Billy Harper

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Billy Harper
Billy Harper at the Jazz Standard in 2007
Billy Harper at the Jazz Standard in 2007
Background information
Born (1943-01-17) January 17, 1943 (age 80)
Houston, Texas, U.S.
LabelsBlack Saint, Strata-East, SteepleChase, Evidence, Marge

Billy Harper (born January 17, 1943)[1] is an American jazz saxophonist, "one of a generation of Coltrane-influenced tenor saxophonists" with a distinctively stern, hard-as-nails sound on his instrument.[2]


He was born in Houston, Texas, United States.[1] In 1965, Harper earned a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of North Texas.[1][3]

Harper has played with some of jazz's greatest drummers; he served with Art Blakey's Messengers for two years (1968–1970); he played very briefly with Elvin Jones (1970), he played with the Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Orchestra in the 1970s, and was a member of Max Roach's quartet from 1971–1978.[4] In 1979, Harper formed his own group, touring with it and documenting its music on the recording Billy Harper Quintet in Europe, and he was featured as a soloist on a 1983 recording, Such Great Friends, with virtuoso, visionary pianist and record producer Stanley Cowell. After a period of relative inactivity in the 1980s, Harper came back strong with another international tour, which ended with perhaps his most ambitious recording: the three-volume Live on Tour in the Far East (1991). In the new millennium, Harper's recording activity has been subdued and sporadic, though more recently he appeared as a regular member of pianist-jazz historian Randy Weston's ensembles. In 2013, they recorded their first album as a duo, entitled The Roots of the Blues.[5]

A retrospective of Billy Harper's career would include the following among its highlights: The saxophonist performed on Gil Evans' 1973 album Svengali,[6] and contributed two of the most-performed tunes in the band's repertoire: "Priestess" and "Thoroughbred".[1] Harper's own 1973 album Capra Black "remains one of the seminal recordings of jazz's black consciousness movement – a profoundly spiritual effort that channels both the intellectual complexity of the avant garde as well as the emotional potency of gospel".[7] The Italian jazz label Black Saint was launched with Harper's 1975 album, Black Saint.[1] His later releases have mostly been on SteepleChase and Evidence Records.

Long associated almost exclusively with the inner circle of the New York City jazz scene — except for breaks while touring with his ensembles to Europe and the far East — Harper, in mid-2017, suddenly attained a degree of international prominence, because of his short but key role in the acclaimed jazz film, I Called Him Morgan. Released for home streaming and purchase in June 2017, the film documents the music and life of trumpet prodigy Lee Morgan and the woman who saves and restores him after he hit rock bottom due to heroin addiction. It is a movie that makes the viewer a partner with its Swedish director, in his seven-year search for the evidence that might help explain how the same woman who was Morgan's savior, would become his killer at the instant he was retaking the bandstand for the last set at Slug's Saloon, a jazz club on the Bowery in lower East Manhattan. Walking right alongside Lee Morgan at this moment — the someone who hears a "bang" that for the next several extended seconds leaves both men — the actual victim and the bandmate — equally stunned and confused — was Billy Harper.


As leader/co-leader[edit]

With The Cookers[edit]

  • Warriors (Jazz Legacy Productions, 2010)
  • Cast The First Stone (Plus Loin Music/Harmonia Mundi, 2011)
  • Believe (Motéma Music, 2012)
  • Time And Time Again (Motéma Music, 2014)
  • The Call Of The Wild And Peaceful Heart (Smoke Sessions, 2016)
  • Look Out! (Gearbox, 2021)

As sideman[edit]

With Louis Armstrong

With Horacee Arnold

With Art Blakey

  • Live! Vol. 1 (Everest, 1968)
  • Moanin' (LRC, 1968)

With Joe Bonner

With Stanley Cowell

  • Such Great Friends (Strata-East, 1983)

With Charles Earland

With Gil Evans

With Sonny Fortune

With Bobbi Humphrey

With The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra

With Mark Masters Jazz Orchestra

With Grachan Moncur III

With Lee Morgan

With Max Roach

With Woody Shaw

With Leon Thomas

With Malachi Thompson

With Charles Tolliver

  • With Love (Mosaic/Blue Note, 2006)
  • Emperor March: Live at the Blue Note (Half Note, 2008)

With McCoy Tyner

With Randy Weston

With Piotr Wojtasik

  • Quest (Power Bros Records – PB 00147, 1996)


  1. ^ a b c d e Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Who's Who of Jazz (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 189. ISBN 0-85112-580-8.
  2. ^ Chris Kelsey, Billy Harper Biography, AllMusic
  3. ^ Office of Registrar & Alumni Records, University of North Texas, Denton.
  4. ^ "Max Roach Discography". Retrieved January 27, 2020.
  5. ^ "Randy Weston & Billy Harper on The Roots of the Blues", Open Sky Jazz, November 28, 2013.
  6. ^ "Svengali - Gil Evans | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved July 27, 2021.
  7. ^ Jason Ankeny, Capra Black review, AllMusic