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Jazz history is rife with brilliant musicians who never received their proper due. Some became bitter, some fell prey to bad lifestyle habits, some died young, some even consigned their instrument to the closet. Many, however, simply forged on — like Billy Harper, 78, a volcanic tenor saxophonist who has carved out a satisfying, if less than decorated, career.
After arriving in New York from Texas in 1966, he played with several of the greats — Gil Evans, Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, Max Roach — then went on to lead his own potent groups that made a formidable imprint on the jazz vernacular. Players and cognoscenti have long regarded Harper as a true tenor giant. These days, he gigs in New York a few times a month and, for the past dozen years, has been a member of The Cookers, a hard-bop septet that includes Harper’s journeymen peers: drummer Billy Hart, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee and trumpeter Eddie Henderson. The group recently released its sixth album, Look Out! (Gearbox).
If the lack of acclaim irks Harper, he doesn’t let on. “I just want my music to be close to the truth,” he says by phone from his apartment in lower Manhattan. “If my style of music may not be commercial enough, and I did not get the recognition that some players get, it’s OK with me.”
David Weiss, the trumpeter who founded The Cookers and writes their arrangements, is not quite as sanguine. “Billy was supposed to be one of the next guys, right?” he says. “He came up in the system, played with the best people. With that, you usually got your shot. Then the ’70s happened. Blue Note [Records] faded. Acoustic jazz had no home. It was funk and avant-garde. Billy came of age in the ’70s, but he could never get on that magic carpet ride to stardom.”
During the 1970s, Harper recorded mostly for European labels. His 1975 album Black Saint was the inaugural release on the Italian label of the same name, which would go on to earn considerable prestige. Four years later, his Quintet in Europe was the first title for Soul Note, a Black Saint spin-off imprint. He never released a follow-up on either.
Of Harper’s 20 titles as a leader or co-leader, he says, “I’m not aware of any of them selling great numbers. It could have happened, though. It’s been known to happen. I just never knew about it. [The albums] did help solidify real listeners who wanted to hear the real stuff.”
Harper cuts a regal figure on stage. He’s square-jawed handsome, tall and lithe, with a generous head of white hair. He dresses hip, often wearing one of his long leather vests. He chuckles at the mention of them. “I usually only wear them with my own group,” he says. “It has to do with an image in my head of a warrior in the 12th century.”
The saxophonist is often lumped into the amorphous school of “post-Coltrane” musicians. “I don’t think of it like that,” he asserts, while acknowledging that Trane was a significant influence. “I heard in him that there were different strands of saxophone sounds and saxophone music. When they say ‘post-Coltrane,’ I don’t see it so much as a Coltrane sound as a more modern way of hearing and playing the saxophone.”
Harper’s sound has always been marked by a muscular tone and unflagging energy. He explores the horn’s full sonic range, punctuating his fleet lines with honks, screams, cries, guttural moans and chewy clusters of notes. The sheer intensity of his tenor work is best heard in the three-volume set Live on Tour in the Far East (Steeplechase), a quintet date — including Henderson, his fellow Cooker — recorded in the spring of 1991.
Overall, Harper’s playing and composing are informed by the gospel music of his youth and elements of Africa and Black consciousness. Those influences, and the music’s innate spirituality, are reflected in his song titles: “Love on the Sudan,” “Somalia,” “Trying To Make Heaven My Home,” “The Awakening,” “Destiny Is Yours,” and the list goes on.
Harper pushes boundaries but has never taken the plunge into full-on “outside” playing. “I’ve always been concerned with making sure that I’m respecting harmony,” he says. “So I wouldn’t just jump into it the way some of the free guys would and ignore structure. I like to advance it a little bit, but stay connected to harmony.”
According to Weiss, 57, his elder bandmate’s vigor has not waned with age. “When it’s time to go for the jugular, that’s Billy’s time,” Weiss says of Harper’s role in The Cookers. “He can be burning on top of our shit and there’s nothing around like it. Then there are times in rehearsal where he pulls out his horn and plays one note, and you hear decades of suffering and pathos.” Harper grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Houston and was raised by his grandparents. (His mother was 16 when he was born.) Surrounded by ministers and church-going folk, the youngster fell into religious life, attending church several times a week. “I think back now, and it was very free and expressive, kind of like being in Africa, very rhythmic,” he recalls. “I started singing in church and in school when I was around 3. I was going to be a singer. Everyone in my family sang. It was a natural thing.”
The plan changed when he was 11. “I remember going past an instrument shop and seeing this horn on the wall with all kind of notes,” he says, referring to the keys on the saxophone. “There was also a little horn with three valves. I figured [the trumpet] only played three notes.”
That year, Harper asked for a tenor saxophone and a horse for Christmas; he got the former, but not the latter. And while he practiced dutifully, a few years would pass before he became consumed with making music. Harper played in R&B bands and formed his own quartet at age 14. He was exposed to the blues-drenched “Texas tenor” tradition of Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and the like, but not drawn to it. He became more of a Coltrane guy.
