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Houston Person: Timeless, Yet Endangered, Style

Radio host Tom Reney on the unique gifts of the veteran saxophonist

Houston Person at the at Paradise Valley Jazz Party, 2011
Bill Charlap and Houston Person at 2011 Savannah Music Festival

At the end of this scene from the 1970 documentary Chicago Blues, Muddy Waters names a few of the essentials that make for “deep” blues singing, and concludes, “You gotta go to church.” In many respects, Houston Person’s a tenor player who goes to church every time he picks up the horn, and the style of jazz he embodies makes him something of an endangered species today. That’s not to say there aren’t other soulful tenor players on the scene, but Person’s among the last who add just the right touch of the black vernacular to ballads, bebop and blues. And he’s among the few jazzmen who plays R&B and pop tunes with the same inventiveness he brings to the great jazz standards.

In a recent conversation, Houston said that his open-mindedness to a wide range of material was fostered in his South Carolina youth where he heard music with “no barriers, no obstacles. I liked everything.” His mother was a schoolteacher who played piano, and his parents “required” him to listen to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts for at least an hour every Saturday afternoon. “I knew Milton Cross’ distinctive voice better than anyone’s,” he said of the Met’s legendary radio host.

As far as his own repertoire is concerned, Houston says, “I like to introduce people to something new when I play. There are a lot of songs that haven’t been treaded on yet,” and he insists, “They all have something to say.” He cited “My Funny Valentine” as one of the few standards with which he had to spend a little extra time in order to appreciate it, but it was a frequent request of fans in Hartford, and he was committed to playing it with conviction. “Once I went back and really listened to the lyric, I got it!”

As strategies for building new audiences for jazz are eagerly sought these days, I’d say that Person’s already got the solution. “I care about the audience, and try to give them something they’ll like and understand,” he says. “I’m working for the audience.” If you’ve seen Houston before, you know he’s no Johnny-come-lately to this user-friendly approach. Dan Morgenstern picked up on it 44 years ago when he wrote, “Houston Person does little things with each tune that reveal thought and planning, but the routines are fitting, not cute…And he is just as honest in his playing, which is free from phony effects and is never meretricious.”

Ironically, there’s been a glaring paucity of critical acclaim for Houston in the jazz press. No one knocks him, but very few write about him either. The tried and true doesn’t inspire the scribes, and that’s had an impact not only on his potential audience, but on how jazz is defined overall. Swing and soul hasn’t the same intellectual zing as so-called edginess, but jazz could use more of the downhome elegance that Houston purveys. When he was at the Clarion last spring, the room buzzed with folks saying, “Wow! I always took this guy for granted.” Person himself is patient. At 77, he says, “You get it sooner or later.”

Person was born in Florence, S.C., on November 10, 1934, and attended South Carolina State College before enlisting in the Air Force. While stationed in Heidelberg, Germany in the mid-’50s, he often sat in with the 7th Army Jazz Band, an outfit that included Cedar Walton, Leo Wright, Don Ellis, Don Mensa and Eddie Harris. Following his discharge, he enrolled at the Hartt Conservatory of Music at the University of Hartford, and remained in the area for several years after his graduation. During this time, he often played at the Sundown Club with pianist Norman Macklin, and backed the singers Arthur Prysock and Little Jimmy Scott. He also made regular Sunday night sessions at the Famous Door and Jinxy’s in Springfield. Though it was 50 years ago, Houston says he’s still “got a weak spot for the area. Besides the service, it was the first time I was away from home, and people took care of me.”

He played New Haven too. In John Chilton’s biography of Coleman Hawkins, Song of the Hawk, he refers to an engagement Hawk played in New Haven in 1962. The 58-year-old tenor saxophone patriarch began his opening set annoyed over being introduced as a “classy old man,” and didn’t take kindly to a reporter’s questions at intermission about his work of 40 years earlier. But as Chilton reports, by the second set, “Hawkins had mellowed and invited the local tenor player Houston Person up to play duets…[Hours later} as the waiter was turning the lights out, Hawkins was still on stage” with Houston and organist Ray Jackson.

Person spent three years working with organist Johnny Hammond Smith’s combo in the mid-’60s, and made his debut as a leader for Prestige in 1966. He first worked with Etta Jones in Hammond’s group, and they went on to tour and record together for 35 years. Houston also worked as Etta’s manager and producer, and many assumed that the two were a married couple, but as with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, the romance was strictly musical.

Houston’s maintained a prolific recording output over the course of his career, covering the bases from soul jazz and funk, gospel and disco, classic blues and organ grooves, to intimate duo sessions with bassist Ron Carter and pianist Bill Charlap. Of his dialogues with Carter, he told Stanley Crouch, “We both have a feeling for the blues and for all the good things that created the music we play. Music comes from a feeling about life, and Ron and I share a great respect for all of the black music of quality, from the church to the tavern to the dance floor.” Carter views him as “the last link” in the tenor tradition that includes Person’s major influences, Illinois Jacquet and Gene Ammons. Bob Porter, who produced reissues of Houston’s Milestone recordings, sees him as”one of a dying breed: a jazz musician who makes his living playing nightclubs. No teaching gigs, no grants, no fellowships, no benefits, no perks.”

But he plays on his own terms, and happily they’re the same that a devoted following has found agreeable for the past 50 years. What’s not to like? Houston sticks to the basics, but to be sure, they’re essential basics: an approach to melody that keeps the tune in the foreground and to rhythm that keeps the beat prominent and danceable. What Gary Giddins said of Count Basie applies to Houston too: he knows that once he’s got your foot, it’s only a matter of time before he’s got your heart.

When I asked Houston if anyone else was still taking care of business in his soulful manner, he named Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson. When I pointed out that they’re both older than him, he mentioned Harry Allen, Ricky Woodard, Grant Stewart and Ken Peplowski as younger keepers of the flame. Then he was quick to add, “Everyone tells me I’m the last, but I’m not convinced. I think somebody, maybe, will come along. But all this talk scares me and I think, ‘Gee, what if I go down?’ But music will keep going. That’s for sure.” When I insist, however, that it won’t be quite the same, he relents and says, “OK, I’ll take that!”

Originally Published