JAZZ LEGEND Billy Harper is sitting in New York’s “jazz church,” St. Peter’s, but he wants to talk about his childhood in Texas. With his golden tenor sax in his lap, he’s filming a video for a Kickstarter campaign to fund an ambitious concert for a jazz sextet and 60-voice choir. He’s talking about how he got started in music as a five-year-old singer at St. Paul’s A.M.E. in Houston and how, a few years later, he got hooked on jazz and started hanging out with a slightly older saxophonist named George Irwin.
“George introduced me to this magical musical world,” Harper recalls, “the language of the street. He’d say to me, ‘Hey, Billy, sah ba doo lay, a breek a breek a bebop, see boom bob a doo bop, whatcha gonna do?’ ‘Whoa, whoa,’ I said,” and Harper holds his hands up defensively in surprise. “But I realized he was trying to get me to answer in the same style. OK, so eventually I did: ‘Hey, bebop see bang, see tang bob a doo bop, brip, brip, brip, soo be doo be dot day.’ George and I would talk like this oh so many times. I didn’t realize that he was actually introducing me to a natural, universal jargon, which I now call improv lingo.”
Harper, who turns 71 in January, recreates this long-ago dialogue with syncopated finger snaps and punctuates it with a finger pointing right in the listener’s face. His signature haircut, a modest afro with corners cut in at the temples, is now gray, and he breaks into a laugh, amused by the memory of two teenage hipsters improvising nonsense syllables to funky rhythms as they sauntered through Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood, befuddling every adult they passed. Harper moved from Texas to New York at age 23 and went on to record with such jazz greats as Art Blakey, Gil Evans and Max Roach, but the saxophonist forged his musical personality in Houston.
Harper’s recent album, The Roots of the Blues, an unaccompanied duo project with Randy Weston, echoes those spontaneous scat conversations with Irwin. Weston, an 87-year-old grandmaster of jazz, plays a wordless phrase on the piano, and Harper responds with a phrase of his own on the tenor saxophone. Back and forth they go through a dozen songs, never repeating what the other has played but always coming up with a variation obviously connected to the previous phrase (the album also includes an unaccompanied solo by each). Their combined 125 years of professional experience allow them to pare away all the clutter from their musical conversation so they present only the distilled essence of each tune.
“Randy and I went to Japan as a duo in 2012,” Harper explains. “From that experience, he got the idea we should record. In a duo without a rhythm section, there’s much more room; we have a lot more freedom to go further in our expression. But we can’t rely on the drummer and the bassist to handle the rhythm — we have to create the pulse just between the two of us. In some duos that’s a problem, but Randy’s a rhythmic pianist; he’s like a drummer. When he plays, you get the feeling of Duke Ellington and the feeling of Thelonious Monk, but there’s all this rhythm happening at the same time. He takes you to a place where you feel the presence of an elephant or a rhinoceros moving through Africa.”
Harper was the 31-year-old saxophonist in the Max Roach Quartet when he traveled in 1972 to Tangier, Morocco, for a jazz festival organized by Weston, who was living there at the time. Harper quickly bonded with Weston and recorded two albums with the pianist: 1973’s Tanjah and 1974’s Carnival. But the more Harper heard local African musicians, the more he was reminded of Texas.
“Africa was totally enlightening,” he says. “Everything was really making sense. I heard the rhythms I’d heard as a little boy in Houston, both from the corner bar where they played the blues and from the Wesley Chapel A.M.E. I began to understand where these rhythms came from and how they connected to American music.”
When Harper was nine, he became entranced by the gleaming metallic horns in the shop window of a music store along his route home from school. He was taken with the saxophone, if only because it had so many more keys than the trumpet. He told his parents that for Christmas he wanted a saxophone and a horse. He got only one of them.
