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Billy Harper: A Life of Persistence and Improvisation

R.J. DeLuke By

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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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