Billy Harper

Duration: 1hr:2mins
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Uncorrected Transcript

Billy Harper
Louis J. Marchiafava
August 27, 1989
OH464

 


LJM: Today is August 27, 1989. This is Louis Marchiafava interviewing Billy Harper as part of the Texas Jazz Archive component. Mr. Harper, I’d like to begin the interview by getting basic background information. First, where you were born and your birth date.

BH: I was born in Houston, Texas. My birthday is January 17, 1943.

LJM: I’d like to learn some about your early years. What was your family composition? Do you have any brothers or sisters?

BH: Actually, was sort of a product of a musical family, I suppose. My relatives sang. My mother sang. I was raised by my grandmother mainly. So I sort of considered my uncles and aunts [as] sisters and brothers, although I was really one. I had many aunts and uncles, so it felt like I was a member, a brother, of that particular era. But there’s my mother, and aunt and two uncles. And the family was very close. So the grand aunts and grand uncles were also part of the basic family. And everybody went to church all the time and sang and also played piano and instruments.

LJM: Did you live with your grandmother from an early age?

BH: Yes, from an early age, and I was sort of raised mostly by her. My grandfather was a minister. So I was brought up in the church every Sunday.

LJM: Is this your mother’s father or your father’s father who was the minister?

BH: That was my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who was married to the minister.

LJM: Which church did they attend?

BH: In Houston, the church was St. Paul AME in the First Ward. But I was raised mostly in Tyler at that early age until junior high. By the time that I got my horn, I was in . . . . I also did do some things here. I lived in Tyler as well as Houston. I also went to Jack Yates [High School] for a while.

LJM: How long did you stay in Houston? Or did you move to Tyler afterwards?

BH: Okay. Let’s try to put the chronology in order. From elementary school I was at Douglas Elementary here in Houston. And for a brief time at Jack Yates; then Miller Junior High; then Ebony Worthing.

LJM: All this is in Houston?

BH: All of this is in Houston. Somewhere in between, before Worthing, there’s a period of being in Tyler, Texas. That’s how it fits in.

LJM: You must have been a teenager then . . . . No, you must have been close to being a teenager when you moved to Tyler.

BH: Right. And that’s close to the time that I got the horn, so that’s around [the age of] eleven. That will be in 1953.

LJM: So, as I understand it, you were singing in a choir before you received your horn.

BH: Oh, yes! I was singing! I was singing when I was three! Crawling! So my uncle would let me hear Ella Fitzgerald at that age. And so I was singing Flying Home and trying to sing like her at that age. I thought I was going to be a singer also. I was mainly singing. I was going to be a singer. I hadn’t gotten the horn. And I was singing in the church in the choir and on programs. That was my main thing: singing. By the time I got [to] eleven, before that time, I used to walk by the music shop and see this saxophone in the window, and just be amazed by the fact that it looked so mysterious with all these notes. I didn’t know what was happening. How do you do that? How would somebody play? And I’d just go by and look at the horn. And just look at the horn! And I’d constantly ask for a horn for Christmas. So I finally got one when I was eleven. That’s when I started on the saxophone.

LJM: Who would you credit with the most influence in getting you into music in general? Is there anybody in particular that stands out in your family?

BH: In singing? Not the horn?

LJM: Well, we’re going to get to the horn, but since your singing came first . . . .

BH: I think that was natural. I think that just being around that music made it happen naturally. I was in church all the time. I heard the choir and everybody singing all the time. So it was natural. Just the environment, I think.

LJM: Did you have any lessons?

BH: I took lessons eventually in singing and on piano before I got the horn.

LJM: You played the piano as well?

BH: Well, I’d play enough to write . . . to write music.

LJM: Who taught you how to play the piano?

BH: Well, we had a piano then. So I also would just experiment on the piano [by] myself. But I took formal lessons from the instructor in school. And formal singing also from school instructors who sometimes did private lessons. So it seemed like a very natural thing to me.

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LJM: So, how good were you with the piano by the time you were a teenager?

