Funk Master General

Who would have thought they'd still be listening to Chocomotive 35 years later? Not Houston Person. In the 1960s, saxophonist Person was a man among grooves, a jazz tenor player more than cozy with blues and funk. Last year, under the banner of Legends of Acid Jazz, Prestige reissued his 1967-69 recordings—including Chocomotive—as Trust in Me. DJs find Person's early music a good fit with the drum-and-bass crowd; pop producers looking for a soulful riff can find one here. As he was 30 years ago, Person is again being celebrated as the "funk master general" of jazz.

"Who would have guessed at the time?" asks Person, who'll shake up the usually demure lineup at the Newport Beach Jazz Party this weekend. In a morning phone call from his home in upstate New York, he sounds just like you'd expect a jazz man to sound before noon: tired. Considered. Maybe a bit cranky.

"It's great to know today's kids can still hear it," he says. "And I'm glad that this music lasted this long. I've always thought the great tunes will survive, will stand the test of time."

His reputation has survived as well. Person has been pigeonholed over the years as a big-toned blues player in the gutbucket tradition of Gene "Jug" Ammons. But a listen to any of his recordings since the '70s shows how narrow a notion that is. Person has cut hard bop with pianist Cedar Walton and new bop with next-generation cats including the Harper Brothers and organist Joey DeFrancesco. He has done an acclaimed pair of duet recordings with bassist Ron Carter, known as the dean of bassists since his days with Miles Davis. His most recent recording, Blue Velvet on the High Note label, casts him as a ballad player who knows how to get to the heart of the matter.

Oh, yeah—and he's done a lot of blues. But he insists that's only part of his persona. "People don't know me," he complains. "Most of the critics call me a blues player. They're just lazy. Now, I love the blues, but it's only one of the elements of good jazz."

He pauses for a second. "Actually, it makes me feel proud to hear them call me a blues player, even though I know they're doing it in a derogatory sense," he admits. "'Oh, he's just a blues player.' It doesn't bother me.

"I don't get with the labels. I know people like melodies, and that's what I'm doing. Playing nice melodies—that's my approach."

Read the jazz guides on Person, and you might believe that he grew up caring little for music, didn't like piano lessons and played in military bands while he served in the Army.

"No, I loved music as a kid," he contradicts. "We always had music around the house. I started collecting records when I was just a little guy—gospel, blues, jazz—and kept right on collecting. Still do."

He didn't get into performance, though, until he was 15, when his father gave him a saxophone. "I got right into the school band. High school sports was starting to get too rough anyway," he laughs.

Nor did he play parades in uniform. "I was just a regular service guy, stationed near Heidelberg, Germany," he says. "We'd get time off, we'd go into town and play together."

Still, his fellow enlisted men were no musical slouches, especially in the horn section. "Cedar Walton was in the band, [saxophonists] Eddie Harris, Lanny Morgan, [Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie sideman] Leo Wright, Don Menza were there. None of these guys were big yet; they were just in the service. When they came out, they did great things," he says. "Yeah, they were the real item, and I was just starting out. But they helped me a lot."

Once out of the service, Person began studying at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. There, he was introduced to organist Johnny Hammond in 1963 and spent three years touring with Hammond's combo.

Many of his recordings—especially his blues sides—included Person's vocalist wife Etta Jones, who began working with him in the '60s and died this past October. Person says he still doesn't know how to react to questions about her. "We were together 35 years. That's all I can say," he says. "That explains everything. I could have stood another 35, but that isn't the way it turned out. She was always with me."

Person, now 67, is looking forward to embracing his reputation as a bluesman in his next recordings. "I'm going to do an all-blues album, get some organ in there, do it with my [regular band], guys who really know what I do. And I want to do more albums in the vein of Blue Velvet, lots more of those, all in the vein of the American Songbook, so to speak."

But what about funk? "I play that all the time," he answers slyly.

Houston Person appears each night of the Newport Beach Jazz Party at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel, 900 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-5003. Fri.-Sun., 7-11:30 p.m. (Call for lineup and times.) Three-day passes, $250-$275; individual events, $40-$65.

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