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Heart Attack

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

Former Houstonian Billy Harper is an aggressive tenor saxophonist, with a tone that's both gripping and penetrating. He's not interested in seducing his audiences; he prefers to challenge them, and his bandmates, with a strong and relentless attack whose origins can be traced not to the practice room but to the 58-year-old's life and his faith.

"He demands when you play you give it all," says Houston drummer and longtime friend Malcolm Pinson (see "Jazz Warrior," by Paul J. MacArthur, September 30, 1999). "When you come off the bandstand with Harper, you have sweated. You leave everything on the stand….Even when he plays a ballad, he puts so much stuff into a ballad. Billy plays all the time with a lot of energy. He's like Trane. I don't care if you're traveling all night -- when it's time to play, you have to get up there and play."

"The driving force is what makes the musician reach for more," Harper says of his need for power and intensity. "The driving force is what makes the music express more. A driving force is what makes a heart open up. It takes that extra drive sometimes to make the heart open."

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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Opening the heart up: That's something of a mission for Harper.


Born to a religious family -- his father, uncles and grandfather were all ministers -- Billy Roy Harper was drawn to Ella Fitzgerald recordings as a toddler. By five, he was singing at both church and secular functions in and around the Third Ward. Like many musicians who came up in the church, Harper developed a sense of spirituality that would serve as a foundation for his music and his life. The proof is in every note he plays, but those needing more obvious evidence need look no further than his business card, which carries the line "Trying to Make Heaven My Home."

"It turns out that my own spiritual path, my own spiritual growth, has been very much the same as my own music," says Harper. "When the music is played, of course people can hear it a lot of different ways; they might even feel like dancing or whatever, and that's fine. For me, it boils down to a kind of worship….I know what it's about, and I know where it's from and who it's from. So it's my gift."

Harper picked up the saxophone when he was 11 and learned about jazz from his uncle Earl, a trumpeter and classmate of Kenny Dorham's. As kids, Harper and Pinson hung out and listened to Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and various Blue Note recordings. They also played in R&B and dance bands together, and when Harper was 14 he formed the first incarnation of the Billy Harper Quintet.

As Harper matured, his church-based sound started to incorporate a number of different influences; he gravitated toward the Texas Tenor sound, absorbing the fat, earthy R&B-influenced tones of Arnett Cobb, James Clay and his favorite, Dickie Boy Lillie. He also assimilated the powerful explorations of Coltrane. While there is no shortage of Trane-influenced tenors, Harper is one of the few who has gone beyond mere mimicry.

"I got the spiritual message when I listened to Trane," says Harper. "He was much more clear and obvious about making that statement, and I certainly knew that, that was what I was trying to do. Of course, I was just a little kid. I mean, it took years for me to realize that I came up similarly to Trane. He had an uncle who was a minister, and he got the message also. I had a grandfather who was a minister, and I got the message, that connection, the strong spiritual connection."

In the early '60s, Harper left Houston for North Texas State University in Denton (now the University of North Texas) and became the first African-American in the school's One O'Clock Lab Band. He pursued graduate studies at North Texas for a time, but there was no question in Harper's mind where he was going to end up: in New York City.

"Being in New York and living in New York is sort of like making sure that you keep your energy up," Harper says. "You have to be on your toes all the time, whether you're doing music or not. I'm just talking about being in New York, walking in New York. Something keeps you at your very best."

Harper moved to the Big Apple in 1966 and soon was working with the best. A chance meeting with Gil Evans in '67 led to a job with the famed arranger and bandleader. That association would last nearly a decade, and Harper's compositions "Thoroughbred," "Priestess" and "Cry of Hunger" became staples of the Evans Orchestra. Shortly after he started working for Evans, Harper sat in with Blakey and was offered a job that night. That gig lasted a couple of years, and Harper has been working steadily ever since, often with the biggest names: Lee Morgan, Louis Armstrong, Charles Earland, Randy Weston, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach and Elvin Jones.

In the early '70s Harper joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, where he became a power hitter in the band. Harper often was called upon to bring the level up a notch with his solos. Around this time, Harper started recording under his own name. His debut, Capra Black, came out in 1973. Though Harper was becoming a top-shelf player in New York, he wouldn't release an album in the States under his own name for more than two decades.

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."

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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