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Winard Harper: Multicultural Ambassador

Franz A. Matzner By

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Winard HarperA tremendous force on the drums and percussion instruments of all kinds and a successful bandleader, Winard Harper has been beating on one kind of instrument or another since almost before he could walk. A child prodigy and now a veteran performer, Harper's music recognizes few stylistic, cultural, or genre boundaries. Comfortable in any setting—whether playing on the Kennedy Center stage with longtime collaborator Dr. Billy Taylor—or leading his own raucous, multi-cultural band at a local club, Harper is one of the most gracious players on the scene.

It was my distinct privilege to discuss with Mr. Harper his early years as a player, his many cultural interests, as well as his newest band and their latest release Make it Happen (Piadrum, 2006).

All About Jazz: Before we get to the new album, let's get a little background. You grew up in Baltimore, is that right?

Winard Harper: I was born in Baltimore and lived there until I was nine. Then we moved to Atlanta.

AAJ: Is that where you started playing?

WH: I started playing in Baltimore.

AAJ: How old were you?

WH: I was three or four. I played my first gig when I was about five.

AAJ: How did that happen?

WH: My family. I had older brothers. My brother was playing and had groups that were playing around Baltimore. So my family—my parents—saw the interest and got me started playing drums and that's all she wrote.

AAJ: Was your family originally from the Baltimore/D.C. area?

WH: Actually, my family was originally from down South. My father's from Georgia, my mother's from North Carolina. But you know back then there was the migration up North. So they ended up in Baltimore.

AAJ: Were either of your parents professional musicians?

WH: No, they weren't musicians. They loved the music, so they were around the music. My father was a photographer and used to take pictures around Baltimore, but they weren't musicians.

AAJ: Once you started playing more professionally and really taking the music seriously, who were your major influences.

WH: Let's see. Well, everybody. [drummers] Max Roach, Art Blakey. Everybody I could get hold of and listen to! [trumpeter] Clifford Brown. [Saxophonist] Charlie Parker, [pianist] Thelonious Monk. Then as I got more into things, [drummer] Billy Higgins. And of course a lot of the guys that I've had the pleasure of working with have been big influences on me. [Saxophonist] Jackie McLean. [Pianist] Billy Taylor. [Saxophonist] Jimmy Heath. [Saxophonist] Pharoah Sanders.

AAJ: You are mentioning a lot of non-drummers. Did their influence lead you in new directions?

WH: Yeah, because as a drummer you are always playing for these guys. These are the guys that hired you. You want to have a sense of what they require, of what they need, what they are looking for to get their concept across of their music. But when I look at myself now, it's not just as "drummer it's also "bandleader. It's almost like I'm playing two or three instruments. So you have to have that ability as a drummer, but also the abilities of a bandleader.

AAJ: Do you think that drumming is essentially a supportive role then?

WH: Essentially yes. Of course, there's a way you go about it, even as a supporting role.

AAJ: I was going to say. You certainly have a very unique and exciting playing style all your own. But instead of putting it into my words, how would you describe what makes your approach distinct?

WH: Probably in a way that most people wouldn't even think of. I would say heart. Soul. Joy. Blessing. I would describe it in those terms.

AAJ: You can see that when you are playing. You bring so much of yourself to the stage. And you also look like you are just having so much fun.

WH: Well, I think that's the way it should be. My heroes, that's what they exhibited to me, what they conveyed.

AAJ: I also want to talk about your composing style, which is equally unique. You incorporate a lot of different instruments, styles, and rhythms from a wide geographic and cultural spectrum. When did you start focusing on brining these new sounds to jazz?

WH: I've always been in interested in them. I think I'm just finally getting old enough and mature enough to say "Here I am. This is what I have. This is what I bring with me. Growing up down south playing gospel, playing in the church, playing in marching bands. My love for history, for African history. All of it is now coming together for me and I'm just trying to find a place to make it all work. I also have to thank Jackie McLean for introducing me to a lot of the African history and music.

AAJ: How did you go about studying these various different types of music and instruments? Did it begin with exposure to the cultures, or to the music?

WH: I guess a little bit of both. Most good jazz musicians have a love for and a good understanding of history. That's what I've found. When you sit down and talk to them they can tell you about the history, the environment around themselves and around the music that helped shape the music. So I've always had a love for studying that context. The history of Africa, of African Americans, from slavery on up. It helps you have a better understanding of what the music is, what it comes out of, and what it is about. All of those things have helped shape me and what I am trying to do with the band.

AAJ: That's a good bridge to asking you about the Balafon. At performances you always say its too long a story, so now's our chance to find out more about how you got involved with this fascinating instrument.

WH: I have to attribute a lot of that to Billy Higgins. Billy would share with me a lot of the musical things he would hear and he was working on. And it got to the point where he'd show me some things and I'd start messing around and exploring them to and I'd throw things back to him. And we got together one day and he started telling me about the slit drum, which I used on some of my earlier recordings. It's like a box with slits in it and each one has a different tone on it. I started using those, but those are very delicate so they crack easy. And I was going to a lot of shops—African shops, instrument shops—to see what I could add to my sound. One day I was at an African flee market and I found a little, small Balafon and I started taking that on gigs cause it was easier to carry then the slit drums. And I really loved the sound of it. It moved me. It spoke to my soul.

AAJ: It's captivating and totally distinct. Somewhere between a marimba, it has an African quality to it, and sometimes almost an east Asian quality.

WH: I call it like the great-grandfather to the marimba and the xylophone. They came before those. It's all handmade. Animal skin, wood, gourd, and the sound is just so incredible. So I started picking them up wherever I went. And the tuning on all of them is different depending on the tribe or where it comes from.

AAJ: Have you traveled extensively in Africa then?

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