“The music industry uses stuff like categories,” Person says. “But they’re on the other side of the thing. They’re not in it. They don’t understand how music works.”
Person’s music has been labeled as everything from jazz to soul. “I put drums on a song and play it in different beats and gets labeled under different genres,” he says. “But it’s the same jazz melodies I always play. My type of jazz has inflections of gospel and blues, and it’s danceable.”
As record producer Bob Porter puts it, “There is a game played among longtime friends of Houston Person [that] involves trying to guess what his next album is going to be. It is not only because he is capable of so much but because he has accomplished so much.”
Like many musicians, Person got his start on the piano. Growing up in Florence, South Carolina, he was listening to blues, gospel, and country and western music. He sang in the church choir. When Person was sixteen, his parents bought him a tenor saxophone. He wasn’t immediately interested: he was a three-sport star in football, baseball, and basketball. But he started to play around with the tenor and, in his senior year, played in the high school band.
Then, at his senior prom, he heard the South Carolina State College band play. “It was entirely different, hearing them play,” he says. Their inspiration lit him on fire. He attended college there, and became a member of the Hall of Fame.
While in the Air Force in Germany, Person played with Eddie Harris, Cedar Walton, and Don Ellis, and went on to work as a sideman for organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith in the mid-nineteen-sixties.
His legendary skills as an accompanist boomed through a musical partnership with vocalist Etta Jones, an association that lasted over thirty years.
“I respected the lyrics and the way she approached the songs,” Person says. “We had a good rapport, and we enjoyed the same music. As an accompanist, I would let her tell the story and enhance it any way I could, not getting in the way of the lyrics. And when I didn’t have anything to add, I just shut up.”
In 1990, Person’s Something in Common won the Independent Jazz Record of the Year Award. He’s won the prestigious Eubie Blake Jazz Award and had songs that were Grammy finalists both in 1999 and 2000.
He’s been playing at the highest levels in jazz for over fifty years, and has released nearly one hundred albums, while playing with such legendary artists as Charles Brown, Lena Horne, Dakota Staton, Horace Silver, and Lou Rawls, among many others.
But what remains the most important thing about jazz to Person is that it allows people to have a good time. “It’s real simple,” Person says. “Jazz music is dance music. When you take the blues and the swing out of it, you’re in trouble.”
When asked the future of jazz, Person is blunt. “We need to get back to the elements that made it great,” he says. “It’s that simple. The elemental blues and the dance elements, and people having fun. You don’t have to sit and analyze everything. A lot of people tell me, ‘Gee, your music made me want to dance.’ And I’ll think, well then, why not!”
Houston Person headlines the Friday night show of Jazz Port Townsend, July 27, 2007. You can buy tickets here or by calling Centrum at 360.385.3102, x117