. In 1960, the young Harrison headed for New York. He began performing for some of the world’s premier jazz artists: guitarist Grant Green, vocalist Eddie Jefferson and the great Sun Ra. He teamed up with trumpet players Marcus Belgrave, Jimmy Owens, and baritone/tuba/euphonium player Howard Johnson to perform and tour with saxophonist Hank Crawford. Wendell can be heard on Hank’s earlier recordings: Double Cross, Dig These Blues, Mr. Blues, on Atlantic Records. Wendell learned how to compose, write, and arrange for multiple different instruments during this time in his life. 

Wendell graduated from Spring Arbor University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Management at the Detroit site in 2014 and also completed his MBA with Spring Arbor in 2017. Co-founder of the legendary Tribe record label and collective in the 1970s, Harrison went on to establish Rebirth Inc., a nonprofit jazz performance and education organization, in the 80’s. Numerous well-known jazz artists, including pianist Geri Allen, saxophonists James Carter and Eddie Harris, vocalist Leon Thomas and trumpeter Woody Shaw, to name just a few, have performed with Wendell and participated in Rebirth’s programs. Recently, Wendell has collaborated with pianist and vocalist Amp Fiddler in performing concerts and special recording projects. He also created the WenHa, a record label and publishing company that released many of his recordings, as well as that of his wife, pianist Pamela Wise. Through his solo work and his Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble, Harrison has gained more widespread respect for the clarinet– an often neglected, yet versatile instrument.

Wendell continues to thrive as a musician, educator and entrepreneur creating new and innovative projects such as composing new music for various ensembles, touring on the techno music scene with Carl Craig, and recording with young musicians. Detroit continues to produce the finest musical talent in the world, which proves true with the great jazz master Wendell Harrison.

We thank Wendell for coming to Spring Arbor to perform and share his musical talents with us!