It’s the most unexpected shared interests that people tend to bond over – and that was certainly the case when I had my first proper conversation with Houston Person, the saxophonist and record producer who headlines this year’s Lockerbie Jazz Festival.
A big, imposing figure who made his name in the 1960s as a purveyor of hard bop, this 77-year-old African-American has a stately presence on stage and plays tenor in a bluesy, soulful style. He tends to keep himself to himself at jazz jamborees – and when he’s performing he doesn’t waste time with idle chit-chat between numbers. But when I found myself in his company, sharing a lift with him during the Norwich Jazz Party in May, a hunch (based on his choice of the song Why Did I Choose You, from the 1938 movie The Yearling) led me to bring up the subject of old films. Was he a fan? And which films were his favourites?
It turned out he is a serious movie buff whose favourite films are the timeless romance Casablanca and the classic Alan Ladd western, Shane. But what really ignited the conversation was the revelation that Mr Person is a major fan of Doris Day. “I love all her films,” he said, “but NOT Pillow Talk!” Suddenly, his exquisite performance of the ballad Fools Rush In made sense, and the knowledge of his secret love for Doris made his interpretation of Little Girl Blue – the Rodgers and Hart ballad she sang in Jumbo – all the more poignant.
When I called Person last week to chat over his life and career, he sounded tired – he was between gigs – and slightly disinclined to talk. He also didn’t have a clue which journalist he was being interviewed by. Then I mentioned the D word, and the man sprang to life. “That’s my gal,” he said in a voice that was undoubtedly accompanied by a wink and a smile. “How’d you know that?” The conversation in the car was relived. “Oh yeah-yeah-yeah! I remember.” It’s Doris Day’s
“sincerity” that Person particularly admires, and he regularly plunders her repertoire – “everybody does!” – for such gems as Sentimental Journey (the title of one of his albums) and I’ll Never Stop Loving You.
Unfortunately, Person never got the chance to work with his dream girl but he does have an impressive track record when it comes to singers, having recorded with the likes of Lena Horne (“Oh, she was very nice,” he says in his sexiest drawl) and Ernestine Anderson (“easy to work with”). His longest working relationship with a singer, however, was with Etta Jones, who made her name in the early 1960s with her hit Don’t Go To Strangers. For 30 years they worked together – until her death, in 2001. Theirs was a rewarding musical friendship which some compared to the legendary relationship betweeen musical soulmates Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Did he see it that way?
“Well, I know everybody else did – but for me, it was just my relationship,” he says, somewhat sheepishly. “I think it worked so well because nobody had an ego. Nobody in the whole band had an ego. Everybody had a job to do, and you just did it. I’d do my stint, she’d do her stint, and the band would do their stint and that was it. Everybody had equal time.
“I’ve worked with a lot of singers, and usually I’m the leader. But when I record with them they’re the leader. And I just try to make it sound good. I’ve always had the attitude that even though I was leader of my group, and Etta was part of that group, when it came her turn to sing, she became the leader and then whoever the piano player was, when his time came, he became the leader. I didn’t feel I had to be in charge of what they do.”
Person was born and brought up in Florence, a small town in South Carolina where his mother worked as a schoolteacher and his father was employed by the agriculture department. He and his brother were exposed to all sorts of music – from the church choirs (“everyone was involved in those”) to the pop tunes his mother would play on the piano. When he was 15 years old, he was given a saxophone for Christmas and within a few years was studying music at South Carolina State College.
Living in South Carolina, he didn’t have the chance to hear his favourite saxophonists – who included Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young. “I was already performing myself by the time I got to hear many musicians. But I did get to see Duke Ellington’s Orchestra when it came to Columbia, South Carolina. Our teacher took us to see them and it was an amazing, thrilling, experience.”
The Ellington band didn’t just make a musical impression on the young saxophonist; it was visual too. Back then, the Duke’s outfit was one of the best-dressed on the scene – and one only needs to look at the famously sharp-suited Person to see that he would have fitted right in. Indeed, these days one of the musicians to whom he’s often compared is the great Ellingtonian tenor man Ben Webster, another master balladeer.
For now, though, the only balladeer up for discussion is Doris…
* Houston Person plays Ronnie Scott’s, 47 Frith St, London on Monday January 9 and Tuesday 10. His CD Moment to Moment (HighNote Records) is out now.