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Billy Harper: A Life of Persistence and Improvisation

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."

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