Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Harper, Billy (R.)
Harper, Billy (R.), tenor saxophonist, composer, arranger, educator; born Houston, TX, 17 January 1943. His family is musical and he was also strongly influenced by growing up in the A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) church. His grandmother Pearl was married to a minister and was the "guiding light" of his life. Pearl (Nicknamed-"Peachie") raised him. His uncle Earl tried trumpet in high school in Austin, TX, alongside Kenny Dorham and got Billy interested in music. He was already singing "A tisket-a tasket" and other songs at the age of three. In 1948-1956 he began his singing career performing at sacred and secular functions. Around the age of 10 he became fascinated with the appearance of a saxophone that he saw in a music shop window each day as he came from school, and he received a Christmas gift of a tenor saxophone at age 11 from his biological mother, "Babysugar."
In high school he played in the marching band under Sammie Harris, alongside Michael Carvin and Michael Bolivar, and the band won a state championship. Another musical colleague was drummer Malcolm Pinson (they later performed together professionally). He learned about stagecraft from his drama and speech instructor, Vernell Lillie, and he found musical support in her husband, tenor saxophonist Richard (Dickie Boy) Lillie. He was working professionally in blues groups, and graduated cum laude in 1961 from Evan E. Worthing High School. From 1961-1965 he attended North Texas State University (now known as the
University of North Texas), from where he go to Dallas and meet James Clay, Claude Johnson, David "Fathead" Newman, Louis Spears, Ted Dunbar, Roger Boykins "Shag", and "Worm" (an alto saxophonist).
Harper was the first black musician to perform in the famed NTSU "One o'clock" big band that was awarded first prize at the Kansas Jazz Festival. He received a Bachelor of Music degree in 1965 with a major in saxophone, and a minor in theory. Additional major in experimental program for students particularly interested in jazz. Formed and performed frequently with the Billy Harper Sextet.
Moved to New York City in 1966. He spent about a year unemployed, sitting in at Slug's and elsewhere, though he got one lucky break in 1966 in an NBC-TV documentary film, "The Big Apple" (featured newcomers: model, boxer, businessman, opera singer, and jazzman).
Then he met Gil Evans on Broadway and in six months began working with him. In 1967 he also began working with Art Blakey, including a tour to Japan in'68. In 1970 Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Harper, Harold Mabern, and dedicated listeners formed the "Jazz and People's Movement to protest the absence of jazz in TV and radio broadcasting.He and Lee Morgran were in the group that "interrupted " the Merv Griffin Show, and later succeeded at voicing their grievances on the Dick Cavett Show. He worked with Lee Morgan from 1969 until the trumpeter's murder in Feb. 1971.
During this period overall, he worked with Evans 8 yrs., Donald Byrd ('70-'71), Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band ('71-'78, including a trip to Russia in 1972), Max Roach ('71'-'79), and Randy Weston (with whom he still performs from time to time,'72-present). However since 1979 he has worked most often as leader of his own quintet. He made trips to Japan with Max Roach ('73, '74, '76), Thad Jones ('74), Gil Evans ('72), Billy Harper Quintet ('79), and five other times with All Star groups (1984, 85, and others). With his quintet, he has also toured Western Europe; Portugal; Istanbul, Turkey, Poland, Rumania, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Israel, Taiwan, South America, Japan, Phillipines, Kaoshung, Taiwan, Norway, Finland, France, Italy, Leipzig, Germany, and others.
He is very active as an educator. In 1972 he received a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Arts to teach improvisation at 15 high schools. In 1975 he taught saxophone and flute at Livingston College, Rutgers University. From 1992 to the present he has taught at the New School jazz program, and since 1993 he has presented lectures and master classes at educational institutions around the world.
Awards and Honors:
2002 Grant for composition by the Chamber Music America's New Works Creation and Presentation Program, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation
2001 Commissioned to create the music for a play, "Whispers Want to Holler" for the Kuntu Repertory Theater, University of Pittsburgh
2000 Judge at Brilliant Note International Saxophone Competition (classical and jazz) in Staicele, Latvia and performed concert in Riga, Latvia with Latvian quintet (Jul. 28 - Aug. 11)
1996 Birth of the Billy Harper Fan Club on April 17, 1996
1994 Jazz Magazine in Japan awarded top honors to Harper's CD "Somalia"
1992 Saturday, September 19, 1992 declared "Billy Harper Day" in Houston, Texas by the Mayor of the City of Houston, Robert Lanier.
