Music. Art. Culture. Writing.
George Harper was an aerospace software programmer and contributed to the Space Shuttle project before pursuing jazz full-time in the 1990s. He recorded with Doug Carn on Black Jazz Records in the early 1970s, part of an influential African-spiritual jazz music that at the time outsold better-known jazz artists Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis, and accompanied Ray Charles from 2000-2004. Harper also performed with Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws and Jimmy Smith, among others. He passed away in 2014 at the age of 71. I had the pleasure of meeting George and talking with him about music and life at his home in Los Angeles.
“I majored in mathematics and worked in aerospace for over 25 years, and they say music and mathematics hit it off. Since I got out of aerospace in ’95 I wanted to go full-time music. My family was grown, they had their own families, and I said okay, now is my time. You have high periods and low periods, but fortunately with all those years in aerospace I got some money coming in. I can even be choosey about the gigs I take. Take care of my overhead you know, whether I hit a note or not.
“Even though I was working in aerospace, some stuff would come up. Like recording sessions and other gigs. I did a session with Henry (Franklin) and wrote a tune called Shalabongo. It means it’s up to god. Henry wanted me to name it that title because he wanted to name his CD that title. I liked the terminology so I said no problem.
“The first time I met Henry was in the ’70s. I happened to run into him on some gigs, doing some local gigs. He would play bass and I played sax and we’d just get creative when we played. I’m on two or three of his CDs. We’d take standards and get creative, free it up. He’d throw in his stuff and I’d throw in mine. That’s a great thing to do from time to time, it really helps your creativity further down the line.
“With people I like listening to, like John Coltrane, they always open up their minds to different concepts. Coltrane is the number one cat to me. He really grew and kept growing all the way to the end. His concepts in his later years, he was playing on the outside, because he already done everything on the inside. He just had that kind of mind. And right now, there’s nobody out there that’s doing anything new. Coltrane did it all.
“Back in Richmond, Virginia, I had a buddy named George Walker. We met on the bus one time coming from a gig, late at night, only two of us on the bus. He was whistling some bebop and I was like, who is this? We got off at the same stop and it turned out he lived about a block from me. He invited me to his place and he had all the cats coming to his basement. He had me copy stuff off the records–this was when I was still in high school–and that’s how I got my ear.”