One of the last great tough-toned tenors from Texas, Billy Harper was influenced by John Coltrane but developed his own passionate sound and style. Born in Houston in 1943, he sang in church from the age of 5 and at 11 started on tenor. He gained early experience playing in local R&B bands and formed his first group when he was 14. Harper studied at North Texas State University in the early 1960s, played in the One O’Clock Lab Band, and earned a Bachelor of Music degree. In 1966 he moved to New York and was quickly discovered. Among his important early associations were Gil Evans (with whom he began working in 1967), Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (1968-70), Lee Morgan, Elvin Jones, Max Roach and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.
With the latter group, Harper took a lengthy and notable solo on “Fingers” from their Consummation album. He has also led his own groups from the 1970s on and recorded the first albums released by both the Black Saint (1975’s Black Saint) and Soul Note (In Europe) labels. He maintained a lower profile in the 1980s and ’90s as he became very busy as an educator, teaching at Livingston College and Rutgers University in addition to teaching improvisation at high schools, but Harper has always been active as a saxophonist. Among the labels for which the tenor has recorded significant albums are Strata East, DIW, SteepleChase, Evidence, DIW and Metropolitan. Billy Harper’s sound is both intense and spiritual, and his style manages to be both adventurous and accessible.