Texas Tenor, Billy Harper has had an immense influence on my life and music. I first played with Billy’s band in 1992 when he came to Australia and brought with him his good friend the great Texan drummer Malcolm Pinson. The band was me, Scott Tinkler on trumpet, Nick Haywood on bass with Billy and Malcolm. We played Melbourne, Sydney, and Adelaide and this tour was a life-changer. It was so musically and spiritually intense that I was covered in sweat after each gig and wondering what had hit me. It really felt like I was being changed by the music as if my hearing and approach were being changed forever.
I am so fortunate to have had opportunities like this where I learn through the music directly. Billy brought so much spirit and his music is deeply passionate with a strong gospel feeling and a lot of Coltrane language. And with regard to Malcolm, you have to understand that I was a young lad from Mooroolbark and really had never experienced what a great American drummer sounded like and what it could bring out of you. Not to mention that Billy had come up through the ranks of the heaviest musicians that have ever lived, people like; Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Lee Morgan, and the list goes on and on. This tour was set up by our great Australian jazz advocate Martin Jackson and I can never thank him enough because it was a trial by fire that led to Billy becoming my mentor and kind of ‘New York dad’ for some 20 years following.
A month or so before the first gig, Billy sent Martin rehearsal cassettes. The tapes contained all the music we would play and Billy would explain in words and with music exactly what we were to do; all the theatrical and musical devices we needed to know about were outlined in sound and words, like a kind of jazz music directors cut. Who does that?
I remember the first Oz gig was at a pub in South Melbourne called “the Limerick Arms” and it was like taking off in a rocket. I feel like the audience also experienced this lift-off. Malcolm and Billy together was an incredible force and it felt like the gig went by in a flash of light. They were incredibly kind to us young players and there was no vibing or castigating or any of that. It was just love for music and generosity. I remember hearing Billy and feeling so much sacred church feeling in his melodies but also a furious intellect and artistic freedom. It was actually scary. We played Billy’s fantastic compositions like Priestess , Love On the Sudan, and Cry Of Hunger and so many other Harper classics. To me, it’s absurd that Billy is not better recognized as one of the great Jazz composers and players of all time. I remember marveling at his use of silence and his rhythmic awareness that was so far ahead of anything I had ever known or heard. Later on, when I had the fortune to play in his band in New York I could get a little closer to rhythmic possibilities that many of Billy’s compositions explored but on this first Australian tour I could only intuit what was possible. If you listen to Call Of The Wild and Peaceful Heart you can get a sense of the rhythmic subdivisions and possibilities that are possible. Billy’s long-standing band could really explore all these layers and would take the music to a place of real expressive freedom. I would often go and hear them stretching out like this, when I finally got to New York.
We also played a club called “Dr Jazz” in Melbourne and on that night I was kind of exhausted with various things so, rather than going straight into the club, I decided to take a very quick nap in my car. I woke up with a start 3 mins before we were supposed to go on! I ran in and went straight onto the bandstand. Martin Jackson told me that Paul Grabowsky and Bob Sedergreen were waiting and ready to play. Phew.
After the tour, I told Billy I was coming to New York and he said to get in touch. When I did arrive there, I called him up and went over to his apartment in the artist building called “West Beth” which was on West Bethune street in the West Village, right on the Hudson River. Many great artists lived in this building and it was Gil Evans who had helped Billy to get in there originally. Billy had a drum kit and a Rhodes Suitcase set up and lots of books and awards and albums were up on the walls.
He was very welcoming and I asked him at this first meet up could I possibly get some lessons from him. He said “I don’t really teach, but just come and hang out”… It so happened that I hung out with Billy for the next 20 years on and off and Billy even took me out to dinner once a week for probably some ten years. We would mostly go to this Chinese restaurant near his apartment and we would just catch up and talk about philosophy and music and spirituality and UFOs and about all the amazing players that Billy had worked with. It was a true blessing for me and I learned so much about black American music and why it’s important and the many things it is and can be.
Billy was the first black musician to play in the infamous 1oclock band at North Texas State University. He went on to also play with so many greats and even made a record with Louis Armstrong. He told me that Earth Wind And Fire once contacted him to ask if they could record one of his songs! He was the person who told me to always take photos and videos on the road and to archive and capture moments of your life so you can reflect on them. He is the reason it is possible to release this live recording. I took his advice.
Billy has done a lot of traveling and playing and has hung with some far-out people. He showed me a video of him with Salvador Dali in Europe one time. He was also one of the many black musicians including Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus, who stormed the stage of a popular live TV show to demand that more black music was shown on TV.
His music speaks of the civil rights movement although he would say he just believes in the beauty power and healing force of music.
