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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."

Walking home from school, Harper used to pause in front of an instrument shop and gaze into the window. He didn't know what the gold-tinged horns were, but they captured his imagination. One, the trumpet, only had three valves. The one that held more mystique was the curved one with many more accoutrements. "I wanted to play that. What I wanted for Christmas from that time on was a saxophone," laughs Harper. "And a horse... No, I didn't get the horse."

When he got his hands on the sax, Harper taught himself. He would listen to records with an uncle who was a fan. Again, there was a vocal aspect. "He loved to put the words in solos and things like that," says Harper. "I learned a lot of that jazz stuff and concepts from starting with him at a very young age. I learned to hear really well at that age. I was playing stuff by Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver and finally John Coltrane... One of the strongest guys to start with was Sonny Rollins. Then Kenny Dorham with Max Roach and with Horace Silver. Then Coltrane. I was in good company."

As he progressed, Harper was playing the blues and working and making money at the age of 16. Jamming in high school made him better and better. But he knew it was a long road. "There was a terror down there by the name of Don Wilkerson," he recalls. "He did a record called 'Texas Tornado' or something [Texas Twister, Riverside, 1960]. Everybody was afraid to sit in with him. But I was only in high school I heard him and my goodness. A whirlwind."

"But the time I got to college I met James Clay}," he says. Clay was a hot tenor player who, during his unsung career had some good records, but also recorded with the likes of Don Cherry and Wes Montgomery, played with Ray Charles, Billy Higgins, Red Mitchell and others. "That was my mentor, along with Richard Lily in Houston, whose wife was my drama instructor. For a while I thought I was going to sing and act. Pretty soon I got more into the horn."

After high school, a friend told him about the outstanding music program at North Texas State University and Harper was game to give it a try.

"But when I got there, things were still segregated. There were 10,000 students and 100 blacks at the time. So the living quarters, dorms, were not open to black guys. The ladies had started integrating the dorms. While I was there, we went through all the demonstrations, sitting in and all that stuff. They finally moved us into apartments on the campus," says Harper.

And there were times of trouble.

"There was a Confederate fraternity. Whew. I remember. A lot of times, friends of mine would get beat up when they'd come from Dallas late at night. We went through that stuff," he recalls. But such was his focus, his persistence, that he did not let the distractions interfere with his studies. "I was totally into the music. So the other stuff was happening. It was going to happen. So let's get to it [the music]. Although I remember one night sleeping and a big bright light was all around the apartment. I came out to the door and there was a cross burning across the street... Yeah. I didn't forget that place. It had good and bad."

He says the musicians at the school were cool. Many were from the north and some of them had already played in big bands like Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. Harper played in the school's big band and flourished, earning his degree. "Then I was playing professionally in Dallas with James Clay and some guys. I decided one day, it's time to get to New York. That was the place I was aiming for without realizing it. Everybody I was listening to was from New York. The records from Blue Note, RCA. All those companies were in New York. I wasn't interested in recording. I just had to get to New York to be around that music. That was my main thing. That was the goal. Then after a while, I was all over the world. Hardly in New York."

He got there in 1966 and found the going rough at first.

"When I first got to New York, it seemed like something really bad happened, then something really good. The first thing that happened is I borrowed $100 from a friend to get to New York. I just had $100, and I stayed in a hotel the first night. That took almost all the money. I had a little money left over and I put it in my [sax] case. I'm looking for another place that's cheaper. I happened to accidentally drive by Third Avenue and Eighth Street and saw that Thelonious Monk was playing there," says the saxman/raconteur. "I had to go check him out, just for a little while. When I came out, I saw McCoy Tyner was playing right across the street. I ran across the street to see him. I saw Cedar Walton in there. I got to hear McCoy and ran back downstairs to check the car and all my stuff was gone. My second night in New York."

Harper laughs pleasantly as he thinks back. "And I didn't know anybody. That's the way I started... It went like that for a while. It certainly made me stronger and more focused. I had to get away from those material things. I didn't know it was, in a way, an advantage. Because I felt so terrible all my stuff was gone. I was really tied to that stuff, so it was good to get untied."

One of the first good things was meeting Gil Evans, by happenstance, on Broadway. "He was nice. He was like a floating spirit. You see the records, like out of the Cool and he had a suit on and stuff. Well, he never wore a suit. [laughs] He was always in jeans. Just a down-home guy. Friendly. Just soul. So I told Gil, 'If you ever need a saxophone for anything, give me a call.' Six months went by. I wasn't expecting to hear from him. I was pretty despondent by them, lying across the bed. I was thinking, 'What am I going to do here?' And the phone rings and it's Gil. He said, 'I got a rehearsal.' I made that and the rest is history."

Before the Gil Evans gig, however, there was some baptism by fire. "It wasn't easy," he says with humor, not complaining. "It was a struggle. Most of the guys that were playing at the clubs didn't necessarily want new people there, trying to take over their jobs. I had a hard time."

