Billy Harper is not a name that reverberates with recognition in the West Coast jazz community. Based in New York City's Westbeth artists' community, working primarily on the East Coast and overseas, the 45-year-old tenor saxophonist will make a rare one-night appearance this evening at Marla's Memory Lane nightclub.
"I've only been out here a few times," he said in a phone conversation a few days ago. "Once with Lee Morgan and two or three times with my own group. For the last few years I've mostly been on tour overseas or working around New York."
Harper's brief stop in the Southland comes at the tail end of a two-week tour of Japan that included several Peace Concerts marking the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also helped establish a relationship between two distant cities.
"In an earlier visit," Harper explained, "I had met the mayor of Kishiwada, a suburb of Osaka, and he expressed interest in establishing a kind of city-to-city relationship with New York.
"So I contacted Mayor Ed Koch, and he agreed to send his greetings via a videotape for us to take along on this trip. It was a typical Koch performance. He looked into the camera and said, 'Mayor Hara!,' in that style of his.
"The Mayor of Kishiwada didn't understand a lot of English, but he understood his name, so he was happy. They even played the whole thing on the television news that night."
Harper has had similarly rewarding experiences in other parts of the world. Before he went to Japan he visited Morocco as part of the Randy Weston group, and he spoke fondly of a lengthy South American tour taken by his own quintet a few years ago.
But Harper's primary concern at the moment is his visibility in this country. A veteran of small-group work with Art Blakey and Max Roach, as well as of the big bands of Thad Jones and Gil Evans, he has long been admired by critics and jazz aficionados but is less known to the wider jazz audience.
"This is a good group I've got now," he said, "with Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Francesca Tanksley on piano, Newman Taylor Baker on drums and Clarence Seay on bass. And all my time is focused toward getting people to hear it.
"We've been traveling to different parts of the world for years and we've had great response everywhere, but we just haven't done it enough here in the States.
"Some of the music we play is a bit free form, but all of it swings. I see it as sort of an expression of many of the things I've done with other people. But now the coloration is all mine instead of someone else's."
A strong advocate of acoustic jazz and traditional roots, Harper also spoke intensely about the music's potentially enriching qualities.
"My feeling," he explained, "is that music should have a purpose. In the past, it always has been used for healing and uplifting and meditation. And that's the way I see my music.
"I've had people come up after a program to tell me they felt a spiritual healing from the music. When that happens, then I feel we're fulfilling what we're supposed to do. If people are entertained, that's OK too. But I certainly see a purpose in my music beyond that.
"What that purpose is, hopefully is to relate directly to the heart and soul of the listener and not just to the dance that is inside them, even though the dance has to be a part of it, too." Harper described his youth in the African Methodist Episcopal church in Houston as the source of his spiritual foundation, but he has moved on since then to explore many other pathways.
"I guess I've been to almost every denomination and every kind of religious service," he said. "But I feel an expression of spirituality that's much wider than any organized religion can get to. And since I'm a musician, I'm fortunate, because I can express that spirituality through my music.
"I've got a piece called 'Trying to Make Heaven My Home,' " he continued, "which was inspired by a black spiritual called 'A City Called Heaven' that I used to sing in a choir when I was small.
"That song is a kind of representation of my past, in terms of where my music gift comes from, and my future, in terms of where I want it to go. I feel that, as I try to make heaven my home, whether it's on earth or when I die, I'm simply celebrating the roots I came from.
"Don't get me wrong. I'm not a monk. But whether I'm going to a church or not, the connection with spirituality that comes from my roots is what makes me grow inside and what makes my music grow."
Harper laughed: "Now if we can just get it to grow a little more in this country, things'll be just fine."