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Billy Harper: A Life of Persistence and Improvisation

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."

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