Houston Person: An Appreciation
Many of us who have developed a love for this music that we call jazz have found the inspiration arriving unexpectedly, from disparate sources – from friends and mentors coincidentally being exposed to some great artist through a recording on the radio or a performance.
When Houston Person was growing up, he had a piano in the home. He was required by his mother and father to listen to a lot of music and developed a well-rounded appreciation of it. “Then one year, my parents gave me a Sears, Roebuck and Co. saxophone for Christmas,” according to Houston, and thus his direction was revealed to him. He played with the marching band in high school and then in the band at South Carolina State College. When he entered the U.S. Air Force after college, he met future jazz masters such as Leo Wright, Eddie Harris, Cedar Walton, Don Menza and Lanny Morgan. “That’s when I decided that this is what I wanted to do the rest of my life.”
After attending the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn., Houston connected with organist Johnny Hammond Smith and recorded several albums with him. “That’s when I decided to get my own group and ‘make my mark,’ so to speak. I didn’t work my way through others’ groups. I just started right out on my own … I don’t know why I did it at the time, but I just called Prestige and asked for a record date. They said ’Yes.’ It was just that simple!”
Person’s first album, “Underground Soul,” was an organ date with Mark Levine on trombone and arranger. Cal Lampley was the producer who gave Person his first break. “He just told me to do whatever I wanted to do, and they were fine with it.”
Who does Person cite as his leading influence?
“Illinois Jacquet was my initial influence. Illinois was what I call a ‘People Musician.’ He was a great entertainer, and that entertainment can fool you because he was a great musician- I mean a great musician. Most of the guys of that period had a great sound and great technique. They knew how to get to an audience. He was all that rolled into one.”
When you hear Houston Person, that same complete approach to performing – a unique and inviting sound, technique and the savvy understanding about how to connect with an audience – is all part of Person’s show. He has a big, muscular sound when he’s swinging on standards, and a breathy, gentle, after-midnight sound on ballads.
Expectedly, Person cites Lester Young, Warne Marsh and Stan Getz as influences as well. “I tried to bring it all into my playing—all the great R & B tenor players too.”
At Prestige, Person worked with Idris Muhammad, Virgil Jones, guitarist Grant Green, Thad Jones, Pepper Adams, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton and many others.
Besides having developing a unique sound, Person is an astute businessman. “I didn’t want to depend on other people for my livelihood. I didn’t want to put my destiny into the hands of agents or producers who don’t know what I do. If I’m going to fail, I would rather fail with me doing it. I relate it to sports. You know how when the team fails, they fire the coach? In the record business, when the records fail, they fire the musician and keep the producer. I looked for balance. I’ve always had a record deal. I’ve never had to worry about that. I know most of the people in the business. I know a lot of artists who have told me that they would do it that way if they had it to do over, instead of just going to the gig, not meeting anybody or building relationships.”
Besides performing, Person has had a long successful record producing recordings for Prestige, Muse and now High Note Savant. Part of his success as a producer can be attributed to his commanding the respect of the musicians – which is not only a function of his artistry, but because he’s a happy and likable guy as well.
“I’m havin’ a ball. There have been challenges as there are in any job or endeavor, but it’s been fun for me. I’ve managed to keep a band working and keep an affiliation with a label. I don’t think I’ve ever been without a label in all the years I’ve been out here. People have been great to me. Joe Fields was particularly great. as he gave me a chance to get into the booth and learn something about the business. I’ve learned to produce other people. Once you do it, you get a system. It’s also building relationships.”
Anyone who has been a fan of Houston Person also knows about the long-time and noteworthy association he developed with vocalist Etta Jones – touring and recording together for more than 30 years. Here again, the connection came about unexpectedly.
“We were in a night club together. She was a vocalist without a band, and I was a band that wanted a singer. Sooner or later, she just ended up with the band permanently. It was just adding another piece to the group. The same booking, traveling—everything still applied. We just had a singer, and we got the best.”
What’s the source of Houston Person’s irrepressible enthusiasm for the music?
“I love music. Music has so many surprises for you. Once you get comfortable, there’s something right around the corner that will knock you down. There’s always something.
The music will take care of your ego. My whole thing rotates around one thesis. I tell kids that if they want to be a professional musician, it’s done the same way other business is done. An old musician once told me the first thing you do is get a dark suit, dark tie and white shirt. First you dress. The second thing is to be on time. The third thing is to learn “Body and Soul” and “Stardust,” and learn the blues – and you’ll work. Then we go on from there and relate real-life experiences. That’s what I’ve tried to live by. I always want the audience to hear the melody while I improvise – because when I have that going, that’s it. That’s what all the great guys had … Miles Davis and Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, Lockjaw Davis, Lee Morgan … all the guys had that quality to their improvisation. I’m trying to play jazz music that’s accessible. Number one is that I try to remain true to my audience. I believe the audience matters.”
Those readers who will be aboard The Jazz Cruise in January 2011 can look forward to spirited performances by saxophonist Houston Person, underscored by his trademark audience appeal and great respect for his fans.