Day 6

Notorious B.I.G. wrote songs about hope, says jazz saxophonist who taught him music

Biggie was still known as Christopher Wallace when he befriended jazz sax player Donald Harrison on a Brooklyn stoop. Harrison says he gave Wallace two key pieces of advice.

Donald Harrison talks about Biggie's early days in new Netflix doc, Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell

Jazz musician Donald Harrison features in the new documentary about the rapper Notorious B.I.G. from Netflix called Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell. Harrison taught Biggie about rhythm and told him to enunciate in his rhymes. (Submitted by Donald Harrison )

Donald Harrison, a renowned jazz saxophonist, says his friendship with Notorious B.I.G. started on a Brooklyn stoop when Biggie was still known only as little Christopher Wallace. 

"I first met Chris on the stoop of his apartment building. He was a little kid and he saw me with a saxophone and he started asking me questions. And he seemed like an adult, but he was in this little body," said Harrison in an interview with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Harrison's relationship with Wallace is part of the new Netflix documentary Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell about the iconic rapper, who was shot and killed 24 years ago.

Biggie was just 24 years old when he died on March 9, 1997, in Los Angeles. He had released only two albums before his death, Ready to Die and Life After Death. But he was so dominant as a lyricist and performer that his legacy is still going strong more than two decades later. 

But before all that, he was Wallace, meeting up on his stoop with Harrison.

Christopher Wallace, later known as Notorious B.I.G., as a child. (The Christopher Wallace Estate)

"He was there every afternoon and then we became friends and I could have conversations with him like I was talking to an adult and also play around like he was a kid," said Harrison, who said Wallace asked a lot of questions. "So it was quite unique, and then, I found out how much he loved music. So it was a perfect match."

Harrison, who spoke with Day 6 from New Orleans, has performed with jazz greats like Miles Davis, Lena Horne and Art Blakey. He has also appeared in the HBO show Treme, as well as Spike Lee's movie about the city and Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke

Telling stories in song

Harrison gave Wallace two key pieces of advice, he says. One was to enunciate the words in his rapping, "to put accents like a drummer, a jazz drummer" and the other was "to tell stories where you could visualize the scenes."

That storytelling influence can be seen in the lyrics for songs like Juicy, when Biggie raps:

We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us
No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us
Birthdays was the worst days
Now we sip champagne when we thirsty

Harrison said those verses got to the heart of what Biggie was doing, which was "giving hope to the hopeless," the people "who are always told that they're not special."

"Birthdays was the worst days, you know, and then he said, but now it's OK," he said. "He was giving them hope that there could be a better day for them and that they were special."

Juicy was the first single from Biggie's first album, Ready to Die, and it is not an overstatement to say it landed with a bang, cementing his status as a rap great and launching him into the hip hop firmament. It is still, more than 20 years later, the focus of best-of music lists, like when the BBC called it the greatest hip hop song of all time

Biggie, centre, also really enjoyed singing and loved the '70s R&B group The Stylistics, said Harrison. (The Christopher Wallace Estate)

Rhythm like a tap dancer

Harrison's other piece of advice, to enunciate and to play with rhythm like a drummer, is something he said he can hear in Biggie's music.

Harrison said that great bebop drummers and post-modern drummers who he was working with, including Art Blakey, Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones, had a few rhythmical signatures in common, like using triplets and eighth notes and accents similar to what a tap dancer would do. 

"He was incorporating that as well as things from from hip hop that he was hearing," said Harrison.

In the film, Biggie also mentions that he loves to sing, and he enjoyed The Stylistics, a soul group from Philadelphia.

"He wasn't like The Stylistics in terms of singing, but he loved to sing and he loved to dance and he was also a jokester. He told a lot of jokes," said Harrison.

A still from the new Netflix film about the life of Notorious B.I.G. Harrison remembers teaching Wallace about music and rhythm as a child. (Netflix )

But Wallace was serious when it came to the work of learning music.

"If you gave him a lesson or something to work on, the next day … you would know that he worked on it," said Harrison.

But as Wallace reached his teen years, he started started drifting away from school and dealing drugs. He dropped out of school at 17. 

"I know he was around there and sometimes I would go get him," said Harrison, but he said he never lost hope in Wallace, who he knew was a hard worker. 

Harrison said he found out Biggie had died through a phone call. 

"One of my friends called me and I was, you know, devastated because he was so young and he was just starting and I wanted to see where he was going to take his music," he said. Harrison had always hoped they could find a way to work together musically.

"I always wanted him to be in jazz. I remember him being in my apartment, singing jazz songs," said Harrison. '"We had so much fun."

Harrison said that Biggie also influenced him, and he found himself putting hip hop into jazz songs.

"I know that everything is now just a memory in my head and I have to live with those memories and the music that he left everybody to listen to," said Harrison.

Written by Andrea Bellemare. Produced by Laurie Allan.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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