BH: I developed a very good ear so I was simply able to play whatever I wanted to play; what I heard, you know. And that way it was pretty rough. Like we were saying before, a lot of natural talent had to have been there, I suppose, from growing up in that kind of environment. So I was able to sing what I wanted to sing, and, if I needed, to pick it out on [the] piano. I could play it eventually whatever I wanted to play at some level or another. But there is a lot of hard work that went into it to get to other levels. Definitely! But I do realize that I was fortunate in having sort of a natural progression and connection to the music and to the culture, to the black culture as well as the influences of Texas on that culture. So being born here simply, I think, helped me develop that much faster. And coming up in the way that I did.

LJM: You brought up a subject that I have really not gotten into in any great degree with the other people I’ve interviewed and that is the influence of the black culture. How would you analyze that? What exactly was the impact?

BH: Oh, my goodness! That was so impactual! I can’t really separate what I’m doing from that. Even if you want to explain how the influence of American culture has been affected by Africa. It definitely comes through Texas; through the South; through wherever the slaves were brought to this country, to this land. The natural rhythm that I heard, whether it was from the blues singers, Bo Didley or Big Mama Thornton or any of those. The natural rhythms were the same rhythms that were passed from Africa. Some of those definite things. And some of those same things that were experienced in slavery times in the fields, the same rhythms were don in church. So I was just right there in the middle of all of that. And since at that times, thing were segregated. I was explicitly going to black . . . . living on the black side of town and going to black churches and black schools. So the black culture was strongly enforced. And there was so much naturally music [and] natural rhythm. I think that’s how some of the real fantastic female jazz singers now get that kind of special feeling and sound: because it’s so natural. They came up the same way, I guess. As a naturally timing and relation to that rhythm also. They seem to sing and savor things at the right time, the right moment. That’s all part of that rhythm. That’s rhythm in relation to the natural technical rhythm that was happening but also in relation to nuance and touch and feel. That rhythm is all part of it. And coming up in black culture here just made it apparent. And the church choir, there would be so much rhythm happening just in a real, real black church choir. You can get it all right there.

LJM: So the church was really an entry way for you . . .

BH: Oh, yes! Surely. But realize that whatever I felt in church musically, of course, the focus was on the religious direction and on God and the rhythm and the music supported that direction. Which was okay and fine for me. That also helped me spiritually When I was not in church and [there] in the joints, the same rhythm was there. But the focus was on something else, but that same rhythm and the same feeling. Do you know what I mean? If blacks in the culture at that time were singing the blues, some of the same rhythm was right there that I experienced in church. When you go to church, the same rhythm is there. Only the focus is on religion and God, but the same kind of feeling musically. So I was bombarded with all that good rhythm and music. That, sort of, was the base, I suppose, of my growth as a jazz musician. I started playing the blues and singing in church. But the same feeling that I experienced when I was playing the blues was the same feeling that I was experiencing in church.
A lot of people don’t tie those two together . . . even some of the blacks in church at that time would consider the music in the joints a negative thing. And jazz [was considered] a negative thing because it was connected with negative things: you know, people using drugs and drinking and so forth. But the same feeling that was over there was also in church, and that connection people don’t usually make.

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LJM: That’s interesting. Everyone talks about the impact that black music has had on the United States. Well, on the surface, that’s all true, and everybody knows it. Anybody who knows anything would know that. But to bring it down to an individual level and make the connection is what I wanted to do.

BH: Yes. I don’t know if you’ve seen the series on PBS [entitled] The Story of English. Anyway, there’s one section that talks about the influence of black language on English and America. That same perspective is the way that music has affected American music here and just the way the language has affected it. There is a certain kind of rhythm in the language and a certain kind of creativity in the language that has affected American speaking, American English. And that same kind of creativity in the music in relation to rhythm and natural ability ahs affected music in
America the same way. It’s all related. We’re talking about general culture. Only our focus is on music.

LJM: Of course. It’s more than music. It’s everywhere: [in] its architecture, its language, art works. Just everywhere!