A few years later, his uncle, Earl Harper, who’d gone to school with jazz trumpeter Kenny Dorham in Austin, got his nephew listening to Dorham and Sonny Rollins. This music was more complicated than the Louis Jordan and Charles Brown records that were popular among Billy’s friends, but the youngster relished the challenge. “It was really hip,” he remembers, “something I hadn’t heard before. Not only did most people not play like that, but most people didn’t even think like that. It was way above my head, but it gave me something to aim for.” By the time he was 16, Harper was playing in R&B bands for money and at jazz jam sessions for knowledge.
“That improv lingo with George helped in all kinds of ways,” Harper says. “Without realizing it, I was learning how to have rhythm naturally just in speaking, and that became the rhythm of how I played. It was similar to what we did in church with call-and-response. When the minister would say, ‘Oh, yeah, we got to go to heaven,’ someone would say, ‘Oh, yeah, Reverend.’”
If it was an exciting time for music, it was a difficult time for society. Segregation was so deeply entrenched in Houston that Harper never encountered Anglos except for the clerks at the stores where his family shopped. But when he went off to North Texas State College in Denton, he was part of the first group of African-Americans integrating the school. They were just 100 blacks in a sea of some 10,000 whites.
“Not everyone was staunchly segregationist,” Harper points out. “Some Caucasians were in the integration movement with us, but the fraternities weren’t like that. Every year there was a parade through town by men on horses carrying Confederate flags. We integrated the apartments in town, and sometimes we’d wake up with bright lights shining through the windows. We’d look out and see a cross burning. We got through it because we knew we had something of value in our music. It had always been like that: we always got through tough times thanks to the music in church and elsewhere.”
Harper moved to New York in 1966 at age 23 and had all his clothes and money stolen the second night he was there. But he persevered. He got a menial job at ASCAP and would bug musicians such as Miles Davis’ arranger, Gil Evans, John Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones, trumpeter Lee Morgan and drummer Art Blakey to let him sit in, and they’d tell him “no” or “maybe” or “later.” But Harper was persistent, and when he finally got a chance to sit in, he was good enough that he was eventually hired for tours and recording sessions by all four men.
“I was ready for those bands,” Harper says, “but being able to say I played with all those guys meant a lot to other people. There were a lot of things you wouldn’t learn as fast if you weren’t playing with Art, because he was always professional. He made the music work, and I could see how that was done. It’s one thing to know how to play and another to know how to make it connect with people.”
Today Harper plays with the Cookers, an all-star band of musicians from that early-‘60s era in New York when they were all trying to break into the music. The band is named after The Night of the Cookers, the famous 1965 album featuring a trumpet battle between Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan. The current members of the Cookers — Harper, Eddie Henderson, Craig Handy, George Cables, Cecil McBee, Billy Hart and David Weiss — all played with Hubbard or Morgan at some point. Unlike most jazz bands, which feature an older leader and younger sidemen, this is a band of veterans from the same generation, and that shared experience can be heard in their three albums together, most recently 2012’s Believe.
Harper’s first album under his own name was 1973’s Capra Black, the first of a dozen in all. Especially noteworthy are 1975’s Black Saint, which not only inaugurated the Italian jazz label of the same name but also won Record of the Year in Japan, and 1995’s Somalia, featuring the landmark title track. But the project Harper is most excited about these days is “Speak to Me of Love, Speak to Me of Truth,” his suite for jazz sextet and 60-voice choir. He’s trained his choir to sing the same kind of improv lingo that he and Irwin sang on the streets of Houston so many decades ago. But the most robust voice in the suite is Harper’s own saxophone.
“I didn’t know I had that big Texas sound on the saxophone until I moved to New York,” he says. “I thought that was just the way you were supposed to sound on the instrument. Arnett Cobb was down there in Fort Worth; I played with James Clay in Dallas. Julius Hemphill and Dewey Redman were still playing straight bop in Fort Worth. Don Wilkerson, who’d played with Ray Charles before Fathead [Newman], was from Houston; so was Cleanhead Vinson. Everybody in Texas tried to play that way. Maybe it was the pressure to have a full, round sound while you were marching in a school band.”