Wendell Harrison is a Detroit jazz legend, teacher, recording artist and prolific musician.
Photo Credit: Noah Elliot Morrison
Detroit jazz legend Wendell Harrison cofounded “Rebirth Inc” over 40 years ago to mentor young musicians. Today, the program continues to reach out to local schools and guide over 100 artists with hands-on workshops and opportunities to break into the music industry.
“I’ve lived through different generations,” said Harrison. “These young musicians are learning how to voice their voice through music, adding in hip hop to jazz, or spoken word. Talking about injustices that never really left us as a community and nation.”
Harrison is a prolific jazz musician, recording artist, performer, teacher, author and entrepreneur with associations with well-known acts such as Marvin Gaye, Grant Green, San Ra and Hank Crawford, among others.
The idea for the Rebirth Inc program grew out of a vastly changing socio-political climate in the late 1970s and 1980s, preceded by several momentous events in the city.
Detroit’s Early Jazz Scene Reflects the Socio-economic Spirit of the Times
During a time of segregation in Detroit’s 1920s through the 1950s, the eastside neighborhood of Black Bottom was one of the few places Black Detroiters were allowed to reside. Dubbed Paradise Valley, this robust entertainment and business sector catered to the growing population of Black residents. The population swelled from 40,000 to 120,000, with many of the new residents migrating north for better jobs and standards of living compared to the Jim Crow laws hindering the African American community’s economic growth and living conditions.
Urban renewal programs and the construction of the freeways, namely the Chrysler Freeway, tore through the community of Paradise Valley and caused an abrupt decline in prosperity. Many residents who stayed in the city moved to the North end, along 12th Street in the Dexter-Linwood neighborhood, where a growing music scene thrived.
The abundant atmosphere of music appreciation along the north end is where Harrison grew up, idolizing important figures such as Charlie Parker, who inspired young Harrison to purchase his first alto saxophone.
“You could go down the strip that reminded you of bands playing in New Orleans and Atlantic City. People went to see bands playing from West Grand Boulevard going up to Collingwood to see Joe Henderson or Yusef Lateef. All the great artists played at these clubs, like Kline’s Show Bar, the Chit Chat Club and Buddy’s Barbeque.”
At the time, Harrison was living in Detroit from the 1940s through 60s where there was a great deal of jazz and blues clubs. Musicians came to Detroit to live because the economy was thriving.
He recalled the 1950s being the heyday for jazz musicians in Detroit.
“They came for factory jobs and at the time the union was at it’s peak, so people will come to the Detroit area to work here and spend some money for about six months, folks like Barry Harris or Roy Brooks, then go to New York to record and then come back. So, all your main musicians were here, were in the community.”
The influx of musicians in Detroit during this time connected with the youth of the local community.
“It was all around me,” said Harrison. “It was the music young people were playing. Many artists came through here and there was an entire block of jazz clubs.”
In 1971, Motown Records closed its Detroit office and relocated to Los Angeles. Harrison said many Detroit-based musicians were left stranded to figure things out for themselves. The artists often started out as studio musicians that were at the whims of industry labels who promised them records with little to no follow through.
Artists had to find creative ways to collaborate and promote themselves without the Motown incubator in the city.
In 1978, Harrison and notable jazz pianist Harold McKinney cofounded Rebirth, a nonprofit jazz performance and education organization, in which many artists have participated.
“As growing artists at that time,” said Harrison, “We needed a place to get together and keep jazz alive for us and the new generation.”
Harrison spent decades working with numerous K-12 schools and colleges throughout the state to expose students to jazz music and cultivate young talent. He provided workshops to Detroit students at Detroit High School of Performing Arts, Duke Ellington Academy, Renaissance High School, Martin Luther King High School and Cass Tech High School among others. He also visited several colleges on the state’s west side and upper peninsula.
In the early 1990s, Harrison was awarded the title of “Jazz Master by Arts Midwest, which led him to tour throughout the United States and the Middle East and North Africa, growing a worldwide audience.
During COVID, performances and in-person workshops in schools and music venues were cut short.
The pandemic, Harrison said, left a big void for performing and collaborating. There was some virtual programming the duo engaged in with the Knight Foundation and area high schools. They hosted “Detroit Grooves,” a series of Detroit jazz artists live stream performances for students to enjoy.
Last year, with the world slowly opening up during the pandemic, Harrison began performing live again, including the Passing the Torch concert in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown neighborhood, which included young musicians he worked with.
Students at Rebirth gather at the residence in the north end every Tuesday for Upper Room Sessions, where participants can learn to play together as an ensemble. Often times Harrison and his contemporaries hire the students for gig opportunities.
“Nowadays, with the internet,” said Harrison, “it’s so much easier for musicians to get their work out there. Be heard and promoted. You can rely on yourself as an entrepreneur on your own terms.”
Inspiring the Next Generation of Detroit Jazz Artists
Trunino Lowe is a 24-year-old Detroit resident and trumpet player who has worked under the tutelage of Harrison since elementary school.
“Wendell used to come to my middle school and bring groups twice a year for workshops and performances to work with students and music,” said Lowe.
He was instructed by Harrison and his wife, pianist Pamela Wise, to play tunes through sound techniques and practice. Lowe once again intersected with Harrison when he came to his high school.
“Music was a huge source to me, one of the things I most gravitated towards where I could focus and engage,” Lowe said. He recalled speaking with Harrison about his continued interest and the jazz legend said, ‘C’mon, we gonna deal with some tunes.’”
Their working relationship began intentionally from that point. Lowe visited Harrison’s studio often over the years to fine tune his craft and gain opportunities to perform with Harrison and other musicians.
“The opportunity for that type of learning is one of a kind,” said Lowe. “Something that we as musicians take for granted. He [Harrison] pushes you to be better and go to the next level. The type of community learning environment is a rare thing nowadays.”
Lowe credits his love for music to Harrison for having a heavy hand in helping him figure out his own sound, learn the bebop language, work with Detroit masters as well as learn the ins and outs of the music industry from copyrighting, publishing and distributing your own music.
“Wendell was from an era of musicians that left a mark on the city. Without Wendell and others doing what they do, things wouldn’t be how they are now.”