BH: So I think so many musicians have come up the way. I mean, not necessarily exactly like me. Maybe they weren’t in church, but [in] some kind of way it was a part of their culture. I can think of a whole lot . . . . If you’ve ever heard some of the history of some of the other musicians like, maybe, Bobby Timmons, you can hear it in their music also. They are also from church. A lot of their music [that] you can hear is connected to church [and] to the roots. And there was also a blues feeling in church. It all sort of ties together as the main importance, I suppose, of the influence of black culture on America. It has to be music! But, like you say, it’s in everything. And from that music and from that rhythm, that natural heartbeat, that natural feeling of expression which is so natural to say something and sing it. From all of that come much of what’s happening as American culture now. But it certainly helped me to develop as a jazz musician.
I’m kind of wondering how it would have been if I had not been connected to the choir and to the church. I probably would have understood it because I kept hearing it. I still would have heard it. And maybe I would have wanted to do it and couldn’t because I’ve known a lot of friends of mine who wanted to play saxophone when they were small. They were saying, “Oh, man, I wish I could play!” They wanted to play but they didn’t come up the way I did. They never worked to make sure that they could express what they felt. Something like that. But it was all sort of there for me. And it was easy because I was living in it. I was in the middle of it.

LJM: You certainly were. Let me bring you up to the saxophone. We’ve covered you singing a bit and we’ve covered the piano. Let’s get to the main article: your saxophone. How did that come about?

BH: As I was saying before, I got the horn when I was eleven. And from that point, I was sort of in between playing and singing. Playing on the horn and singing. And I got very serious . . . . Well, in high school I was playing professionally also. I was playing rhythm and blues jobs.

LJM: Is this while you were at Yates [High School]?

BH: Yes. And at Worthing. I was working with Carl Campbell, a musician who is here in the city. And later with Ben Turner. I think that was my first jazz job in Houston, with Ben Turner, who now sings sort of a scat style. And he played drums. I was in high school, sort of playing mainly the marches and developing sound: that Texas sound, I suppose, without knowing it. I was developing somewhat of something that represent the Texas tradition in sound on tenor saxophone. Even then, having to play in the marching bands, and move and play at the same time and make sure that your sound still comes out. It was something I took for granted, but it was something you had to do. And that was one part that was very significant in relation to developing the sound that goes with the Texas tenor tradition. It was not just that, but that was part of it.
I was fortunate to have very good teachers. Sammy Harris was my instructor at Worthing, and he was an alto saxophone player. Before that I was sometimes listening to the great saxophonists and not necessarily being able to meet them at that level. I was simply, I guess, beginning. But at that time I would be able to hear Arnett Cobb and Dickie Boy, Richard Lilly. He was one of my favorites. He was from Houston also. He’s very important. And Don Wilkerson [and] R. P. Wallis. These are saxophonists who came before me who I heard. And then I got a concept of that sound: of the Texas sound. But I didn’t know it as the Texas sound. That was my concept of what the saxophone was supposed to sound like. That’s before I ever heard John Coltrane.

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LJM: What is the “Texas sound”? I’ve heard it said over and over, and I ask everyone this question and try to come upon some common . . . .

BH: It’s very difficult to just say what the “Texas sound” is, but let’s try to narrow it down. When you say “Texas sound”, in the first place, I think that a listener to hears a particular style cane stylize it as a Texas sound. But if you want to narrow it down to the exact sound, then that’s a little different, the exact sound itself without style. So let’s talk about the style first and then the sound itself.
Style-wise, even Stanley Turrentine is playing Texas style, and he’s not from . . . . I mean, I consider him playing Texas style. And so he has a bit of a Texas sound, but he’s not from Texas. So I don’t know exactly how that works, but his style seems to be “Texas sound” style although his sound on the horn is not Texas sound. Do you understand what I’m saying? There are two little divisions. When you get to Texas sound, that deals with a type of resonance and projection, I think, that is unique to Texas. Texas tenors. It seems to be. Other people can do it. I don’t mean that no one else can do it, but it certainly is something that happens with Texas tenor players.

LJM: Is it strong, aggressive sound?

BH: It’s strong. Yes, usually like that. But there is a, I suppose, from hearing the tradition of saxophonists in Texas, there’s a knowledge of what that saxophone is supposed to sound like, in sound. Now when you add . . . . As far as my case is [concerned], I think that that sound is also a part of what I have developed and the style I’ve developed differently. Not necessarily total Texas style but total Texas sound. That’s something, I think. that people don’t quite separate. Usually if they hear the sound of the horn itself and they style, they think that’s automatic. I think I was trying to develop a different style with the Texas sound.

LJM: You mentioned that you did professional jobs while in high school. Do you remember your first job?

BH: I think it was something like a prom or one of those kind of events. And with my group, a group I put together.

LJM: Did you have a name for them?

