New Orleans jazz comes to MU through 'We Always Swing' series

Monday, October 28, 2013 | 1:59 p.m. CDT; updated 2:44 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 28, 2013
The Donald Harrison Quintet plays a set as a part of the "We Always Swing" Jazz Series Sunday at the Stotler Lounge in Memorial Union at MU. The quintet is influenced by 1970s funk music, and adds components of funk to bebop jazz, which Harrison calls "nouveau swing." The quintet includes saxophonist and percussionist Donald Harrison, guitarist Detroit Brooks, pianist Shea Pierre, bassist Max Moran and drummer Joe Dyson.

COLUMBIA – A little bit of New Orleans came to town when a quintet of five suited men sauntered onto a stage Sunday night in the Memorial Student Union at MU.

All was quiet for a few moments before two drumsticks cracked together, and the sound of Donald Harrison's saxophone began to fill the room. The Donald Harrison Quintet's Sunday-evening performance of "A Night in Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans," delighted the students and jazz aficionados who had gathered for the "We Always Swing" Jazz Series event.

The quintet, composed of New Orleans natives, played music traditionally heard in Congo Square, located in the Treme neighborhood of the Crescent City.

Harrison, their lively leader, is known as the Big Chief of Congo Square, a role his father filled when he was growing up.

"They call me Big Chief Donald," he told the crowd in between songs.

Harrison invented the "Nouveau Swing" style of jazz, which blends modern jazz with swing beats typically found in today's popular dance music.

After losing his home and his instruments in Hurricane Katrina, he put his energy into rebuilding New Orleans' culture through music education, directing Tipitina's Intern Program and the New Jazz School, a part of the Isidore Newman School.

During his career, which has spanned more than 30 years, he's performed with the likes of Miles Davis, Notorious B.I.G. and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Aside from his jazz career in the city, Harrison appeared in and co-wrote the soundtrack for the film "Rachel's Getting Married."

MU students danced in their seats as the quintet played songs from the Congo Square. And Sunday's audience was generally younger than the usual crowd for a Jazz Series show, which is something the organization is pushing for, according to series Executive Director Jon Poses.

"In general, what we're trying to do is attract a younger audience, and being affiliated with the College of Arts and Science has allowed us to more aggressively market the jazz series to the university campus," he said.

Shea Pierre, a 21-year-old pianist and the youngest member of the quintet, said he enjoyed playing in front of a younger crowd.

"I like seeing their reactions because it's hard to get people our age to come out to concerts like this," he said.

Pierre, a senior at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, said he feels inspired when he plays at other college campuses, and he wants other students to feel the culture of New Orleans through the music.

"Jazz is kind of foreign to the rest of the country because New Orleans is such a distinctive and unique city," he said. "Its culture is hard to feel outside the city, so I like to show them how music and dance is intertwined because that's the core of the culture down there."

Gary Tatlow, a season-ticket holder for the jazz series, said the music made him feel exhilarated.

"Obviously the audience is eating out of his hand," he said. "These people are just mesmerized by his music. You don't see anyone fidgeting or looking at their watches or pulling out their cellphones."

As the night continued, Harrison and his quintet mixed a few crowd favorites into the set, like John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and Sarah Vaughan's "Easy Living."

But to wrap up the show, he went back to his roots with the New Orleans jazz classic "Iko Iko."

"We've taken you all over the map tonight," Harrison said. "But now we'll take you back home to New Orleans."

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