A tremendous force on the drums and percussion instruments of all kinds and a successful bandleader, Winard Harper has been beating on one kind of instrument or another since almost before he could walk. A child prodigy and now a veteran performer, Harper's music recognizes few stylistic, cultural, or genre boundaries. Comfortable in any settingwhether playing on the Kennedy Center stage with longtime collaborator Dr. Billy Tayloror leading his own raucous, multi-cultural band at a local club, Harper is one of the most gracious players on the scene.
It was my distinct privilege to discuss with Mr. Harper his early years as a player, his many cultural interests, as well as his newest band and their latest release Make it Happen (Piadrum, 2006).
All About Jazz: Before we get to the new album, let's get a little background. You grew up in Baltimore, is that right?
Winard Harper: I was born in Baltimore and lived there until I was nine. Then we moved to Atlanta.
AAJ: Is that where you started playing?
WH: I started playing in Baltimore.
AAJ: How old were you?
WH: I was three or four. I played my first gig when I was about five.
AAJ: How did that happen?
WH: My family. I had older brothers. My brother was playing and had groups that were playing around Baltimore. So my familymy parentssaw the interest and got me started playing drums and that's all she wrote.
AAJ: Was your family originally from the Baltimore/D.C. area?
WH: Actually, my family was originally from down South. My father's from Georgia, my mother's from North Carolina. But you know back then there was the migration up North. So they ended up in Baltimore.
AAJ: Were either of your parents professional musicians?
WH: No, they weren't musicians. They loved the music, so they were around the music. My father was a photographer and used to take pictures around Baltimore, but they weren't musicians.
AAJ: Once you started playing more professionally and really taking the music seriously, who were your major influences.
WH: Let's see. Well, everybody. [drummers] Max Roach, Art Blakey. Everybody I could get hold of and listen to! [trumpeter] Clifford Brown. [Saxophonist] Charlie Parker, [pianist] Thelonious Monk. Then as I got more into things, [drummer] Billy Higgins. And of course a lot of the guys that I've had the pleasure of working with have been big influences on me. [Saxophonist] Jackie McLean. [Pianist] Billy Taylor. [Saxophonist] Jimmy Heath. [Saxophonist] Pharoah Sanders.
AAJ: You are mentioning a lot of non-drummers. Did their influence lead you in new directions?
WH: Yeah, because as a drummer you are always playing for these guys. These are the guys that hired you. You want to have a sense of what they require, of what they need, what they are looking for to get their concept across of their music. But when I look at myself now, it's not just as "drummer it's also "bandleader. It's almost like I'm playing two or three instruments. So you have to have that ability as a drummer, but also the abilities of a bandleader.
AAJ: Do you think that drumming is essentially a supportive role then?
WH: Essentially yes. Of course, there's a way you go about it, even as a supporting role.
AAJ: I was going to say. You certainly have a very unique and exciting playing style all your own. But instead of putting it into my words, how would you describe what makes your approach distinct?
WH: Probably in a way that most people wouldn't even think of. I would say heart. Soul. Joy. Blessing. I would describe it in those terms.
AAJ: You can see that when you are playing. You bring so much of yourself to the stage. And you also look like you are just having so much fun.
WH: Well, I think that's the way it should be. My heroes, that's what they exhibited to me, what they conveyed.
AAJ: I also want to talk about your composing style, which is equally unique. You incorporate a lot of different instruments, styles, and rhythms from a wide geographic and cultural spectrum. When did you start focusing on brining these new sounds to jazz?
WH: I've always been in interested in them. I think I'm just finally getting old enough and mature enough to say "Here I am. This is what I have. This is what I bring with me. Growing up down south playing gospel, playing in the church, playing in marching bands. My love for history, for African history. All of it is now coming together for me and I'm just trying to find a place to make it all work. I also have to thank Jackie McLean for introducing me to a lot of the African history and music.
AAJ: How did you go about studying these various different types of music and instruments? Did it begin with exposure to the cultures, or to the music?
WH: I guess a little bit of both. Most good jazz musicians have a love for and a good understanding of history. That's what I've found. When you sit down and talk to them they can tell you about the history, the environment around themselves and around the music that helped shape the music. So I've always had a love for studying that context. The history of Africa, of African Americans, from slavery on up. It helps you have a better understanding of what the music is, what it comes out of, and what it is about. All of those things have helped shape me and what I am trying to do with the band.
