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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Infused with the blues, Billy Harper's sax brings a spiritual sound to jazz

Billy Harper plays with The Cookers in Amsterdam May 30, 2018.
Dirk Neven
CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Billy Harper plays with The Cookers in Amsterdam May 30, 2018.

Born in Houston, Texas, in 1943, saxophonist Billy Harper was surrounded by music at a young age. He began singing in church at three years old, but once Harper discovered the saxophone at age 11, his singing career was over.

His uncle, a schoolmate of young trumpeter Kenny Dorham, sparked his music education. Harper gained experience with school marching bands and Houston blues joints before moving on to North Texas State University, now the University of North Texas. In 1964, he was the only Black member of the school’s now-legendary One O’Clock Lab Band.

After graduation, Harper hopped in his car and drove to New York City – a place he’s called home ever since. After nearly a decade of trying to catch on in the New York jazz scene, Harper got an important role in the Gil Evans Orchestra. There, his solos began to quickly spread word that Harper was a saxophonist who deserved to be heard.

Harper had an affinity for great drummers, joining the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band and smaller ensembles. He joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1968 and the Max Roach band in 1971 – both of which contributed to Harper’s developing political views during the Black Consciousness movement.

Also, in 1971, he teamed up with the former Jazz Messenger trumpeter Lee Morgan. Sadly, it was only for a brief period because of Morgan's death in 1972. Harper is a key voice in the documentary I Called Him Morgan, where he talked about the snowy night in New York’s East Village when he witnessed Morgan being shot and killed by his wife, Helen More.

Harper’s career on saxophone has been an adventure as much as a creative pursuit. A storyteller at heart, his music is majestic and full of the power of the blues – the core of the of music heard in Black churches across America.

Harper’s first album as a leader was the well-received Capra Black in 1973. It featured Elvin Jones on drums and Harper’s future Cookers bandmate George Cables on piano. The title song, “Capra Black,” is a perfect example of his powerful playing and complex, blues-infused songwriting.

At the turn of the 21st century, Harper was a founding member of The Cookers, named in honor of a live album of the same name by his old friend Lee Morgan. In a 2012 KNKX studio recording, the band even played “Capra Black.”

Like his idol, John Coltrane, Harper developed a unique, muscular sound on his tenor sax, married with a deep spirituality.

Billy Harper saw good days and hard days in his long career. As a young man, his talent was overshadowed by rock and pop music. But in his years with The Cookers, Harper reclaimed his place as one of the saxophone stars who made New York City the jazz center of the universe.
Copyright 2024 KNKX Public Radio. To see more, visit KNKX Public Radio.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a 3rd generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student in college that Abe landed his first job at Jazz24, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and he’s been hosting Evening Jazz since 1998.