The Pace Report: "Gentleman Person" The Houston Person Interview

Tenor saxophonist Houston Person’s unique blend of blues and soul music in his playing made him one of the architects of “Soul Jazz” during the mid-1960’s. Today, he’s being hailed as one of the finest soloists in the business although he’s been in the game for over 50 years.

There have been only a handful of saxophonists that have been crowned and labeled “Boss Tenor.” Legends like Illinois Jacquet, Gene Ammons, Lester Young, and Ben Webster earned this title due their gritty and post-bop style; along with their ability to create a sound on the tenor unlike their musical counterparts. Even some of the living greats who’ve made their mark in jazz still can’t come close to the genius and humble Houston Person. At 76, Person has made a career as a soloist, but is best known working with and backing vocalist Etta Jones, a partnership that lasted close to 40 years up until her death in 2001. Houston’s legacy in jazz is also etched in music history in that he is one of the architects of “Soul Jazz,” which was popular during the mid-1960’s. Over the years he’s become not only a brilliant soloist, but a dynamic producer.

Houston Person was born on November 10, 1934 in Florence, South Carolina. As a child, he grew up in the deep south and was immersed with church life and was touched by the hymns and spirituals he sang and played every Sunday morning. Person was also a avid fan of the blues and country music as well. Something that’s heard currently in his music. He played piano before switching to tenor sax; but it was when he heard the sounds of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis when he wanted to play music professionally. While studying at South Carolina State College he joined the Air Force where he eventually joined the service band that featured musicians such as Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris, and Leo Wright. Shortly after his discharge, Houston finished his studies at Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut.

Over the years he’s recorded with such luminaries like Charles Brown, Bill Charlap, Charles Earland, Lena Horne, Lou Rawls, Horace Silver, Dakota Staton, Billy Butler, and Richard "Groove" Holmes.

During the 1960’s, Person would evolve as one of the leading Tenor saxophonists of Soul Jazz. This was made popular by artists like Cannonball Adderley and Charles Earland.

For almost 40 years, vocalist Etta Jones and saxophonist Houston Person were inseparable.
The duo would record and tour together, yet many thought they were married. Houston was her music director and dear friend and played together up until her death.

In 1969, organist Charles Earland released the album “Black Talk” to heavy radio play and was hailed a masterpiece. “Soul Jazz” was already a staple on radio with artists like Earland, Dr. Lonnie Smith, George Benson, Pat Martino, and Cannonball Adderley blending jazz and soul music to the mix, Houston’s gutsy blues and soul added to the “Black Talk” recording. Later, he’d release his solo recording “Goodness” the same year to the same success of Earland’s “Black Talk.” It was also the same time that Prestige Records producer Bob Porter and the legendary Rudy Van Gelder let him record what he felt as well as contributed to the “Soul Jazz” movement that was changing urban radio and the jazz clubs.

Houston Person’s latest disc “Moment to Moment” is available on the High Note label. Reporting from The Jazz Standard in New York for The Pace Report, I’m Brian Pace.

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