1988 Cultural Attache to Kishiwada, Japan, appointed by Mayor Noboru Hara
1984 Panelist - National Endowment for the Arts Grants Awards Program
1976 Jazz Record of the Year "Voice Grand Prix" award from Modern Jazz League of Tokyo for the album Black Saint
1975 Swing Journal International Critics Award - Tenor Saxophone
1974 Down Beat International Critics Award - Tenor Saxophone
1974 Music Composition Grant, National Endowment for the Arts
1973 Music Composition Grant, National Endowment for the Arts
1970 Music Composition Grant, National Endowment for the Arts
ca. 1974 Award for composition
1964 Scholarship to attend Berklee School of Music (but he chose to attend North Texas instead)
1964 "Most Promising Saxophonist"-Notre Dame Jazz Festival, performed with the Billy Harper Sextet
Capra Black (1973); Black Saint (1975); Love on the Sudan (1977); Soran Bushi-B.H. (1977); Knowledge of Self (1978); Billy Harper Quintet in Europe (1979); The Awakening (1979); Trying to Make Heaven My Home (1979); The Believer (1980); Billy Harper Quintet en Plogne (1980); Destiny Is Yours (1989); Billy Harper Quintet Live on Tour in the Far East (Seoul, Korea) Vol. 1 (1991); Billy Harper Quintet Live on Tour in the Far East (Kaohsiung, Taiwan) Vol. 2 (1991); Billy Harper Quintet Live on Tour in the Far East (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) Vol. 3 (1995); Somalia (1995); If Our Hearts Could Only See (1997); Soul Of An Angel (2000)
Randy Weston: Randy (1973), Carnival (1974), Spirit of Our Ancestors (1992), Saga (1995); McCoy Tyner: Journey (1994); Mark Masters Jazz Orchestra: Priestess (1992); All Stars: The New York Saxophone Madness, Such Great Friends (1983), Great Friends (1986); Max Roach: Lift Every Voice and Sing (1971), Live in Tokyo, Vol. 1 & 2 (1977), Nommo (1977), The Loadster (1977), Live in Amsterdam (1977), Confirmation (1978); Joe Bonner: Angel Eyes (1974-76); Gil Evans: Blues in Orbit (1969-71), Ampex (1971), Kimiko Kasai with Gil Evans Orchestra: Satin Doll (1972), Masabumi Kikuchi with Gil Evans (1972), Blue Fish (1973), Svengali (1973), Gil Evans Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix (1974), Festival de Montreux (1974), There Comes a Time (1975); Thad Jones: Consummation (1970), Suitie for Pops (1972); Thad Jones/Mel Lewis/Manuel de Sica: Portuguese Soul (1973); Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band: Potpourri (1974); Jon Faddis and Billy Harper: Jon and Billy (1974); Robin Kenyatta: Stompin' at the Savoy (1973); Horacee Arnold: Tribe (1973); Lee Morgan: Trip (1970), A Date with Lee (1970), Lee Morgan (1971), We Remember You (1972); Bobby Humphrey: Flute In (1972); Charles Earland: Charles III (1972); Louis Armstrong and His Friends: This Black Cat (1970); Jimmy Owens (1970); Leon Thomas (1970); Art Blakey: Live at Slugg's (1968); Woody Shaw: Love Dance; Piotr Wojtasik: Quest (1996); Malachi Thompson: Jaaz (1996), 47th Street (1997); Barney McAll: Widening Circles (1998)
Radio and television broadcasts:
2003 Billy Harper Quintet - Israeli TV, Tel-Aviv Jazz Festival
2000 Billy Harper Quintet - Polish TV interview and performance at Blue Note Club in Poznan, Poland (Oct.9)
2000 Billy Harper Quintet - Polish TV interview and performance - Szczecin, Poland (Oct. 9)
1975 TV and radio appearances in Norway, Finland, Holland, Belgium, Denmark,Sweden, France and Italy
1966 Highlighted in N BC TV Special (documentary), "Big Apple" with Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner and Reggie Workman.
TV performances in Norway, Finland with Max Roach, and later with the Billy Harper Quintet
Billy Harper Quintet on TV in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Yugoslavia
TV tape of a tour with Art Blakey that includes Harper with Blakey, and separately features Elvin, Max, and Sonny Murray.
2001 Interview in Jazz Times: America's Jazz Magazine (September)
1997 Featured article in Jazz Forum Magazine - Poland (March)
1996 Interview in Downbeat Magazine