Phil Ranelin & Wendell Harrison
Trombonist Phil Ranelin and saxophonist Wendell Harrison are among the last people to be surprised at jazz’s resurging popularity. Together, they have dedicated over half a century to making Jazz education and concerts accessible to all. In the early 1970s in Detroit, Ranelin and Henderson would found Tribe Records, a small jazz label that grew to become a model of independent enterprise and ownership. For its time, it was nothing short of revolutionary. Working together with a tight-knit community of supporters, Tribe engineered a platform that placed artists in control of marketing and selling their own works. The results are some of the most soulful and urgent jazz records of any era, timeless classics whose ethos and ambition have guided generations of musicians that followed.
Both Ranelin and Harrison had begun to stake out careers in music prior to recording together. Harrison had toured and recorded with Hank Crawford, Grant Green, & Sun Ra. Ranelin, who hails from Indianapolis, moved to Detroit to play with percussionist Sam Sanders. By that time,
he had already shared the stage with Wes Montgomery and his childhood friend, Freddie Hubbard. Fate brought them together at Metro Arts, a unique federally-funded institute that offered a breadth of interdisciplinary arts courses, ranging from jazz to dance, designed to be accessible for teenagers. Here, many future members of Tribe began building the framework for what was to come.
Tribe records brought together Ranelin, Harrison, Marcus Belgrave, Doug Hammond, Harold McKinney and many others, utilizing community resources and. As the label promised, Tribe indeed offered “a new dimension in cultural awareness”. Despite only releasing eight albums, the body of work is peerless. Each release is a testament to the freedom and artistic license each artist had, crossing together influences ranging from Bebop to Soul to Funk to Classical & Avant-Garde. As the city economy continued slouching downward and racist zoning policies kept many Black people from home ownership, the act of self-publishing and promotion became a political one. Like the music itself, the goal of the business was to uplift the community and point towards a self-determined future.
Tribe also existed as a concert series and a magazine. Under the direction of Wendell Harrison’s wife Patricia, Tribe began publishing a magazine that catered to the interests of the community and also helped publicize the Tribe artists and albums. The quarterly, and eventually monthly, magazine would feature interviews with notable musicians, such as Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra, articles on contemporary Black issues written by local university students, and even lifestyle pieces on beauty and fashion. With its concert series, Tribe was able to present notable jazz musicians in Detroit alongside local talent, and the profits would help produce albums and workshops, thus continuing the ongoing practice of jazz as an oral tradition, something meant to be listened to and passed on.
Having effectively come to an end in 1977, Tribe’s members would still remain crucial community figures. With the non-profit Rebirth Inc., Harrison and Ranelin continue to educate and engage the public in jazz, through public radio shows, lectures, and performances. Phil Ranelin would join Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, and appear with his childhood friend Freddie Hubbard on an excellent run of albums on Columbia, and Harrison would write several books on jazz education, while remaining an active mentor to young musicians. He also collaborated with notable Detroit musicians, including techno pioneer Carl Craig, Amp Fiddler, & B12 founder Proof. The impact left by Tribe is immeasurable today. Practically every independent musician and label follows their blueprint of self-releasing and signing distribution deals. They would be followed in Detroit by generations of afrocentric sonic worldbuilders, such as Griot Galaxy, who first recorded with Ranelin on “Vibes From the Tribe”. As their music continues to be reissued and enjoyed by fans worldwide, Ranelin and Harrison have delivered another striking chapter in Tribe story with their upcoming collaboration with Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammed for Jazz Is Dead- a full circle moment that celebrates the visionary power of independent music and jazz for the people.