The young Harper went into Slug's nightclub one night to meet Elvin Jones. "I was just a little square guy. I said, 'Mr. Jones, I'm Billy Harper from Texas and I'd like to sit in with you.' He said, 'Noooo.' [chuckles] Like he was going to jump on me or something. [chuckles] OK, OK. I came from Texas, man. People were kind if you could play. Friendly. He was all this nasty stuff. I later realized he was drunk much of the time, when he couldn't get the drugs... We became buddies later. So I came the second night and he said the same thing. But I knew I could play. After North Texas State bands and playing with Clay, I knew I could play. There wasn't even a doubt. I was bold enough to ask the same thing the next night."

Harper went in the next two nights and was also turned down, but not as vehemently. He heard about a rehearsal the drummer was holding and showed up. He helped Jones carry the drums in and out of the hall. But the next night at Slug's, he was put off. Persistent? The following night, Harper walked in and didn't bother to ask. He sat down. At the third set, he was called to the stage.

"When I got up to play though, Elvin jumped off the drums and Philly Joe Jones jumped on. They started playing a fast tune. You know, the Philly Joe. The cocky Philly Joe. I didn't know what they were going to do. Hank Mobley was working with him at the time. He took his solo and he finished, and it's time for mine. Philly Joe was still playing and all of a sudden he hit the snare drum and stopped everybody. Right when I'm starting to play. He put his elbow on the snare drum and looked at me. Just looked. All the music stopped except me," says Harper, laughing at the memory.

"I didn't know what to do. I just kept playing. That's all I knew. I started to play, so I'm going to play. I closed my eyes and was into my own thing and just kept playing, just like I was performing. The way I would play if they were playing with me. Pretty soon the people started clapping. Philly had to come in. So the band came in and they were screaming. It was like everybody planned a trick for me or something. But the audience didn't know. That's the way I met Elvin and Philly. When I finished playing, Philly said, 'Man, you can play, but you play so long.' [chuckles] And he's the one who caused the whole thing."

It was an incident that other musicians started hearing about, which helped get Harper's name around. Another was a stroke of good fortune when he became part of an NBC television special called "The Big Apple."

"It was about a few people's first experience in New York. I was one. Because Kenny Dorham told them about me, so they got me as the jazz musician. There was the boxer, Jerry Quarry. He had a section. There was a business person, an opera singer, a model and a jazz musician. I was the one. So I was on television. They were filming how I would try to sit in. Life with me. I thought it was a big thing at the time. I had been trying to survive and sometimes I had to eat sandwiches with cheese, no meat."

They were filing segments of his life around the city and wanted some footage from the Village Vanguard. "But the Vanguard wouldn't even let them in to film. It would have been good for the Vanguard to have that. So they said, 'OK. why don't you put your own band together? We'll let you film it.' So, I was smart enough to think: OK, I'll do that. I got Elvin on drums, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, McCoy Tyner on piano, Reggie Workman on bass. So when we played, that was seen all over the place. Certainly all over New York. I think Miles and some other people must have seen that too. Then, in a small way, I kind of made it. But also word had spread with that thing with Philly Joe and Elvin at the club. Everything happened from there."

There was a call from Blakey. Work with Evans. And soon he was working with the first-rate Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band.

"Things tied together real nice. And Max Roach heard me playing with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. So he hired me. Nobody was necessarily working constantly. So I was working with maybe four of those bands at the same time. Gil hadn't gone to Europe yet. If Blakey was not doing something, maybe Thad Jones was doing something. Nothing clashed too much. Pretty soon Gil was going to Europe, so I went with him. And I was working with Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan. A lot of stuff happening."

The Texan was now playing with many of the people he'd listened to on records in Houston. His own recording career developed and he led his own bands. All of the sitting in, taking some lumps, improving, and climbing up the ladder paid off. It shows in his playing. And it something not always found in younger players, who don't see opportunities to mentor with big bands, or with jazz veterans.

"Now you have a lot of the young guys playing. They play well, but that connection to the soul of the music that the Cookers have is not there," says Harper. "They're more academic. Or experimental. That's what if feels like to me."

Harper also taught at Rutgers University in New Jersey for a time and these days does some teaching at the New School in New York City. But performing is what he prefers. In addition to the Cookers, he leads a group consisting of Freddie Hendrix on trumpet, Francesca Tanksley on piano, Aaron Scott on drums and Clarence Seay on bass. "When we get together it works, it just gels. Just like the Cookers."

He also works in a duo with Randy Weston. They released The Roots of the Blues (Sunnyside) in 2013. But his next big individual project is the DVD with voices.

"We did it in New York at St. Peters Church, December, 31, 2012. It came out great," he says. It's not the first project with voices. A few years back, he did one with a Polish choir [Billy Harper In Concert: Live from Poland Arkadia, 2007]. "That was the first idea. I've done it Pittsburgh, New York and will probably do this abroad too. The only way to be able to do it is to use the choir from that location. Somebody called me from Portugal. So if we do that, then we'll use their choir... I also have a small vocal group and we scat. So the scatting group does the first thing. Then my group. Then the 60 voices. More voices are added to the scatters and we do my stuff with the 60 voices. The scatters do some bebop stuff also, other than just my stuff. Something by Monk, something by Freddie Hubbard, then mostly my stuff."

So persistence has paid off. Lovers of Harper's sound—warm, welcoming and dashing all at once—are glad.
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