BH: No, we had no name. We just got the musicians together and played for a dance, I think. That was probably the first. And then after that I was able to play with the professional blues musicians who were working constantly around the area.

LJM: Do any stand out in you mind?

BH: Well, I did remember Carl Campbell. At that time, the groove, at least for the saxophone was the style and the sound of Bill Doggitt. And so, usually, the tenor player at that time was playing to that sound, or things and B. B. King or Lloyd Price might have played. Or Bobby Blue’s Band. That kind of sound. But the names that I played with in high school were local. So I don’t think they were very big names, but it certainly gave me a stepping board, a steeping stone, to go further.

LJM: Were those night jobs?

BH: Usually night. I’d be out late and get in late. And for a teenager that was a very big thing, you know, staying out that late and working. I was a man already!

LJM: What kind of pay did you get?

BH: At that time, I thought that whatever it was, it was good because I was just working. It may have been, maybe, twenty dollars or something.

LJM: For a night job? That’s not bad.

BH: That’s not bad, but that might have been a lot even for then. It could have been less, maybe fifteen or twenty dollars. It’s hard to remember now. Whatever it was, it was just so good I didn’t even worry about it.

LJM: When did you finish high school?

BH: That was in 1961. I went to college in 1961 also.

LJM: Let’s pick it up at that point. Which college did you go to?

BH: North Texas State University. That’s when I got very serious about practicing and deciding to match to the saxophone. And I stopped singing. And all the time before in high school, I also sang, but I was also into drama and acting. And that was one of the great influences of my growing up also. Richard Lilly’s wife was my instructor in drama. So between the saxophone and the drama instruction, and I thought for a while I was going to act. That was something that I loved to do and could do.

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LJM: What drew you into drama?

BH: I was a natural actor. And with that kind of instructor, Vernell Lilly, she was a great instructor and speech teacher. We did plays at school, and I recognized sort of a natural connection to that. And she recognized the talent. So I was thinking of acting, but I still had the horn, and I could still play and sing. At that particular time I might have chosen to do either one. When I got to college, I stopped the others and concentrated exclusively on the saxophone. So that acting period was very important, too. It was, sort of, the same drama that I felt in acting, I feel and think that I sometimes create even in the music. The same kind of drama. And that’s the way I write some of my compositions, knowing very well that I am tapping into the drama that’s inside of me, too. It’s very clear.

LJM: How important was the music aspect to your career in college? Did you learn the very technical aspects?

BH: Oh, yes! That’s why I got very serious in college because I was doing so well professionally before college that I thought that I had it! When I got to college, I realized I had nothing! I mean, I did have a lot, a lot of natural, but I had to do so much more. And that’s where the hard work started because people were there who had started on their instruments at three, sometimes. And I did start on mine, but it was vocal. And now I was on the saxophone. And I realized that there was a lot that I had to do. And I got into a habit in school of practicing eight hours a day. Sometimes I would even miss classes to practice. I’d stay there until the practice halls closed around eleven [o’clock] or something. I mean, I was so interested in really getting myself together musically on that horn that I would sometimes miss classes just to practice, which is quite a bit different.
But that’s where I really got serious. And I was able to meet other professional musicians who would come from the road and play in that North Texas State One O’clock Lab Band, a very high caliber band. Professional! They mainly played the style of Stan Kenton and really professional big bands. So I think that had a lot to do with getting myself together technically, although I had a world of talent and quality naturally. So when I added the technical part to that, that just helped me organize everything.

LJM: Are there any instructors there that stand out in your mind as having an influence on you?