Harper matriculated at the University of North Texas in Denton at a time when most jazz musicians were more interested in getting an education on the bandstand than in the classroom. “It was just a natural progression for me to go to school and finish college,” he says. “I would practice in one of the practice rooms all day. When I got too tired to play the horn, I’d play drums for a while. Sometimes I’d forget to go to class ’cause I’d be practicing all day long. A lot of the time, I wouldn’t leave until they turned the lights out at night.” He didn’t just work in isolation, though. Later in his college tenure, Harper became the first Black member of the One O’Clock Band, the university’s top-tier large ensemble. “A lot of the other guys played professionally in big bands,” he recalls. “They were good section players, but I was more experienced than the other guys in improvising. So I got a lot of solos.”
Harper says he didn’t get bad vibes from his white bandmates for his featured role. “The students in the music school weren’t prejudiced, but there was a lot of it on the rest of campus and around town,” he says.
At the time, Denton, just north of Dallas/Fort Worth, was a typical Texas town, where racism was commonplace. As Harper remembers it, early in college he lived in the Black section of town. Tired of trying to grab rides or sometimes walking miles to class, he moved closer to campus. He was part of a campus integration movement that did not sit well with certain townsfolk. “There would be Ku Klux Klan people dressed in hoods and carrying torches on the street in front of my apartment,” he recounts. “One night, there was a cross burning out there.”
Harper tells this harrowing story matter-of-factly, without a trace of rancor. The saxophonist got involved in the civil rights movement, marching in demonstrations. During a large, peaceful protest in Dallas, police grabbed him and threw him in jail. He was spared the nightstick but got locked up for “two or three nights.”
At this point, Harper was gigging in Dallas with fellow tenor player James Clay but had been feeling the pull of New York for some time. So “I just jumped up and left one day,” he says. “I had a girlfriend at the time, and she came with me. I didn’t really have a plan. I got to New York and had no place to stay. The main thing was just to get there.”
His bankroll was a hundred bucks, borrowed from a friend. Harper spent most of it on a hotel the first night. The next evening, while out looking for cheaper lodging, he saw a marquee for Thelonious Monk. There was no way he was passing up a chance to see Monk. He then crossed the street to catch McCoy Tyner. Afterward, he went to check on his car, and all of his belongings were gone. He was in the Big Apple, all right: robbed while seeing two jazz legends.
The saxophonist looked up a friend from Texas, drummer Charles Moffett. “Diddy,” as Harper calls him, was the only person he knew in the city. Moffett let Harper and his girlfriend stay at his place in lower Manhattan. Meanwhile, Harper beat the streets at night. “I would go around sitting in with whomever would let me,” he says. “I got a job during the day, I think as a busboy, in a restaurant of one of the big department stores.”
The established musicians on the cutthroat New York jazz scene didn’t make it easy for the newcomer from Texas. When Harper asked Elvin Jones to sit in at Slugs’, a renowned hub for jam sessions, the drummer snapped, “Nah!” Harper kept coming back and making himself seen. After a few times, Jones signaled him to come up and blow. “Then he handed the sticks to Philly Joe Jones, and walked off,” Harper says, still incredulous. A few years later, he’d do a brief stint in Jones’ band.
Harper may not have been welcome at first, but he kept showing up. “I wasn’t intimidated,” he says, adding emphatically, “because I knew I could play.” Soon enough, the Manhattan jazz community did too.
Harper saw Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, and retains a particular memory of the set: “He was playing and, all of a sudden, he just started beating his chest and chanting, ‘ahh a-ah a-ah a-ah.’ I thought he’d gone crazy,” Harper says with a hearty laugh. “I went backstage to talk to him. He was nice to me. But I didn’t understand what he’d done on stage. Still don’t. I thought he’d flipped.”
One day, Harper spotted Gil Evans — the renowned composer, arranger and pianist who the tenor man views as his biggest benefactor — in the street. He approached and introduced himself. “Gil was very kind,” Harper says. “We struck up a conversation. He said, ‘You should come down to rehearsal some time.’’’
Harper did just that and ended up in Evans’ nine-piece band. It was Evans who pulled the strings to score Harper an apartment in the Westbeth building, a haven of affordable housing for artists from all disciplines. When it opened in the West Village in 1970, the renovated industrial building became a much sought-after address. Harper resided there in a spacious one-room loft for several decades. At Westbeth (still operating as Westbeth Home to the Arts), he mingled with musicians, visual artists, dancers, actors and the like, joined impromptu jam sessions and sharpened his own bands in the plentiful rehearsal spaces.
Never priced out, Harper can proudly proclaim that he was never forced to move to one of the boroughs. “From when I first got here, New York meant Manhattan,” he says. “It still does.”
Harper doesn’t perform outside of New York very often, but The Cookers were scheduled to play a six-night stand at Baltimore’s Keystone Korner in early November. Cables is 76; Hart and Henderson are 80 and 81, respectively; and McBee is 86. (Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison is 61). Harper has played with the five senior members through the years — Cables was the pianist on Harper’s 1973 debut as a leader, Capra Black — and those long-term relationships are one reason he has stayed in the band since 2009.
The tenor man rejects the notion that the unit is a feel-good story of aged warhorses still keeping busy and having fun making music. Proof is in the hearing. The Cookers’ sound may be rooted in a decades-old style, but at no point does the playing come off as tired or long in the tooth. “These guys think young,” Harper says of his comrades. “We’re senior guys, but we think young. We play young.”