Billy learned discipline from Max Roach. Max was army trained and he was severe with his players about being on time. So Billy was was never late. He had all his clocks set 15 or 30 minutes ahead. He would run 15 miles every single day without fail. He told me that to do this is to understand adversity and be prepared for it. If he could run 15 miles in the snow or in the sweltering heat, he could face what New York and being a jazz artist threw at him. He was always ready. He also said that he often would compose while running, that ideas would come naturally that way and he would begin singing them as he ran, and then when he would get home, he would write them out. I feel like I can hear these kinds of motifs and figures in many of Billy’s pieces. There is a hypnotic buoyancy there.
Billy said that he once had a dream where an angel gave him a cassette and he put it into the player and a most beautiful song was heard. When he woke up, he quickly wrote the song and it’s lyrics out and thus manifested the beautiful ballad called “If One Could Only See” .
Another incredible story Billy told me is that when he recorded his album “Somalia” he decided on the spot that the title track needed some sort of vocal chant. He quickly made up some words that felt rhythmically right “Ka Lay Bo Ding Gah” but were, to him, nonsensical. Then when he went on the road to tour the album, a Nigerian man came up to him after one of the sets and said, “Mr. Harper, thank you so much for dedicating your song to our tribe”. Billy didn’t understand what the man meant until he explained that the words “Ka Lay Bo Ding Gah” meant “welcome to the occasion” in his specific tribal dialect.
Billy spoke a lot about being “tuned up”. He was a meditator and he said that he needed to always be in touch. He spoke about how he has gotten to the point where he is almost constantly meditating, mindful, present. I remember he had the 14 volume set of “The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan” on his bookshelf. I asked him about these books and he said ;
“My feeling is that music should have a purpose. In the past, it always has been used for healing and uplifting and meditation. And that’s the way I see my music. I’ve had people come up after a program to tell me that they felt a spiritual healing from the music. When that happens, I feel we’re fulfilling what we’re supposed to do. If people are entertained, that’s ok too but I certainly see a purpose in my music beyond that.”
I kept working on my music over the years and would often ask Billy for advice and would freely offer it. He told me to get a computer as soon as possible because it was the way of the future. He was writing his scores out on a computer notation program way before anyone else. After many years, I would sometimes go to the New School where Billy was teaching and I would sit in with his ensembles. After a while, he called me to sub on gigs with his quintet when his regular pianist, Francesca Tanksley couldn’t make the gig. Mostly it was Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Billy, Clarence Seay on bass, and Newman Taylor Baker on drums and it was an incredible experience. We also used to play once a year for Cobi Narita’s birthday party at the Jazz Church on Lexington Ave. Billy was very close to Cobi, as were many great players, and I remember hearing Harold Mabern there every year and people like Dick Katz, Nasheet Waits and Geri Allen would play and it would be a big party in the church and there would be a whole lot of soul food and music. It really felt like a warm community and I am grateful for the memories of these parties.
I did one tour to Europe and one to Australia where Billy played my own music and we also recorded my album “Widening Circles” at Avatar studios which Billy produced. We also played music from this album a few times in New York including one gig we did at the Jazz Standard and another time at Fordham University. I am forever grateful to Billy for his generosity and support while I lived in New York.
Billy told me that one time he was playing in Europe and Dexter Gordon had a gig on this festival and his drummer didn’t show up, so Billy played the gig, on drums! Billy could really play the drums and sounded a lot like Elvin Jones, to be honest. Elvin played on Billy’s first album “Capra Black” actually and Billy always looked for what he called the “hunger” in drummers that he worked with and also musicians. He spoke to me a lot about the importance of this hunger. If you want to know what it is, just listen to Billy play, it’s there. An important theme for Billy is this idea of the “wild and peaceful heart”. Its serenity and fire. Its grace under pressure and it is close to Flaubert’s famous quote ‘be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work’.
Billy used to say to me “lead with the gift, if money comes later then that’s ok, if not, that’s ok too”. He would say that that the powers that be, can make or break an artist and that there were many great artists that could have gone as far as, say, Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, but that they were just not right in the opinions of the powers that be. Some of the names he mentioned were Kenny Dorham, Ceder Walton, Stanley Cowell, Oliver Lake. I have to concur of course.
This Album was recorded at a short-lived club that was on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn called “The Up Over Jazz Cafe”. I’m not even sure what year it was, somewhere in the mid 2000s? During lockdown 6.0 here in Melbourne, I have been going through all my archived recordings and I discovered this great set with Billy’s band:
01.My Funny Valentine (Live)
04.Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart (Live)
05.Croquet Ballet (Live)
Billy Harper – Tenor
Eddie Henderson – Trumpet
Barney McAll – Piano
Clarence Seay – Bass
Newman Taylor Baker – Drums