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Heart Attack

The source of Billy Harper's aggressive tenor style lies in a power greater than himself

In the mid-'70s record companies felt straight-ahead jazz had lost much of its commercial viability in the colonies, being overshadowed by jazz-rock and soul-jazz. But Harper wasn't about to change his style to suit the whims of the industry. To make albums on his terms, Harper recorded for overseas labels like Black Saint and Steeplechase. "Billy had a lot of opportunity when he first went to New York to sell out, do a lot of commercial-type things," Pinson says. "But he said he didn't want to make it a commercial thing."

To say Harper has been neglected by the mainstream recording industry is an understatement. He's never had a contract under his own name with a major U.S. label; most of his recordings are on foreign labels. Last year's Soul of an Angel is a wonderful session, but it's on a small independent label and has received little promotional push.

Like many of his contemporaries, Harper finds overseas audiences more receptive to straight-ahead jazz, so he tours frequently outside the States. "Over there, they were always open to listening, at least hearing what it is, and they know that the music is indigenous to this country. And they know the value of it, so they want to know what comes from this country. What is the artistic expression that is coming from America? A lot [of Americans] have missed the value of jazz to start with because they might be hearing only what's on the radio."

Billy Harper: Doesn’t get the love he deserves from major labels.
Billy Harper: Doesn’t get the love he deserves from major labels.

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Harper is hardly bitter. He's made a comfortable living and is highly respected among his peers. He's played with some of the best musicians jazz has to offer and has taught at several schools. He teaches improvisation and instrumentation at the New School in New York, and he's received various grants over the years, including two from the National Endowment for the Arts. While aggressive, Harper is also patient, which explains his hobby of running marathons. Above all, the message for Harper is more about the music, not notoriety.

"I think that people who really know me and know my music also know where I'm coming from," Harper says. "It touches some people. It touches their hearts and their souls, and many have told me that. And that's exactly what I'm supposed to do then."

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