BH: Oh, yes. Leon Briden [phonetic] was over the Jazz Department there, and Lanny Steele and Bob Morgan was one of my colleagues there. And they were definitely into the jazz. And their kind of exposure to it . . . . I had not been as exposed on a broad level. Their kind of exposure sort of helped. We were able to travel with that band: band contest, jazz contest and so forth. And the band would win first prize in some of those contests. And so it was a great experience just being there. It was, in a way, like being in New York. At that particular time that college was integrated. There were only a few blacks there, maybe one hundred out of ten thousand students. So, along with dealing with the racial prejudice that was there because there were so many people.
North Texas State, to me, was a representation of New York . . . America, in a general way. I mean there were people there from New York City; people from Mississippi; people from Florida; people from New Mexico; from all over the country. So, it was, in a way, a bit of a boiling pot. I had to deal with people who were members of the Ku Klux Klan there. I was in a history course with a fellow who was telling the class . . . I was the only black there . . . that his father was in with the Ku Klux Klan, and he thought that was something to be proud of! And I’m the only one [black person] in that class. I had to really adjust to a lot of things there, but I also was able to meet musicians who were also from the North and mainly interest in music. And I sort of just buried myself in learning as music as I could lean about composing, arranging and mastering the saxophone. And I sort of just buried myself in learning as much as I could learn about composing, arranging, and mastering the saxophone. I was majoring mainly in saxophone.
Now, of course, I had to learn piano, and that was a secondary. I had to learn it as if I could play it just like any other pianist. I learned enough to satisfy myself in writing and using it to arrange. I also had to learn all the other instruments in that curriculum. I had to play trumpet and learn those things because of what was required for being a teacher in that school. That was sort of an opening up of a new world at that level. It’s reaching another level, and reaching another level on the horn also.
While I was in college at the age of eighteen I was definitely ready, in my head, to go to New York and compete on that level. And I did go to New York, not to stay, but I went just to see. And when I went to New York, I fell in love with New York! I had gone to New York also with the Historical Research group from my high school when I was at Worthing. And I actually fell in love with New York then. I remembered it. But I also went in college and played a little bit. And I saw Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Dizzy Gillespie, probably, and Cozy Cole. And got a feel for New York City [and] that was the place that I had to live! I could tell.
While I was in college I also played professionally with a great saxophonist in Dallas, James Clay. And David “Fathead” Newman. And Dewey Redman in Fort Worth, another great Texas Tenor. Julius Hinthiel [phonetic] on alto. At that time Arnett Coleman was not around, so we didn’t play together in Texas, but I met him later in New York. Another Texas saxophonist.
The professional level in Dallas was very good, and we had many of those Texas-tenor battles. And that was very good, too. I was ready for New York, even then in college.

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LJM: While in college did you do professional jobs also?

BH: Oh, yes. Those are usually jazz. Straight jazz. Only jazz. But whatever, we played at that level, and sometimes I would come back to Houston and play with my group on the holidays and so forth. We were already playing many things that Art Blakey would play [like] many of the professional groups: Miles Davis or any of the well-known groups in New York. So I was definitely ready for New York at that age.
I did finish school and got my degree. I started the Master’s program, but I decided to come to New York then. On the weekends I was playing with James Clay and David Newman sometimes. But after college I stayed in Dallas for about a year, almost a year, and then I came to New York in 1966, and that’s where my New York experience starts.

LJM: Well, let’s talk about that. Did you have something definite in mind when you went to New York? Did you have something waiting for you?

BH: No. On a wing and a prayer! I sort of went on a wing and a prayer. It was snowing in Dallas, and I left Dallas at that particular time because I had a gas card that was running out. I had a few more days on the gas card, and I had an automobile, and I thought “I’d better get there now” because I didn’t have any money. So I left for New York and paid for the trip on the gas card. That’s how I made it to New York.
I didn’t know anybody at all. I was going to get in touch with whomever I could when I got there. I got to New York and on the second day . . . . When I first got there I was staying at the President Hotel around Times Square, and the second day we had to get out of that hotel, and I had no place to stay. But in the midst of trying to find some place, I stopped by a jazz club and jumped in to hear McCoy Tyner and his group at a place called The Dome. I left my bags in the car, and I happened to take my horn out. And I only stayed for about twenty minutes. When I came back everything was gone except the car! And that was my introduction to New York. But at least I took the horn. I had known and heard about that kind of thing happening, but I was so used to Texas, I was sort of laid back, I guess, and I thought it was okay. It wasn’t okay! So I was there, stranded in New York with nothing but my horn, and I did have the car. So I called a Texas musician, Charles Moffitt from Fort Worth who was working with Arnett Coleman. And he saved my life! And I stayed with him until I could get on my feet.

LJM: How did you get on your feet? Did you work in clubs?

