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Image: Billy Harper

Pianist Ellis Marsalis once described jazz as “the secular side of the music that people listened to in religious services.” Here in Houston, Trinity Episcopal Church will celebrate the connection between jazz and spirituality at the 16th annual Trinity Jazz Festival on January 27–29, featuring Houston-born tenor saxophonist Billy Harper. Harper’s distinctive sound is rooted in the Bayou City and the “Texas tenor” tradition, even as he explores the outer limits of improvisation as defined by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. When Harper plays, he leads the listener on a journey toward transcendence. 

Born in 1943, Harper grew up in a home filled with music, and clearly remembers attempting to sing songs he heard on the radio before he could even walk.

“Everybody sang in church,” says Harper. “After the crawling period, I was onstage in the church, singing solos.” 

In the Harper household, both sacred and secular music held the key to spiritual transcendence. So naturally, as soon he started playing saxophone at the age of 8, Harper began to explore Houston’s jazz scene.

“My uncle Earl made sure I heard jazz,” says Harper about those early years. “He took me around to clubs. I was little, but I was in the middle of all of these great saxophonists.”

Those saxophonists included Arnett Cobb, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Richard “Dickie Boy” Lillie, whose wife Vernell—“One of the strongest influences on my entire career as a musician and a developing artist"—taught drama and speech at Houston's Evan E. Worthing High School. Harper went on to play in the Worthing big band and by age 16, was playing blues in the same clubs his uncle took him to as a child.

But the University of North Texas is where Harper began to build a true foundation in jazz. Inspired by the studiousness he observed in the classical music students, he got serious about practicing. He also joined the school’s renowned One O’Clock Lab Band.

“That was a heavy band,” says Harper. “Bob Morgan [who would become the director of jazz studies at Houston’s High School for the Visual and Performing Arts] and I were in the band together, and he played trombone at the time. Many of the musicians in the One O’Clock Band were professionals playing with Stan Kenton and other big bands.” 

Harper relocated to New York in 1966 and found success playing and recording with icons like Gil Evans, Max Roach and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. In the '80s, Harper began playing with pianist Francesca Tanksley, a dynamic musician with “a special soul” who also believes in the spiritual power of music. On January 28, Tanksley joins Harper for a performance, accompanied by David Craig (bass), Andre Hayward (trombone), Nelson Mills III (trumpet) and Jere Jackson (drums).

“For me, music is a spiritual message,” says Harper, who has composed for and performed with choirs in churches in Poland and New York. “It is the epitome of higher expression I can do. Even without a choir, I try to get to that point with my band.”

The Trinity Jazz Festival

Jan 27: Ticketed VIP dinner featuring music by the Charlie Perez Quartet

Jan 28: Free master class by pianist Bob Henschen, vocalist Horace Grigsby and trombonist Andre Hayward. Opening for Harper that evening is the Houston Jazz All Stars, a true super-group that includes Henschen, Craig, drummer Carl Lott, vibraphonist Harry Sheppard, and vocalists Grigsby and Yvonne Washington

Jan 29: Two jazz masses to honor singer Etta James

Jan 27–29. Tickets: $35 and $50; $20 for students with ID. Trinity Episcopal Church, Midtown Houston. 1015 Holman St. 713-528-4100. For more information, visit trinityjazzfest.net

  

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