Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Person, Houston

Saxophonist Houston Person is often portrayed as a “working man’s” tenor, most at home in soul-jazz or the blues. In fact, his tastes and abilities range far wider than this. A soloist who soared above the blues-drenched vamps of organ and guitar groups in the 1960s, his prolific output encompasses standards and ballads, recorded with duos and vocalists as well as big bands, orchestras and choirs.

Born November 10, 1934 in Florence, South Carolina, Person entered the world surrounded by music. His mother was a piano teacher, and although she began giving Person lessons at a young age, he showed little interest and did not continue. With his father, Person also sang in the church choir. He remembers an eclectic array of country and western, gospel, blues, jazz and even the Metropolitan Opera emanating from his parents’ radio at home, and local jukeboxes.

Person began playing the tenor saxophone as a young teenager - he believes he was about 15 - in his high school’s band. After high school, Person continued to study music at South Carolina State College. After a stint in the Army, during which he was stationed in Germany with musicians including Cedar Walton and Eddie Harris, he relocated to West Hartford, Connecticut and enrolled at the Hartt School of Music. He and bassist Ron McClure used to secretly jam in the basement, since jazz was forbidden in the conservatory at the time. In fact, the two were almost expelled when a school administrator discovered their little secret.

Person subsequently moved to the Roxbury district of Boston, where he remained through the 1960s. In 1963 Person appeared on his first album, organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith’s Mr. Wonderful. Person remained in Smith’s touring ensemble until 1967, and appeared on his recordings for several years thereafter.

IN 1966, Person recorded his first album as a leader, Underground Soul, inaugurating a fruitful relationship with Prestige Records which resulted in eleven albums over six years. During his tenure with Prestige, Person experimented with different formats, recording with the traditional jazz rhythm section of upright bass and piano with his still frequent collaborator Cedar Walton on Blue Odyssey, Chocomotive and several others, and with a thirteen- piece ensemble on Broken Windows, Empty Hallways.

Person scored his greatest commercial success in 1969 with Goodness!, a funkier collection of tunes which featured boogaloo stalwarts Billy Butler on guitar, Sonny Philips on organ as well as Bob Bushnell, Frankie Jones, and Buddy Caldwell on electric bass, drums, and conga respectively.

Person was also active as a sideman in this period, contributing to the recording sessions of organists Charles Kynard, Charles Earland, Caesar Frazier, Sonny Phillips and Don Patterson, guitarists Melvin Sparks, Billy Butler, Tiny Grimes and Grant Green, pianist Horace Silver and drummer Bernard Purdie.

In 1973, Person began working with vocalist Etta Jones, on his projects such as The Real Thing and Houston Person ’75, which featured a gospel choir, and on Jones’ albums, which often featured Person’s entire band. Person and Jones performed and recorded together frequently until the vocalist’s death in 2001.

Person's pursued an eclectic array of projects throughout the 70s, recording albums with orchestras and choirs in addition to the various jazz settings in which he began his career. Although he appeared less often as a sideman in the mid and late 70s, Person did record with organists Richard “Groove” Holmes, Reuben Wilson, and Charles Earland.

Since the 1980s, Person has worked tirelessly, performing internationally, recording, and producing albums for other artists. Until 1996, the majority of Person’s recordings as a leader were for the Muse label. Person also produced the albums of other Muse artists, including Jimmy Ponder, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Jack McDuff, Johnny Lytle, Charles Earland, and Shirley Scott.

Since 1996, Person has recorded as a leader for both the HighNote and Savant labels and appeared as a sideman on albums by Joey DeFrancesco, Ron Carter, Ernie Andrews, Lena Horne, Rhoda Scott, Rebecca Paris, and countless other instrumentalists and singers.

Person’s round, warm tone and unfailing commitment to melody have often been compared to Gene Ammons and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. However, while Person acknowledges his admiration for both Ammons and Davis, he cites several other mid-century tenors who were popular in the South while he was growing up: Percy France, who worked with Bill Doggett, Tom Archie, Joe Morris and Johnny Griffin. He cites these rhythm-and-blues players, as well as jazzmen Earl Bostic, Illinois Jacquet, Lester Young, Arnett Cobb, and Charlie Parker, as having made the strongest impressions on him during his formative years.

His voice on the saxophone, however, is ultimately unique. While his lyrical approach to improvisation may sound “natural,” it is at least partially the result of his years of practicing and learning standards and blues; Person humbly suggests that while no one can learn every standard, his prodigious internal songbook at least allows him to understand the ways in which the melodies and chord progressions to most tunes unfold.

Person remains committed to maintaining an audience for jazz as both art and entertainment music and he contends that compositions and improvisations that foreground inventive but memorable melodic and rhythmic ideas are paramount to achieving this goal.

Select Discography

As a Leader:

Goodness! Prestige PR7678, 1968

Broken Windows, Empty Hallways, Prestige PR10044, 1972

The Gospel Soul of Houston Person, Savoy 14471, 1978

My Romance, HighNote HCD7033, 1998

Thinking of You, HighNote HCD7177, 2007

As a Sideman:

Charles Earland: Black Talk! Prestige PRLP7758, 1969

Grant Green: Live at Club Mozambique, Blue Note 63522

(Recorded 1971, the reels were lost until their recent issuance on CD)

Joey DeFrancesco: Live at the Five Spot, Columbia CK53805, 1993

Etta Jones: All the Way, HighNote 7047, 1999

Contributor: Bill Carbone