Craig Harris Channels the Energy of Muhammad Ali in “Brown Butterfly”

By Donna Lee Davidson

Friday, November 24, 2023

Trombonist, composer, and conductor Craig Harris, 70, still gets performance energy stuck under his skin. The stimulation can leave him up into the wee hours of the morning, as was the case following his most recent participation in Carrie Mae Weems’s “Varying Shades of Brown” at the Brown Arts Institute of Brown University. “I didn’t go to sleep until about 4 or 5 o’clock,” Harris told me by phone the Monday morning following the performance. “Because of all this energy from that week. I had to decompress.” 

Energy is what Craig Harris has plenty of. Watching him perform, especially when he conducts, is as much part of the production as listening to his music. You can liken him to Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan conductor he asked me about while we spoke. Or to a personal hero of his, Muhammad Ali, who he will be giving a concert in honor of—Brown Butterfly—at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on November 26, 2023. Because the way Harris engages his body in front of an ensemble, how he moves the music through him and dances the sound, you could just as easily turn down the volume and watch, the same way he did with footage of Muhammad Ali.

“I would take his footage, cut the sound off, and I’d write down the rhythms, the way he would be moving,” Harris said. “He was an innovator. He took a form of boxing and innovated a whole new style. Pretty much the way Charlie Parker created a whole new style, John Coltrane—Muhammad Ali created a whole ‘nother system of boxing. I was really impressed by his movement. The way he moved, I said, that’s the way I want to play the trombone.”

But it’s not just for show. Harris is intentional, painfully so, about that movement, and the energy that comes with it. When Harris talks about movement, though, it’s not just about movement through space, but through time and dimensions. “I spent time with this musician, Sun Ra. A lot of the things I’ve been talking about, this man has been doing 50, 60, 70 years before this. I was spending time with Sun Ra and really listening to him when I was in his band and I’d say, ‘aw man he’s talking all this space stuff and all this cosmology and all this,’ but [now] at this time in my life, I really understand. I was really interested in becoming a better musician at that time in my life. I was just concerned about that, but all the other stuff that I listened to, all that other stuff has manifested itself now. Now I’m talking like that.”

Harris calls himself a sonic shaman, a title he takes on to mean being more than just a musician. “We’re sharing sound with people and sound with people affects them in different ways, it’s a very healing force—music is a healing force—we’re moving sound, sharing sound.” 

His words immediately put me on edge because I’m primed to be in this socio-geo-political climate. “Sometimes within that context of energy and healing that you give out to others, there is a tradeoff. It might drain you a little bit of what you have for yourself. After you give out that energy, how do you get it back?” I asked him, less as an interviewer and more as a disciple.

“I’m not naïve in the sense that I think it’s going to make a change in the world, but I think the more that people are stimulated spiritually and mentally, it affects the choices that they make in life. So with the current situation in the world—which isn’t current, it’s ever-going—we’ve been dealing with all this,” Harris told me.

Harris breaks the conversation to ask me about what I write, about my passion, laying on the word, giving it heft. “You write? You write all the time? What do you write besides interviews? What’s your passion?” 

“Yea, well my background—I’m a percussionist,” I told him.

“Okay, thank you,” he said.

“I would take [Muhammad Ali’s] footage, cut the sound off, and I’d write down the rhythms, the way he would be moving. He was an innovator...Muhammad Ali created a whole ‘nother system of boxing. I was really impressed by his movement. The way he moved, I said, that’s the way I want to play the trombone.”

I recognized that sort of thank you. We landed, his question was not just what I do, but what brings us together at this time, or what brought me to him over time. I went on to tell him about orchestral percussion, jazz vibraphone, and writing about diversity in classical music, including how that work overlapped with possibly our only close connection, George Lewis, which is who we used to ground ourselves when we first started talking. Even to just interview Harris, he was looking to connect me, ground me in community—his community—whichever community that might be. 

Harris taking the time to pause, to bind himself to an interviewer, is exactly what one can expect from him on the bandstand. He lets the audience in, breaks down that third wall. Once that wall is gone, he gets back to the music, making sure everyone is there with him. It’s what goes into being a sonic shaman, and also something he learned from Sun Ra: the music is only a means of transportation, or movement, to the destination, not the destination itself. 

“Meeting Sun Ra, when I was like 21, I was just studying the music, trying to get my craft together, get my major scales together, my pentatonics—you know, trying to get the basic elements of music together. And then this person who is talking about using those basic elements to transport to another level. There were conversations about books, ‘Craig did you read this, Craig did you read that, did you expose yourself to this?’ And being around people like Amiri Baraka. It was about being around people who’ve done it and just listen to tidbits of information they give you and take note. We used to write with pencil, we’d write it down, and then we had to go to the library with that big index and just gather. 

“You know, people would drop the seeds on you and you took them or not. And this is the thing Donna, even if you didn’t believe it at the time, you said, ‘aw man, this is theoretical. I just want to learn how to play this horn.’ But that’s the thing that keeps it together, when you got that persistence, you on that clock, you got to practice. And then the other things you take in, those things start getting into your regular regimen. Next thing you know, you’ll be talking about cosmic shit and wondering, ‘where did I get that from?’”

I think I understood what he was saying. “So really gradual, organic—sounds like you’re saying it’s packaged in even if you don’t know it from the beginning when you’re just trying to learn that instrument, it’s kind of packaged there and it’s a part of the process of kind of moving through that growth.”

“It’s part of the process, right. It’s the subtext. It’s not the major text at that time, it’s the subtext,” Harris responded. “It’s the subconscious that it gets into. You know what it is, Donna, it’s staying open—your whole conscious being open. And I hope that the young initiates [laughs] there I go, I’m calling them initiates into the sonic world. When I say young initiates, I’m talking about young aspiring musicians. Stay open. Just stay open. Don’t close down on anything. Just stay open. Stay open.”

About Donna Lee Davidson

Donna Lee Davidson is an orchestral percussionist, jazz vibraphonist, music teacher, and music journalist. A Rubin Institute for Music Criticism fellow, Donna writes about diversity and inclusion in classical music. Donna attended the Manhattan School of Music, Spelman College, and both teaches at and is currently pursuing an MFA at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, Early Music America Magazine, and New Music Box, amongst others.