AAJ: That's a good bridge to asking you about the Balafon. At performances you always say its too long a story, so now's our chance to find out more about how you got involved with this fascinating instrument.
WH: I have to attribute a lot of that to Billy Higgins. Billy would share with me a lot of the musical things he would hear and he was working on. And it got to the point where he'd show me some things and I'd start messing around and exploring them to and I'd throw things back to him. And we got together one day and he started telling me about the slit drum, which I used on some of my earlier recordings. It's like a box with slits in it and each one has a different tone on it. I started using those, but those are very delicate so they crack easy. And I was going to a lot of shopsAfrican shops, instrument shopsto see what I could add to my sound. One day I was at an African flee market and I found a little, small Balafon and I started taking that on gigs cause it was easier to carry then the slit drums. And I really loved the sound of it. It moved me. It spoke to my soul.
AAJ: It's captivating and totally distinct. Somewhere between a marimba, it has an African quality to it, and sometimes almost an east Asian quality.
WH: I call it like the great-grandfather to the marimba and the xylophone. They came before those. It's all handmade. Animal skin, wood, gourd, and the sound is just so incredible. So I started picking them up wherever I went. And the tuning on all of them is different depending on the tribe or where it comes from.
AAJ: Have you traveled extensively in Africa then?
WH: No. All those things you can find here. I find them and I add them to the music. I gotta say that's also something I got handed down to me from Jackie and Billy. Billy had this knack for picking up instruments and just exploring, seeing what sounds he could get out of them, you know what I mean? And that is what I try to do. Just pick things up and see what I can do with them. Not necessarily play them the way they would in their native country. I take it how can I integrate that sound and the soul of it into what we do.
AAJ: What do you think distinguishes world music from jazz?
WH: I've never really thought about it in those terms. For me we're just playinglike Duke Ellington, there's good music and bad musicwhen we step out I just want to play good music. Jazz is just the basis for me because that's what I came out of. But we try to add things. Sometimes we have funk grooves, go-go, some Caribbean, some African. It's a little bit of everything mixed in.
AAJ: I want to switch gears again and talk a little bit more about your background because you so clearly bring so much of yourself to the stage. You are very much a family man, if I understand correctly you have eight children, is that correct?
AAJ: How do you balance the demands of touring with your family life?
WH: The best I can! And it comes from having a strong and good partner. And making sure to always stay in touch and make sure everything is right and good.
AAJ: Do any of your children play with you like you did with your siblings?
WH: One of my sons is interested in playing the drums. He came and played on one of the recordings. It's not something I force on them. A couple of them are playing in school. We'll see what happens.
AAJ: You're Muslim, is that correct?
AAJ: Is that a family tradition?
WH: That depends, when you say family, yes it is a family tradition in my musical family. A lot of the jazz musicians studies or did take that route. Jackie McLean turned Higgins on, and in turn he helped steer me in that direction.
AAJ: So it comes from your study with these musical mentors.
WH: Just being inspired. I'd be out on the road. Maybe Billy was working another theater and he'd come get me after the show and say, "Man, I want you to come somewhere with me and he'd go and take me to the mosque. Introduce me to that wonderful way of life.
AAJ: You're music speaks of a high level of spiritual commitment. Even the names of the songs often incorporate messages of peace. Is that something you are trying to express through the music, an element of your faith?
WH: Most certainly. Because that is what jazz is anyway. When you study the history of jazz and look at all that our people have come through. Looking at people that were devastated but could go beyond that and go look for some beauty and take components of themselves and their surroundings and come up with a beautiful music.
AAJ: Considering all the strife in the Middle East now, how has that impacted you? Has it been difficult for you as a Muslim American?
WH: It makes you more cautions. You understand that there are some crazy people out there who you have to be careful, of who you are dealing with. It makes you want to be cautions and careful because people don't always know the right way to think through things. They might be inclined to group everyone together. But that's not the way life really is. You'd think in the 21st Century we would have learned by now to coexist and find some other groove to work through our problems and remember to show each other respect and love. To want for our brothers what we want for ourselves.
AAJ: I think to too many Americans Islam remains very much a mystery. We have so much exposure to Christianity in all its forms, to Judaism to a lesser extent, there is still a basic lack of awareness regarding Islam and at the same time so much rising tension surrounding our relationship to it. Is there anything you would like to express about Islam to our readers?
