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Billy Harper: A Life of Persistence and Improvisation

R.J. DeLuke By

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On stage, Billy Harper puts his lips to the tenor saxophone, stands relatively erect and sings through his horn; a strong, angular, muscular sound. There little physical gesticulation, belying the effort it takes to express feelings and emotions through the instrument. But Harper's creative statements demand attention.

Over the last few years, a lot of that energy is expressed on stage with the Cookers, a star-studded septet that has been burning up the scene, gaining fans and critical acclaim. Harper is blowing his best among comrades Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson, George Cables, Cecil McBee, Donald Harrison and David Weiss, stellar players and old friends. He also is a prolific composer, an educator and has led his own bands over the years, as well as performed with Gil Evans, Max Roach, Lee Morgan, Charles Tolliver, Randy Weston, the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis big band, Art Blakey and others.

It's a career where Harper, a born musician who started singing while in diapers, has shown remarkable persistence. A self-taught saxophonist in the beginning, he honed his chops so well that he eventually entered the prestigious music program at North Texas State University. But it was during a time of segregation and there were tough things to deal with. Harper persevered. He won out.

"I got into jazz completely, which meant improvisation, which was the way I learned to live," says Harper, a congenial sort who's thoughtful and forthright. "Improvising all the time. It was not just music. It was the way. That is my life. It might be a funny thing to say, but I feel like I am the music. I don't mean I'm the only music, but I am music. That's how much it is a part of me, or I'm a part of it. I really feel like the music. I think that other musicians who are playing represent the music. They are the music also... Whenever writers say sometimes, 'jazz is dead.' I think that's a conspiracy or something. As long as it's in the musicians, the music is there. It's where I live."

Harper, 71, who released his first album Capra Black in 1973 (Strata East), also leads his own quartet and is working on the release of a DVD that will feature his sextet performing with 60 voices. Using voices is a natural progression for someone who came up in the Houston area singing in the church and thought he would be a singer or an actor before the saxophone pulled on his coat.

The Cookers have four albums out and this year's Time and Time Again (Motema) is outstanding. The band is tight, the writing strong (three songs by Harper) and the soloists bright and expressive—as they have all been throughout their careers.

"It's great. Everybody's played together at one time or another," Harper says. "Everybody has their own group. Among those guys, they've either played with Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan. So we're kind of connected from a long way back." Henderson played with Harper for eight years gong back to the '70s. "So we've got a close connection. When I first got to New York, I was trying to get Billy Hart to play in my band. He was there for a second until Stan Getz paid him. [chuckles] He could pay some real money."

"That's probably one of the reasons the group works so well," he said of the dynamic group feel of the band. "We also know the history in the same way. Many of the young guys don't know the history of getting a sound and a purpose. Power. When I say that, I mean I played with Art Blakey. Eddie played with Art Blakey too. I played with Elvin Jones. The best drummers. Everybody in the band played with somebody like that. Like Herbie Hancock. George Cables was on my first record. Also, we played together with Blakey too... It's working out."

Harper has been a major voice on the saxophone for decades, but the singing thing—that was first.

"When I was crawling, my uncle said I was trying to sing something from Ella Fitzgerald, from the radio. 'A Tisket, A Tasket' or something. I was singing that before walking. Then they were always getting me to sing in church. I was pushed on stage to sing. That was going to be my main thing. When I was there, my grandmother was married to the minister. So I was there all the time. I heard all these great choruses. Wow. I heard people who were singing like Aretha Franklin. Really good singers. At that time, it would be a sin to change the way they were singing to do something commercial. But they were just as great as Aretha. And I was in the middle of all that. I was little, but hearing it all and taking it all in without realizing it. That was quite an experience. In fact, I would think it would be the thing that led me to my style of singing and playing."

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