Jazz Journalists Association honor mother-daughter culture bearers in New Orleans

OffBeat Magazine

Two New Orleanians will be honored with Jazz Hero awards from the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA). The awards, made annually on the basis of nominations from community members, are presented in conjunction with the JJA’s annual Jazz Awards honoring significant achievements in jazz music and journalism.

The women were recognized for their achievement during a screening of the documentary City of a Million Dreams at the Broad Theater on June 17. The presentation may be viewed on this video.

Herreast Harrison, a distinguished matriarch, artist, educator, actress and voice of New Orleans culture, shares this year’s New Orleans JJA Jazz Hero honors with her daughter Cherice Harrison-Nelson, whose career as a memory artist embodies the values passed down by her mother and her father, Donald Harrison, Sr. (1933–1998), Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame tribe of Black Masking Indians.

The JJA website featured the following, written by Jason Berry, a New Orleans-based journalist and filmmaker who nominated both women:

“In the expansive yard of the Harrison family’s Ninth Ward home stands the Guardian Institute, a museum honoring Herreast’s late husband, who was founder of Guardians of the Flame, a Black Masking Indian tribe he led for years—wearing suits of billowing feathers, plumes and beadwork patches depicting ancestral memory, all imagery influenced by his wife’s critical eye. A fifth-generation quilter who has imbued beaded symbols and motifs into her works, Herreast has traveled extensively to give workshops and lectures about this distinctly African American art form in schools, colleges and foreign countries.

“She has long been an educator. For many years Herreast ran a nursery school with Donald’s help, and together they raised four children, impressing them with the importance of reading and art. Through the Guardian Institute’s Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr. Book Club, Herreast has distributed more than 34,000 new books at a value exceeding $400,000 to area children.

“Her influence as the wife and soulmate of a notable Big Chief extends, of course, to her son, 2022 NEA Jazz Master and 2007 JJA Jazz Hero alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr. who follows in his Black Indian chief  father’s footsteps. But even more broadly, Herreast is a flame-keeper of Black cultural memory. That she has also had notable roles in three films—Rachel Getting Married (2008), 9th Annual State of the Black Union: Breaking New Ground (2009) and Troop Zero (2019)—speaks to her multi-dimensionality. She is, personally, a model of heroic resilience.

“Cherice Nelson-Harrison has dramatically extended the narrative beadwork of her family to become a breakthrough figure in African American Carnival dress art. Performing with dance, featherwork and chants to percussive music, she has staked out new ground as a woman in the Black Masking Indian world traditionally led by men.

“A creator of installations and performances, Cherise founded the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, and has coordinated many exhibitions and panel discussions centered on the power of African cultural memory in the greater New Orleans region. A turning point in her artistic development came during her Fulbright scholarship in Ghana, where she was exposed to visual art traditions and dirges sung in funerals by women using narrative beadwork. She has done extensive editorial work on books and publications, and in addition to exhibiting her work (some of which is in the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum collection) has produced films, audio recordings and theatrical productions. In 2016 she received the prestigious USA Artist Fellowship; in 2019 she was lead artist in an exhibition at the Mary C. O’Keefe Center in Mississippi that featured 11 of her hand-crafted suits amid assemblages, archival photographs and narrative text.

“From Cherice’s statement: ‘The narrative attire and original visual-art creative expressions of my West African ancestry serve to reconnect me, one bead and one stitch at a time. Beading is a laborious obsession. The process and the content of my creations guide my life.’ She counts herself as in the third of five generations upholding Black Indian traditions—her son Brian Nelson is a filmmaker and a Big Chief. The Harrisons and Nelsons embody, preserve and build upon fundamental aspects of the New Orleans African American culture that begat jazz, and so much more.”

For more information about the Jazz Journalists Association and a complete list of Jazz Hero award recipients for 2022, visit here.