WH: The basic thing is that it's a mission to the all powerful, to God. One of the most beautiful and powerful things to run through it is to want for your brother what you want for yourself. I think a lot of times and in a lot of situations people get politics mixed up with religion. Sometimes they can be thinking of some strife that is over one thing and its not.
AAJ: On that note, let's turn to the new album. It's another killer release with a whole new band. How did that band come together?
WH: It's been evolving. Which has been a good thing. It's really been evolving. It's just like life. Sometimes there's struggle and there's hardship, and you don't want them to happen, but sometimes something good comes out of it. And that is what's happening with the band. Some things have been switched and moved around. Guys that were here for a long time and you had strong relationships with move on to do something else. And somebody new comes along and brings something totally new to the table.
AAJ: What are the key ingredients to putting together a band like this that is full of such individual talents but able to function fluidly as a whole?
AAJ: Is that your role, to guide that and be patient?
WH: That's where those skills as a band leader come in. And I can say that I have been around some of the greatest. [Singer] Betty [Carter]. Dr. Billy Taylor. Jimmy Heath. And I've studied some good ones. [Pianist] Duke Ellington. [Saxophonist] Cannonball [Adderley]. And you try to make use of all of it. Sometimes being a band leader is being a big brother, sometimes a coach, sometimes a friend. Sometimes it's being a task master.
AAJ: You mentioned Duke Ellington as an example. What I've always found interesting about your approach is that you really seem to be composing and giving a lot of space for the individual musician.
WH: It's a team. It's like trying to put together a really great basketball team or football team. You want each player to be strong. I get guys that are talented or I see the potential in them and try to give them that room to grow into that potential. That's the kind of player I like to be as well. In many ways drums are a supporting instrument so I need those other ingredients to be good so I can have something to be supporting.
AAJ: This album is similar to the previous album in that it also presents a mix of genres. You have traditional jazz, blues, funk, and several multi-cultural compositions that incorporate things from all over. Why do you choose to make your albums so eclectic instead of focusing on one genre at a time?
WH: You know like I told a lady the other night that came to one of the gigs and wanted to buy an album. I told her what you see the band do is what we do on the CDs. If you come to one of our shows, that's what you get. That's what the people have come to love. We have some traditional. We have some standards. We get into the African or Caribbean things. Everybody has a wonderful time, feels moved. I take that concept and go straight into the studio and say, "Lets record that.
AAJ: What's next for you now that the album is out?
WH: My thing now is to really get the band out there. Because it's a good band. It's an energetic band. I think we can help the music a lot. I think our approach to it can help bring in new listeners. That's one thing we would like to do, to bring in new listeners. Right now the jazz audience needs to be replenished. It would be nice when we do concerts to look out and see a good mix of people our age and younger. As well as the regular people who continue to come to the gigs.
AAJ: I think you are right. The band itself represents that mix. I think it's a great experiment.
WH: Well, we're workin' at it.
Winard Harper Sextet, Make It Happen (Piadrum, 2006)
Nancy Wilson, Turned to Blue (MCG Jazz, 2006)
Billy Taylor, Taylor Made at the Kennedy Center (Kennedy Center Jazz, 2005)
David "Fathead Newman, I Remember Brother Ray (High Note, 2005)
Steve Turre, Spirits Up Above (High Note, 2004)
Winard Harper Sextet, Come Into the Light (Savant, 2004)
Winard Harper Sextet, A Time for the Soul (Savant, 2003)
David "Fathead Newman, The Gift (High Note, 2003)
Janis Siegel, I Wish You Love (Telarc, 2002)
Ray Bryant Trio, North of the Border (Label M, 2001)
Wycliffe Gordon, The Search (Nagel-Heyer, 2000)
Winard Harper Sextet, Faith with Carrie Smith (Savant, 2000)
Winard Harper, Tap Dancer (Savant, 1998)
Chico Freeman, Still Sensitive (India Navigation, 1996)
Carmen McRae/Betty Carter, Duets: Live at the Great American Music Hall (Polygram, 1996)
Don Braden, Organic (Columbia, 1995)
Winard Harper, Be Yourself (Epicure, 1994)
Etta Jones, At Last (Muse, 1993)
Houston Person, Why Not (Muse, 1990)
The Harper Brothers, Remembrance: Live at the Village Vanguard (Verve, 1989)
Betty Carter, Look What I Got (Verve, 1988)
Live Photos: Mark Sheldon Portrait courtesy of Winard Harper