BH: Actually, I was fortunate. I was with my girlfriend at the time who was also working. She was also able to work, and that did help me, I have to say. I met Gil Evans on the street. Well, during this time I was sitting in with everyone. I went in and sat with Art Blakey, and pretty soon I was working with Blakey. But there was a whole year I was not working in New York. One entire year! And until I had the chance to sit in with Blakey I was not doing anything musically. At that particular time I sat in with Blakey, and pretty soon I was working with him. Shortly after that I saw Gil Evans on the street, and I walked up and introduced myself. “Mr. Evans, I really like your playing, and I’m a saxophonist from Texas, and if there’s an opportunity for me to play, I’d like to do that.” He said, “Yes. Give me your number” and all that stuff. And we traded numbers. But that means nothing in New York! That’s a very typical thing. All the musicians take your number and nothing happens. But sure enough, he did call and wanted me to make a rehearsal. And I made the rehearsal with him, and then I was working with Gil Evans! And I worked with Evans for over eight years. I think it may have been ten; on and off, ten years. I worked with Art Blakey for two years. And in between, there were overlapping jobs with other members; other members like Thad Jones and Mel Lewis’ Big Band. And I worked with them for eight years. Max Roach, The Max Roach, master drums I worked with for eight years also. And, like I said, some of these periods were overlapping. But the time with most of them were a lot of years, and I was fortunate enough to work with Lee Morgan who died in 1971. That was an unfortunate kind of death: we were working at a club and his wife shot him. We were standing up there and ..

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LJM: You witnessed it?!

BH: Oh, yes! I was there! It was a shock. For a while I couldn’t do very much after that for a while. We were playing at this club called Slugs in the East Village, and his wife and he were having some disputes or something, and he was sort of fighting a little. The musicians were sitting near the stand and he was near the door. Anyway his wife came back or something with a gun and shot him. I heard some “pop” and we were near the front at the stage, and I thought somebody must be trying to scare somebody, shooting in the air or something. But then I saw him fall down. That was one of the tragic things that happened, being involved in the professional business. He, unfortunately, died that night. That was in 1971.
So I certainly remember Lee very well. And Lee was one of my idols when I was in Texas listening to Art Blakey. He was playing with Art Blakey at the time. At that time I was here in Texas. Anyway, I did get a chance to work with the fellows that I was idolizing before. I worked with Elvin Jones, also, on drums. And I was really fortunate enough to work with all the greatest drummers: Art Blakey; Max Roach; Elvin Jones; Roy Brooks; Roy Haynes. So many! I was very lucky. And I had a sense of rhythm, and that’s why I connected with those drummers so well because I always had that sense of rhythm that I was telling you about that was developed in Texas. And I always stayed in touch with my Texas drummer who also had that sense of rhythm, Malcolm __?__ who played with us here at the concert. And we always stayed connected. And I always had good rapport with drummers, so I was able to work with the best drummers when I got to New York, and it was no problem.

LJM: In addition to working in the clubs, did you begin to get involved in recording? Did you do any back-ups first or did you do your own first?

BH: First I was working with other groups[’] recording[s]. Actually I was able also to work with Louis Armstrong on a record. This is a discography. In working with the That Jones [and] Mel Lewis orchestras, sometimes I would be on jobs that dealt with jingles and commercials and things like that, but I recorded with many, many other groups as you can see there. Later I was able to record with my own group, Billy Harper Quintet. And most of my recordings are done by labels in Europe or Japan, away from this country.

LJM: Tell me about how you actually put together your quintet.

BH: Well, that concept of having that quintet was developed here in Texas when I first made my first job. So I was always knowing that I was going to play with my own group, and it was just a matter of finding work to get them together, that’s all. When I did that, finally, in New York . . . . While playing with the other big names I was also, every once in a while, having a chance to play with my group or trying to make a way. But in 1979 I decided to play exclusively with my group. And so I had to stop playing with other groups in order to get some recognition with the Billy Harper Quintet. Otherwise people would say, “Well, I’ve heard him with Max Roach, so we don’t need to have his group.” That kind of thing. So I purposely stopped working with everyone else and exclusively worked with my group.

LJM: What were the members of that group?

BH: At that time there might have been Greg Maker [phonetic] on bass, Joe Bonner on piano. Malcolm Pinson was on drums, especially when we had a chance to go to Europe. And Malcolm’s from Houston. We grew up together. He also went to Douglas Elementary. So we always kept in touch and connected throughout my whole development because we already understood each musically from being teenagers. Virgil Jones was on trumpet and myself on tenor sax. That was the beginning of the strongest of the Billy Harper Quintets.

