Billy Harper is one of a generation of Coltrane-influenced tenor saxophonists who actually built upon the master's work, rather than simply copy it. Harper is consummately well-rounded, able to play convincingly in any context, from bop to free. His muscular tone, lithe articulation, comprehensive harmonic knowledge, and unflagging energy define him as a saxophonist. He's also possessed of an abundant imagination that connects directly to his blues and gospel roots. Though not as well-known as he might be, Harper is a jazz improviser of significant stature. Harper grew up in Houston, TX. By the age of five he was singing in church and at various choral events. At age 11 he was given a saxophone for Christmas. In the beginning he was mostly self-taught, though he was helped along by his uncle Earl Harper, a former trumpeter who had gone to school with bop trumpeter Kenny Dorham. Dorham's 1950s work was a formative influence. In his teens Harper played in R&B bands, and at the age of 14 formed his own quartet. In the early '60s, Harper studied jazz at North Texas State University, where he became (at that time) the only African-American member of the school's prestigious One O'Clock Lab Band. Harper graduated from NTSU with a Bachelor of Music degree and also did post-graduate work. In 1966 Harper moved to New York. That year, he led an ensemble that was featured on an NBC-TV special, "The Big Apple." Within short time after arriving in New York, Harper started playing with well-known bandleaders. In 1967 he began a long-lasting association with bandleader/arranger Gil Evans. Harper has played with some of jazz's greatest drummers; he served with Blakey's Messengers for two years (1968-1970); he played very briefly with Elvin Jones (1970), and was a member of Max Roach's band in the late '70s. Harper also became a regular member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. In the '70s, Harper began recording under his own name for European labels. His album Black Saint (1975) was the first recording issued by the label of the same name; his In Europe (1979) inaugurated the Soul Note label. Harper recorded relatively infrequently in the '80s and '90s, although he maintained an active performing career, mostly as a leader. He's enjoyed a parallel career as a music educator, teaching at Livingston College and Rutgers. He's also received multiple grants from various arts agencies, including two from the National Endowment of the Arts. Harper's Black Saint LP was named Jazz Record of the Year — Voice Grand Prix, by the Modern Jazz League of Tokyo.
- By Chris Kelsey
All Music Group