The dim studio suddenly went quiet dissipating the sound of an alto saxophone. A sign above the door flashed “on air” repeatedly and a smooth voice floated over the airwaves. The show had just begun.
By Friday, most people would do anything to avoid going to work. But Fridays for J. Michael Harrison, 50, are more like “therapy.” As the host of WRTI-FM’s “The Bridge,” a show that aims to bridge the gap between hip-hop and bebop, it is Harrison’s full-time job to know about all types of music. From 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. every Friday through Saturday, Harrison sits behind a microphone doing exactly what he loves to do–talking about music.
“I like [all] music. Categories are for those that sell music, in my opinion,” Harrison said. “If you walk into a record store, [artists should be listed] from A to Z. There should be no categories…So if you were playing something on a conga and I’m feeling it, I’m feeling it. It doesn’t matter the genre or category.”
But Harrison does more than just talk about music. He often uses his platform as an opportunity to actually teach people about music. “The Bridge” highlights progressive sounds–things you might not hear anywhere else. He encourages his audience to open up their minds to new musical experiences by staying open-minded himself. Harrison looks for a good sound anywhere and everywhere he can find it. From birds singing to the sound of a SEPTA bus passing by, Harrison said he thinks music exists all around us if only we take the time to listen.
“If you’re walking down the street, [music] could be the click of a woman’s heels going down the street. You start listening to that rhythm. And I can hear Mos Def looping something over that,” Harrison said. “That might be kind of crazy and you might want to record that!”
Under the influence of his older brother and his cousin, percussionist Harry “Butch” Reed, Harrison’s love for music and musicians started at a young age.
“[As a kid] I was a big fan of radio. But my brother, who’s six years older than me, played guitar. He was as much of a music addict then as I am now. And my cousin played drums and still plays drums. So during their teenage years, just to see how serious they were about music [made me serious]. And I guess it was just second nature to someway be involved with music,” Harrison said.
But Harrison’s family members weren’t the only influences on him and his show. Growing up in North Central in the 1960s and 1970s, “when everybody had a band,” music lived around every corner for the young Harrison–literally. A self-proclaimed “homegrown” Philadelphian–Harrison said he remembers living a mere four blocks from R&B recording artist Jill Scott on 23rd and Cumberland streets.
“There were times when me and my friends were sitting on the steps right across from her house seeing [Jill Scott] as a little girl and we had no idea who she would grow up to be,” Harrison said.
Since then, many other artists–both local and nationally recognized–have crossed paths with Harrison right in North Philadelphia. If you were to ask the average person his favorite musician, the question would most likely elicit a single name answer. When you ask Harrison his favorite artist, you get a list of names as long and diverse as the amount of people that have managed to appear on “The Bridge” since it started almost 15 years ago. That list includes a much older Jill Scott, who later performed on “The Bridge” as a poet. And to someone like Harrison–who decided to do radio mostly out of his frustration with commercial radio’s tendency to play much of the same thing–there is no need to discriminate against any artistic style.
His appreciation for many different kinds of art might explain why “The Bridge” became such a popular hang-out spot among artists back when the WRTI studio still sat in the Annenberg Hall building on Temple University’s campus.
“The first time I met him he was just such a nice guy and so willing to share his space with all of us,” said Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, a poet, a playwright and professor at Temple University. “And Philadelphia has always been a very unappreciative city for art. So somebody who was taking poets in–well, that made you an automatic cool person and we’ve been buds ever since.”
Though “The Bridge” relocated, Harrison and Williams-Witherspoon still share a space about once a year when she takes her poetry students to perform live on his show at WRTI.
His easygoing demeanor and support for what they do make it simple for Harrison to make friends with many of the artists frequenting “The Bridge.” One such friend, the accomplished alto saxophonist Bobby Zankel, dropped by “The Bridge” to play his rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” for Harrison’s recent 50th birthday. Zankel knew Harrison since his humble beginnings at WPEB, a small community radio station located at 40th and Market streets.
“He is a music lover–a lover of art, a lover of beauty, a lover of creation, a lover of culture. And he is an activist. He’s taken what could just be a private pleasure and become an educator to the world, a supporter of people who make music and an asset to the community in so many ways,” Zankel said.
Zankel’s fondest memory of Harrison and “The Bridge” was getting to hear his wife, a poet, on one of the shows.
“My wife has always supported me for so many years. And I remember the first time she went on the radio with [Harrison],” Zankel said. “I’m listening to her and he’s treating her with the same respect and seriousness that he’d treated me with. That really meant a lot to me.”
When Harrison’s not teaching from behind the microphone, he teaches a music journalism course for the University of the Arts right in the studio at WRTI.
Maricia Seigler, 22, a student in Harrison’s class said: “[J. Michael Harrison] is awesome. He has a wealth of knowledge about jazz and about the local artists and he’s been very good about helping a new person in Philadelphia navigate and meet new people.”
Whether it is from behind a microphone or in front of one, Harrison has made teaching music a legacy and his opportunity to leave a mark on the world.
“People ask me, ‘How you doing today?’ and I say, ‘I’m here to see another day.’ I’ve been given another day with a blank canvas to paint an incredible picture. So I try to start from there. Don’t take this day for granted…Having the opportunity to be involved with radio for this period of time, I don’t take that for granted. It’s a blessing. I enjoy it. But I also recognize that it’s an opportunity to accomplish some things,” Harrison said.