LJM: You mentioned that your records are not on American labels.

BH: Yes. They are on European labels.

LJM: What is the reason for that and how did it come about? Had you actually [made] the recordings abroad?

BH: The reason, I suppose, was that jazz was just recently considered America’s own music, and by Congress, inaugurated, I suppose, as America’s basic and traditional classic music. So that was just two years ago. It may have been 1987 that that was done and stated! So it was sometimes difficult since there were so many name groups working in New York, difficult to work. But the people in Europe was very open to hearing true jazz, and also interested in Texas’ development in music and jazz. They wanted to hear whatever was done in [the] black culture because whatever came from America, especially in the world of music and jazz, was the thing that was happening. And it didn’t matter to them whether your name was Duke Ellington or something else, as long as it was real, real and true creative music, and good. That’s all that they were concerned about. So, since I didn’t have a name on the level of Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, they did recognize the great quality in the music, and I had many rave and very good reviews from abroad. They call me over to work, sometimes, in Europe. And sometimes while doing the tour there, I would also record a record for an Italian company or [a] French company or [a] German company.

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LJM: You made your first trip to Europe fairly early in your career.

BH: Yes. Actually, the first big trip that I made was to Japan with Art Blakey in 1967. And I fell in love with Japan even then. Shortly after that, though, in 198, we went to Europe with Art Blakey. And some great drummers. I think Elvin Jones was on that group, and Max Roach and Sonny Murray and Art Blakey’s group. So, that was my first trip to Europe, I think.

LJM: Which European countries seemed most receptive to jazz?

BH: I think that . . . . It seems that anywhere in Europe seems to be okay, but certainly France, Italy and Germany might be leading. But it seems that any place, they’re interested. And since it’s not America, they’re simply looking to hear what’s real in America.

LJM: Have you played in Scandinavia as well?

BH: Oh, sure. I really like Scandinavia. I’ve played in Norway, Copenhagen, Sweden, Switzerland, all over. And I like those parts a lot better than the other parts of Europe. I’ve had a chance to play all over. I was able to also go in 1983 with my group . . . well before 1983, let’s say. . . . One of the big tours that we did was in . . . . Let me go back before my group in 1972. I went to Russia with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Orchestra. So we toured Russia and England. That was a very long tour, and I got to see many places. This was done in relation to a political kind of thing that Richard Nixon was going to do in meeting with the Russians, and I think culture was used to sort of break the ice. Anyway that was an important trip.
In 1980 with my group, I was able to travel with the help of the State Department to Poland and Romania, Portugal and Turkey. That was a very great trip also, and that was with the Billy Harper Quintet.
Another big tour was in 1983 to Brazil. In Brazil I was able to see how that black influence, and African influence, has also affected or come to the South Americas. You can see some of the same things that I was dealing with in Texas, in Houston, in some parlor or baija [phonetic] in Salvador. I mean, that is basically African culture, and they’re dealing with their religion mainly as contemptibly [phonetic]. And different kinds of voodoo, not necessarily the negative thing that you hear about in television, but the African influence is there, too, and the rhythm is there: the rhythm just like that learned in church here. There’s a connection. And so I could see even there that the influence of African music has also affected South America. Of the Americas or wherever Africans have been dispersed. I learned a lot in making that connection, just being in Brazil. Brazil itself is very African influenced. So some of the same rhythmic things that I was talking about were being expressed, always being expressed, in Brazil. Now, if they didn’t come up with . . . . Say that a musician develops in Brazil but he didn’t come up with the particular church influence also, but he had that kind of rhythm, then he’s going to be very adept to rhythm and it can be used in the context of what we’re doing in jazz now. But a certain expression of the blues may not be there. Which is also what was gotten here in Houston; which was a definite part of my development: a certain expression of that blues feeling that also was in church may not be gotten . . . . but the same rhythm and knowledge of rhythm would be there.
Anyway, traveling around the world, in other words, what I’m saying, has certainly been a help in broadening my understanding of life in general. And certainly in relation to music, but into relation of human life, also. I have sort of broadened my scope and have learned from everywhere I’ve traveled. There’s more about life than music, but life is music.

