Donald Harrison—alto saxophonist, composer, bandleader, occasional singer and drummer, and Big Chief of The Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group—understands the history of jazz, the culture of New Orleans and the flow of African American music in general better than nearly anyone alive.
His version of “Old Town Road” is no gimmick.
When he convened drummer Thomas Glass, pianist Shea Pierre and bassist Chris Severin in a New Orleans studio for an acoustic jazz version of the song, he was inspired by the 2018 recording by Lil Nas X, which “had a serious groove and a clear idea,” he said, and by the remix for which the rapper was joined by country-music star Billy Ray Cyrus, which, for Harrison, “brought worlds together in a moving way.”
As the above video shows, Harrison was inspired to play, to dance and to think about the connection between playing and dancing. We spoke about all of that recently.
What hipped you to this song?
The first time I heard of this song, I was checking out jazz on YouTube, and it popped up as one of the side video suggestions. I was intrigued because of the visual. I saw a brother with a cowboy hat and on and a very colorful jeans suit. When the video started, I was amazed at the creativity of how the music was a blending of country and trap music. I loved Lil Nas X’s dancing, confidence, and swagger. I was amazed at how much the audience loved what he was doing and was along for the ride 100%. Most of all, he had a beat and hooks that made me want to get out of my seat and dance. I love to dance, and that has always been a central component of how I think of jazz music. I make a lot of jazz that has an element that makes me want to dance in the traditional sense. I researched Lil Nas X and found that his music was bringing people together that never engage each other. Since that is also something very important to me, it made me see another great aspect of what he is doing as an artist.
What made you want to play it with your band?
When I first heard the song I immediately started hearing different ways that it could be approached in a jazz context. I was not going to record any of them at that time. What made me want to record the song is when I posted the song on Facebook some jazz artist called it garbage. So I recorded one of the jazz versions I was hearing in my head to show them that this song could be taken seriously, and to demonstrate how jazz is open-minded and inclusive. I loved the country chord changes and how the trap beat mixed together different elements. I knew that mixing these aspects together would require me to do new rhythms and melodic content in the lines of my improvisations. I knew the whole group would play to a new set of natural rules than they ever had before.
In your video, who picked all those clips and who edited?
I chose the imaging for the video and did the editing myself. This video is the first time I ever made a video and did any editing myself. I took me a few hours to get aspects of to use a film editing program to begin making the video. I learned a lot, and if time allows, will be making more videos. Now I have to buy a camera.
What were you trying to communicate through that video?
With the video, I was trying to show some of the historical and influential dance elements that inform the music I make. The video contains some of the people I love who left a long shadow in the entertainment industry and the dance moves that I had been influenced by.You see the Lindy-Hop, Motown, James Brown, The Temptations, Chance The Rapper, Snoop Dog, Michael Jackson, Drake and even me, doing hopefully some correctly swaggering James Brown moves. I take getting the dance swagger right just as seriously as I take getting the music right. For me knowing how to the dance to a style of music myself unlocks a whole universe in terms of how I feel the music.
Are you aware of the controversy surrounding this track, and how it was removed from country charts? If so, are you making a statement about African American identity here?
I think the controversy surrounding this song not being country enough may be a waste of time because more Black artists may be inspired to make songs like this. If that happens, eventually they will name it some kind of country/trap hybrid. The statement I am making is, I accept and love being an African American but I know I am a human being first. I know we will eventually understand and put into motion how to love each other for our similarities and differences. We will learn how to respect each other and be as one.
I’ve been following your career closely, so I know that this is not a departure for you, right?
No, it is not. What happens when a jazz man like me mixes his love of dancing to popular music with his understanding of trap music and jazz? Well in the 80’s, I started mixing dance music and jazz. So, when I did an acoustic jazz version of “Old Town Road,” I heard something in the song that I like, that moved me, and I ran with it, or danced with it, which is what jazz musicians have always done and what Black musicians have always done.
Here’s another version by Harrison, as played live in the studio of New Orleans radio station WWOZ.