Houston Person Sticks to Your Ribs

One might argue, though not too strenuously, that three central tribes of tenor saxophonists emerged just after the war: those who played Lester Young hard, those who played him soft, and those who played Illinois Jacquet. All merged their primary influences with bebop's phrasing and shivered their timbres with leanings toward any number of other tenor saxophonists. Some even played Young hard and soft, or Young and Jacquet, who was himself obviously influenced by Young. Still, a distinction can be made, and part of it has to do with the fact that Young's disciples (and those of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster) grounded jazz's serious evolution, attracting serious listeners, serious critiquing, and serious pedagogy. Jacquet's brood, including the Lester-inspired Gene Ammons, led to that presumably middlebrow school of tenors who often affix themselves to organ trios, name tunes after soul food, put semi-naked women on album covers, tour chiefly in black 'hoods, and like—really like—dancers. They attract listeners who clap in time, critics or at least annotators who fetishize simplicity and are really DJs anyway, and no pedagogues at all.

Jacquet, it must be emphasized, was a rugged, often brilliantly imaginative musician, who, though he scored one of the early slam-dunk rhythm and blues landmarks, playing "Flying Home" with Lionel Hampton (a bandleader who felt as much at home with r&b as swing), never followed the other swing renegades—Louis Jordan, Earl Bostic, Bill Doggett —into the groves of commercial dance music. Those three were nondescript jazz players and great r&b players, whereas Jacquet could whittle any jazz virtuoso down to his own diminutive but muscular size. Yet he soloed with an aggressive, crowd-pleasing lucidity and excitement that Ammons advanced and helped pass on to tenors as varied as Arnett Cobb, Willis Jackson, Harold Ousley, King Curtis, Stanley Turrentine, and, of course, Houston Person, who, as Samuel G. Freedman wrote in a judicious Sunday Times piece, works "a circuit ignored by or unknown to much of the jazz intelligentsia." Lash me, Daddy, eight to the bar.

After hearing an enlightening if interrupted Person set at the Jazz Standard in early May, I found myself re-evaluating my own prejudices. Mind you, I have always admired Houston Person for his huge tone, bluff humor, and pointed obbligato, and have seen him several times—but only with singers: Daryl Sherman once and Etta Jones the rest. Yet only in recent years, at their Vanguard gigs and through records, especially Jones's faultless 1997 My Buddy (HighNote), did the group they co-led from 1973 until her death last year really reach me. If I paid her any mind before the early '90s, it was as one of several OK heirs to Dinah Washington's crown. My subsequent raves, which were of the most-underrated-singer-alive sort, the best-by-comparison sort ("the disparity between the attention given blond youth and brunette maturity . . . "), and the they-are-a-New York-institution sort, were all Johnny-come-lately blurbs, holding actions while I tried to get a better fix on her and the band.

Huge tone, bluff humor, pointed obbligato—and more
photo: Courtesy High Note Records
Huge tone, bluff humor, pointed obbligato—and more

I'd invariably leave the Vanguard feeling good, but with a literary shortfall in puzzling out an effect that recapitulated all those liner-note clichés: simple, basic, direct, home cooking. Jones modified Dinah's defiant, trenchant attack, making it drier, in the sense of grainier mid-range and martini acerbity, with a combination of the ripening that was denied Dinah, coquettishly cracked high notes, and a contagiously poised comfort zone that was unmistakably boosted by Person's chivalrous obbligato and quilt-heavy solos. She and he invariably phrased on the beat and in pitch, swinging without effort and using only the notes they needed. They delivered a perhaps too tried if undeniably true repertory of blues and ballads and blue-ballads (she had sung with Buddy Johnson at 15 and never let the flame go out) with a slightly mocking infallibility, leaving nothing for me to say except amen and see you next time.

So I had never really taken the measure of Person, who, at 67, now tours with a quartet: Soul tenor is soul tenor, and I am the kind of fan who complains that jazz isn't more popular but has never much liked what passes for popular jazz. I attended his opening night at the Jazz Standard mostly out of curiosity, but midway through his opener, a Wild Bill Davis tune (Person has a large repertory of pieces by jazz composers, many of them rarely performed), his easy unruffled gait, whimsical insertions of "As Time Goes By" and other songs, fat mid-register tone and equally hefty flaring high notes, not to mention an efficient rhythm section led by pianist Stan Hope, who looked as though he was having the time of his life, transformed a high-tech club into the kind of room that's supposed to be Person's bread and butter—a neighborhood bar, with barbecue no less. I recalled sneering at music like this in the '60s (Person had a hit at the time, Goodness!, not one of his best), and (warning: food metaphor in progress), now scarfing it up and wishing everyone could share the dish, felt like the guest who arrives at a party when everyone else is leaving.

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