LJM: I noticed in your brochure that you use the term “spiritual and innovative growth,” and I think we’re probably touching on that now in what you’re saying. Do you have any specific examples to illustrate that growth however?

BH: Well, a specific example, I suppose, would be in relation to my own spiritual growth. That’s something that happened, I think, in 1972 when I was playing with Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. I was playing, and musicians sometimes get into a trance in trying to concentrate and connect. At a particular point [that] I considered my spiritual awakening. At one particular point I was playing [at] some fantastic level that I was not capable of playing, and it was obvious that my talent and my gift was from God, and really was the source from which my music was coming. I was always in touch with this on a lesser level without being hit by it in my growth in Texas. In being involved with church and singing and hearing the music there. But that was a definite thing that happened in 1972, and I wrote a song about that called The Awakening. But from that particular point, I even changed and went much further spiritually. So I think that helped my music go further also. And from that point on, I decided never to tell any lies. I mean, really, strictly, very definitely never to tell any lies and be just as honest and straight no matter was I was doing. And I know that people can’t understand it and can’t deal with it, but it’s okay. I understand that, but I’m going to tell the truth, whatever it is! That was a great influence on my life: that awakening!

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LJM: That’s certainly a specific example.

BH: Yes.

LJM: It was a turning point actually.

BH: A turning point. Although I said all my development before that was going in that direction, but nothing had hit me so definitely to the point where I had to be definitely specific about it or compulsive to the point of making sure that I’m going to live . . . . It helped me with my purest ideas to stay much purer. I’m not likely to prostitute the music and do something that does not seem like the truth to me. It’s helped.

LJM: When did you begin composing?

BH: Oh, composing. That was something that I was indirectly doing before college. At this point now, I think of composing just natural as improvising. Whatever I hear in an improvising way I hear as a composition. So I was doing it before college. But in college I organized it to the point of putting things down and making sure that whatever I thought was very important, I would write it down. And college helped me be much more organized about that. But composing was like singing. And to this day I’ve never composed any of my compositions on the saxophone. It’s always been singing to myself or playing the piano or drums. But never . . . . It’s heard in my head. In other words, it’s never done from the horn. I sing it and then translate it to the horn, or hear it singing while playing the piano and translate it to the horn or to the group. It’s always been like that.
Just two times in my life I have slept and dreamed a composition and woke up and played the composition and wrote it down. That’s one unique thing. It’s never happened except those two times, and I’ve been composing for years.

LJM: Have you compiled most of the music on your recordings or do you play others’ [music] as well?

BH: I played so much of the other music that I’ve tried to play exclusively my music nowadays with my group because I have so many compositions, and people have not heard them at all. So I’ve tried to play as much as possible because every time we play it, and all over the world, people are amazed and touched by these compositions. Because some kind of way, I’m trying to express the spirituality that I have developed as a child in Texas. And they get the message. It’s necessary, and I think I have a duty to play that because that’s what I hear. And they need to hear that. I think it has been said, at least by some people who come to speak to me, that they can hear the sense of my past or my growth or my spiritual connection in the music. And so I really want that to happen. So I try to make sure that I’ve played what I’m hearing in my head. So I’ve tried to stay close to my compositions at this point.

LJM: Let me give you an opportunity to cover any areas that I haven’t covered that you would like to have included in this interview.

BH: I have told you about The Awakening. That’s probably the most important thing that’s happened to me since growing up. And that is a spiritual awakening that deals with my life and my growth. The music to me, as I said, is life. And it is a living and growing thing. So however I develop spiritually is how my music will develop in the future. Whatever I feel spiritually is how I will express the music, and that’s what the music will express, I hope. So I’m simply at a point of growing and walking on the spiritual path. Staying on and expressing it with my music. So now those two have become the same, and for me I think I owe it all to the Creator and my development here in Texas as a “Texas tenor,” as you say, [a] Texas jazz musician. I feel now unlimited. I don’t feel limited to Texas or to the United States or to Russia or this earth. So in that way with my spiritual growth I’ve gone much further than that and feel that my expression is directly related to the source of all creation now. I don’t mean that I’m holier than thou or a monk or anything like that. I’m human just like everyone else. But I do know the connection and importance of the spirituality in my music that I was always and growing up in when I was small. Now it all makes sense!

LJM: On that note, thank you very much.