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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.

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