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Each month, WEAA honors one legend of jazz. Learn more about the artist and his or her work.

"The Black Saint" Billy Harper Plays On


Jazz Master of the Month

January, 2015

Saxophonist Billy Harper, aka “The Black Saint,” was born in Houston on January 17, 1943. He was already singing in spiritual ensembles at age five and formed his first Billy Harper Quintet in his last years of high school, He went on to graduate cum laude from North Texas State University with a Bachelor of Music degree.

As most musicians who pursue jazz, Harper moved to New York City in 1966 seeking greater exposure and immediately began attracting the attention of jazz greats such as Gil Evans, Max Roach, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and others. He immediately began touring in some degree with each of these groups from 1966 to 1979 while also organizing and performing with his own Billy Harper Quintet.

The Billy Harper Quintet performed on the NBC Special The Big Apple, where his big tenor sound and spiritual solos gained even wider exposure.

Harper taught at Livingston College, Rutgers University, and The New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music.

One group of accomplished musicians commented that hearing [Harper] play was like hearing the voice of God.

Harper’s album The Black Saint in 1976 was named Jazz Album of the Year by the Modern Jazz League of Tokyo, which further increased his worldwide recognition as a serious innovator on tenor saxophone. His 1973 recording of “Capra Black” was one of the premier recordings during the black consciousness movement days. It, as well as other landmark recordings, endeared him to the serious jazz community in much the same way as did John Coltrane.

Harper has recorded more than 15 albums as a leader and more than 50 as a sideman.

His DVD release Billy Harper: Live from Poland (performed in a cathedral with full choir and jazz quintet) is still considered one of the most spiritually inspiring viewing and listening experiences ever recorded.

After hearing him perform with Max Roach in Philadelphia’s Aqua Lounge, one group of accomplished musicians commented that hearing him play was like “hearing the voice of God.”

Billy Harper still travels the world extensively and performs in Baltimore on occasion with his band as well as other ensembles.

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