Interview with Houston Person

The Ethan Iverson quartet with Ben Street and Billy Hart and featuring Houston Person plays the Village Vanguard June 14-19. The following was taped after our first duo rehearsal.

Ethan Iverson:  While I’ve got you here, Mr. Person, I’d like to ask you about some saxophonists, perhaps starting with Illinois Jacquet.

Houston Person:  Alright! My main influence. He was a great musician. He was a great entertainer: He knew how to approach an audience. He had a wonderful sound, and his music was always fun. Very impressive.

He was my main man. Well, Jacquet and Lester Young.

But I liked everybody. Warne Marsh is on that list, so is Stan Getz.

EI:  Did you see Jacquet live?

HP:  Yeah! I got to meet him, too. He was wonderful and encouraging to me. A great guy, with a high standard of musicianship.

EI:  Did Jacquet play piano?

HP:  I never saw him play piano, but back in the day, everybody had a basic working knowledge of the piano.

EI:  You were probably too young to see Lester Young though?

HP:  No, I did see him once, in Germany, on a tour of his own in ’56 or ’57. He was one of the greatest musicians.

EI:  I was impressed with how Lester would play new things in a solo.

HP: Yeah! That was Lester Young. But all the guys had different things going for them. Lockjaw Davis…

EI:  They said Lockjaw sounded like he played backwards.

HP:  I called him “upside down.” I loved Gene Ammons. You take all the R ’n B players, and they were great, too.

EI:  Are you talking about someone like Willis Jackson?

HP:  Willis Jackson! Bullmoose Jackson! Sam Taylor! There were other guys who were underrated: Tom Archie, who played with Wynonie Harris. Percy France was one of my favorites. More famous was Johnny Griffin, who I first heard with Joe Morris.

EI:  I’ve heard that at one moment the R ’n B musicians and the bebop musicians were really in the same groups, that it just depended on which qualities you wanted to emphasize.

HP:  Absolutely. There wasn’t so much division as there is now, with everybody insisting on doing their own thing. Back in the day there were common denominators for just about anybody who could play. It was danceable and had the blues in it. Even people now thought of as abstract, like Monk or Mingus.

Coltrane worked in those rhythm and blues bands. He and Stanley Turrentine both played with Earl Bostic, who I thought was one of the greatest saxophonists ever.

EI:  Sonny Stitt played the most impeccable bebop but also every downhome organ joint.

HP:  That’s exactly what I’m trying to say.

Eddie Harris used to rave about Sonny Stitt. For just playing the horn, there was nobody better than Earl Bostic or Sonny Stitt. Well, there’s Charlie Parker too. That’s the lineage for alto: Charlie Parker, Earl Bostic, and Sonny Stitt, at least as far as the mechanics of the instrument goes. (I should also mention my fellow Carolinian Lou Donaldson.)

EI:  Let’s go back to tenor for a minute. Where do you put Sonny Rollins in the constellation?

HP:  Right at the top! But that’s a different kind of improvisation. He was thematic, and would develop a motif. That’s what did it for me with Sonny.

When I was in college, a basketball team from New York came to our school to play. They came jogging by, I guess warming up for the game, and this guy heard me practicing in the band room and came in to talk. He asked to play my horn and he played this great stuff for a minute. He said that it was Sonny Rollins that he was showing me about. “This is the guy.” So that’s how I really got turned onto Sonny Rollins, from a basketball player I never saw again!

Sonny Rollins also created some great compositions. Yeah, he’s right there at the top.

There’s no best, really. We all play to our strengths. Everybody brings something different to the table. I’ll tell you, it is a wonderful fraternity, though, the tenor saxophone fraternity. Don Byas. Hank Mobley. Ben Webster. Paul Gonsalves. Zoot Sims swings to death.

One guy I think deserving of attention is George Coleman.

EI:  He’s fierce with those bebop changes, right?

HP:  Oh, man! He’s got the blues covered, too. I see him once in a while, and he’s a great guy. Some of the younger guys are in the fraternity: Ralph Moore, James Carter, Antoine Roney, Ken Peplowski, and Harry Allen.

EI:  I was struck when you mentioned Warne Marsh earlier. Did you know Warne?

HP:  No. I just always liked that sound.

Then you go the other coast and there was Teddy Edwards, Plas Johnson and Bob Cooper, Ricky Woodard and Don Menza. Of course I can’t list everybody without forgetting some.

EI: Tell me about the sound you get out of the tenor saxophone.

HP: I tell young people they should search for their own sound, and see what they hear. Everyone looks for different things. Me, I just want: beauty. I want a pretty sound. It should also fill the room. A big, pretty sound that fills the room, that’s what I want to do.

EI:  Dewey Redman told me about hanging out with Ben Webster. Webster told him, “If you can’t outplay them, outloud them.”

HP:  He’s got a point! That’s a good creed. I saw Ben Webster in an auditorium in Pittsburgh with thousands of people, and they heard him in the back of the hall.

I used to practice outdoors in South Carolina. I’d see how loud I could get it and then smooth it out.

EI:  You grew up with organ groups. I think that might have been one way this music got louder, with the power of that organ.

