Billy Harper’s solo on “Don’t Get Sassy” with the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Billy Harper (born January 17, 1943, in Houston, Texas) is an American jazz saxophonist, “one of a generation of Coltrane-influenced tenor saxophonists” with a distinctively stern, hard-as-nails sound on his instrument. In 1965 Harper earned a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of North Texas.
Harper has played with some of jazz’s greatest drummers; he served with Art Blakey’s Messengers for two years (1968–70); he played very briefly with Elvin Jones (1970), he played with the Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Orchestra in the 1970s, and was a member of Max Roach’s band in the late 1970s. In 1979 Harper formed his own group, touring with it and documenting its music on the recording, “Billy Harper Quintet in Europe”, and he was featured as a soloist on a 1983 recording, “Such Good Friends,” with virtuoso, visionary pianist and record producer Stanley Cowell. After a period of relative inactivity in the 1980s, Harper came back strong with another international tour, which ended with perhaps his most ambitious recording: the 3-volume “Live on Tour in the Far East” (1991). In the new millennium Harper’s recording activity has been subdued and sporadic, though recently he has appeared as a regular member of pianist-jazz historian Randy Weston’s ensembles. In 2013 they recorded their first album as a duo, entitled The Roots of the Blues.
A retrospective of Billy Harper’s career would include the following among its highlights: The saxophonist performed on Gil Evans’ 1973 album Svengali, and contributed two of the most-performed tunes in the band’s repertoire: “Priestess” and “Thoroughbred”. Harper’s own 1973 album Capra Black “remains one of the seminal recordings of jazz’s black consciousness movement–a profoundly spiritual effort that channels both the intellectual complexity of the avant garde as well as the emotional potency of gospel”. The Italian jazz label Black Saint was launched with Harper’s 1975 album Black Saint. His later releases have mostly been on SteepleChase and Evidence.
Long associated almost exclusively with the inner circle of the NYC jazz scene–except for breaks while touring with his ensembles to Europe and the far East–Billy Harper has, in mid-2017, suddenly attained a degree of international prominence because of his short but key role in the acclaimed jazz film, I Called Him Morgan. Released for home streaming and purchase in June of 2017, the film documents the music and life of trumpet prodigy Lee Morgan and the woman who saves and restores him after his hitting rock bottom due to heroin addiction. It’s a movie that makes the viewer a partner with its Swedish director in his 7-year search for the evidence that might help explain how the same woman who was Morgan’s savior would become his killer at the instant he was retaking the bandstand for the last set at Slug’s Saloon, a jazz club on the Bowery in lower East Manhattan. Walking right alongside Lee Morgan at this moment–someone who hears a “bang” that for the next several extended seconds leaves both men–the actual victim and the bandmate–equally stunned confused–was Billy Harper.