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Billy Harper: A Life of Persistence and Improvisation

R.J. DeLuke By

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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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