HP:  Oh yeah! You’ve got to fight that Leslie, got to learn how to cut through those sustained chords. But on the ballads, those sustained chords show you how to take your time. I learned a lot from the organ groups, they helped me get it together. It helped all those guitarists too: George Benson, Pat Martino, Randy Johnson, Peter Bernstein: they all credit the organ for helping them get their sound.

I also played in a county and western band with two guitars. That was a challenge to cut through. When you are done with all of that experience, you have something to work with. When you hear my sound, you hear all that other stuff. You get a little bit of it all.

EI:  The organ is also connected to gospel. That’s a big part of your musical life.

HP:  Absolutely.

EI:  What was the music like in church where you grew up?

HP:  Traditional spirituals and gospel, but in my church we also had four-part hymns, some of which were written by the great composers.

EI:  Were there drums?

HP:  Not then, not when I was young, but now of course there are. The Pentecostal churches always had drums and tambourines, though. Good training for being in a rhythm section!

EI:  I was talking to Ron Carter, and he said you knew more tunes than anybody. I checked your discography and saw what he meant. How did you learn all those tunes, Houston?

HP:  H’mm. I don’t know! I spend my spare time researching stuff. There are good anthologies for all the major composers like Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Duke Ellington. I know many of the neglected composers as well: Ralph Rainger comes to mind. Recently I was researching David Raksin. Benny Carter is another one of my favorites.

I look at how each of these composers assemble the tune, then I restudy the lyrics to see what they mean as well. Investigating the verses of the tunes is interesting. Sometimes I really learn new things about songs we all think we already know.

I’ve recorded with a lot of singers, this kind of research is especially valuable then. Sometimes I’ve helped a young singer develop a concept on a song based on what I’ve learned over the years.

EI:  The last thing I especially wanted to ask you about was this time in Germany with Cedar Walton and others. When was that?

HP: 1957 and 1958. With Walton, Eddie Harris, Don Menza, Lanny Morgan, Leo Wright… They were in Stuttgart in the Army; I was in Heidelberg at Ramstein Air Force Base. We’d jam each week in Heidelberg at a club called Cave 54.

EI:  Cedar must have been really playing by then.

HP:  They were all really playing! The only person who wasn’t playing was me! So they had me to kick around on weekends.

EI:  Cedar and Eddie Harris had a special thing together; You and Cedar also had a special thing together. It’s interesting to know it goes back to postwar Germany.

HP:  You know, Eddie Harris played some gigs with me on piano!

EI:  Really?

HP:  Oh man, he was a great piano player.

EI:  Harris played some of the most interesting lines and concepts.

HP:  We practiced together quite a bit. He was a practice hound. He used to get on me to practice more.

EI:  What did you practice together?

HP:  Scales and intervals. He was big on fourths and so on.

EI:  I never heard you play many fourths and or any modal music, but you must played some.

HP:  Huh. Well, I played…some. But not that much. I’m right down the middle. That’s where I’ve hung my hat.

When I went to music school in Hartford, it was all classical music. So l learned the modes there. And certain steps in the scale, we all play in modal fashion. In the end, I play what the tune requires.

But I never wanted to take it so far away or get so over-intelligent that the audience loses it. We all go through those periods, of course. I went through that when I was in school. But there’s the real world out there, and I think back to Jacquet with Lionel Hampton and Pres. Even Dizzy presented the music with a kind of entertaining flair.

EI:  Did you think John Coltrane went to far in an intellectual direction?

HP:  No! Because it was his. He needed to do it.

Those that followed him went too far. I mean, you go to some of the schools now and they want to play “Giant Steps” before they can play “Yankee Doodle.” Although I understand that, I did that myself when I was young. Over the years, though, I’ve found that working on the basics is the thing that helps the most.

But, Coltrane himself: No. The artist is supposed to go as far as he can to develop what he’s doing. That’s what Coltrane did, that’s what Miles Davis did. Miles got knocked for it but still, he was keeping his music relevant.

We all develop in our own ways. I always appreciated what Coltrane did. He belongs in that circle. So does King Curtis! Like I said, we all bring something to the table. A wonderful fraternity.

Bonus track: The possible set list for the Vanguard gig:

Jazz tunes:
Why Not (Person)
Holy Land (Walton)
Black Velvet (Jacquet)
Rock me to Sleep (Benny Carter)
Stolen Sweets (Wild Bill Davis)

Blues ballads:
Please Send Me Someone to Love
Since I Fell For You

Ballads:
If You Could See Me Now (with verse and Person arrangement)
Laura
Lover Man
I Don’t Stand a Ghost of Chance with You

Duke Ellington:
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear from Me

Standards:
Once in a While
I’ll Never be the Same
Out of Nowhere
I’ve Never Been in Love Before

Blues:
Blues Everywhere (Shirley Scott)
Sweet Sucker (Johnny Griffin)
Houston’s Blues

Even eighths:
Sunny (with Hampton Hawes vamp)
Black Orpheus

Fast:
Lester Leaps In

Encore:
Why Did I Choose You (duo Houston and Ethan)