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