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Jazz legend Houston Person soldiers on

When I asked Houston Person which new musicians excite him, he mentioned Dee Daniels, a singer from Vancouver whom he recently produced.

"She's a singer to watch out for," he said and then added, "There're a lot of wonderful young musicians -- well, just a lot of wonderful musicians. You don't want to forget some of the troopers who've been out there a long time. Sometimes we jump to the youth and forget the guys who've been around for awhile."

He might as well have been talking about himself. He has been soldiering on as long as any jazz musician out there.

Houston began developing his robust tenor sax sound just after Christmas 1934, when his father gave him his first horn. Since then, he has played on more than 70 albums and toured incessantly.

He grew up in a musical South Carolina family (Dad sang, Mom played piano) in which church and school choirs were de rigueur and got his chops down playing at clubs around Heidelberg, Germany, where he was stationed while in the Air Force. After the service he studied at Hartford's Hartt College of Music and soon teamed up with Johnny "Hammond" Smith (later known as Johnny Hammond), whose band was at the heart of the nascent soul jazz movement.

Featuring emotional, melodic solos over dense, ostinato-heavy rhythms, soul jazz, to some ears, was a bastardization of hard bop: all of the soul with none of the bop. But to others, it was the natural combination of blues and church music. By 1961, it became the jubilant and toe-tapping sound upon which Houston founded his solo career. If, in the early '60s, musicians like Dave Brubeck and the Modern Jazz Quartet were sending jazz to college, musicians like Person and Hammond were taking it out to bars and dance clubs. In 1968, Houston's band was hired to back the vocalist Etta Jones.

The pairing was fateful. Jones and Person went on to play thousands of gigs together -- often more than 200 a year.

In his collaborations with Jones, Person realized his talent for duet. At their best, like the Grammy-nominated My Buddy: The Songs of Buddy Johnson, their lines would often dovetail as his horn finished her musical thoughts, revealing an almost telepathic sensitivity to her voice.

The collaboration ended when Jones died last October. In her obituaries, many journalists mistook them for husband and wife, which speaks as much to the state of journalism as to their inseparability.

"I love the duet setting," he said, and three albums with the legendary bassist Ron Carter (the third of which, titled Dialogues, is due out this year) testify to that. "It's especially wonderful with Ron, because we know each other so well; we hardly have to rehearse. We just run through a little bit and then let it go." They play strictly as a duo and the absence of a chordal instrument, like an organ or piano, is striking. The starkness makes Person's blues sound lonelier and, well, bluer.

What can we expect on Tuesday, when Denver's Eric Gunnison Trio backs him at the Fine Arts Center? "A little of everything," he said. "Eric and I have been playing together for 15 years. It all comes naturally. We're just going to try and run the gamut."

And what, if anything, unites his six decades of jazz excursions? "Well, I try to bring all of my experiences to everything I do. I like to make sure people enjoy themselves. And I try to keep it bluesy."

-- Peter Jacoby

  • Jazz legend Houston Person soldiers on

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