A Great Guy, With a High Standard of Musicianship

New DTM page: Interview with Houston Person.

This interview is in advance of a week at the Village Vanguard June 14-19: My quartet with Ben Street and Billy Hart featuring Houston Person.

Of course Ben and Billy and I are very familiar with each other, and in fact we plan to play a trio feature for Billy every set drawn from the repertoire of the Billy Hart Quartet.

The surprise is Houston Person.

Houston is 81 and arguably the last of the line in terms of an old-school blues and ballads tenor saxophonist. His sound is big and furry. It sounds like he is gruffly speaking to you; perhaps he’s even offering some kind of recrimination or an authoritative directive to act more honorably in the future. After a particularly bluesy phrase, you start up from your chair and promise, “I will!”

At the end of the day, the tenor saxophone is my favorite instrument. I’ve been blessed to play a lot with peers who are avatars: Mark Turner, Bill McHenry, Joshua Redman. But as a fanboy nothing tops little moments with older greats. One time Dewey Redman was in my apartment. He took out his horn and we played Ornette Coleman’s “Broken Shadows” together. That was it.

Likewise, two months ago Houston Person showed up for our first duo rehearsal. He’s a gregarious man who wants to make sure everybody is laughing first. It’s impossible to park in my neighborhood (informally called “Park Nope” instead of “Park Slope”) yet he laughingly found a space a block over. I could see that this was someone who always walks between the raindrops.

Inside, Houston took out his horn, I played a little intro, and he offered a perfect chorus on the old torch song “Once in a While.” Again, that was it.

One of my first little jazz tapes was a session of Harry “Sweets” Edison and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis with Kenny Drew and good European musicians in Denmark. I listened to this over and over. It sounded like Sweets and Lockjaw were talking while they played.

Lockjaw had one of those old-school tenor sounds. No one is greater than John Coltrane, but in his wake the sonic concept of the instrument was irrevocably changed, with the sound getting more focused.

Tenors before Coltrane had more leeway. There was lots of vibrato: it was even furry, burry, or murky. There was less emphasis on nailing complex changes, although there was actually more detail per note. Transcribing Lockjaw Davis on a slow blues or ballad is essentially impossible compared to transcribing a post-Coltrane tenor.

In the interview Houston talks a lot of different tenors. He’s open to it all. But he particularly wants credit given to the blues and ballads tenors of his youth.

There are some who try to bring back some furry and burry to the tenor today, and more power to them. But calling Houston essentially the last of the line is not just about his sonority, it is about the complex social mechanism that brought his music into being.

A striking anecdote from the interview is about how Houston learned about Sonny Rollins. While in college at South Carolina State College (which of course was then a segregated school), a basketball player from New York City stopped his pre-game warm up to show Houston some Sonny Rollins licks on the horn.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the real 20th-century jazz.

Houston is well-known in some circles but not in others. Frankly it is too long since he has played the Village Vanguard.

Ron Carter got it right away. When I told Ron I hired Houston for a week, Ron nodded his head and said, “You want to learn how it goes.”