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His Smile Says It All

Known For Being Infectiously Upbeat, Percussionist To Play Season Opener

By Owen McNally

July 06, 2012

You probably aren't ever going to see many, if any, drummers who are happier, more dynamically expressive or wittily inventive than Winard Harper, the celebrated percussionist and bandleader who returns to Hartford on Monday night to launch the Hartford Jazz Society's free "Monday Night Jazz Series in Bushnell Park."

As the headliner for the season opener for the weekly, six-part Monday night series, Harper leads a band with Hartford musicians trumpeter Josh Evans, saxophonist Javon Alexander and bassist Stephen Porter.

Besides the Hartfordites, all of whom have played regularly in Harper's top-ranked ensembles, the band features the acclaimed, young Japanese pianist Tada Unno, Senegalese percussionist Alioune Faye and the 21-year-old singing sensation with the hippest sounding jazz name, Jazzmeia Horn.

A student at New York's New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, Horn is already being acclaimed as a rising star.

Harper and his talented young friends hit at 7:30 p.m. at the park's Thomas D. Harris IV Pavilion, preceded by the legendary Hartford pianist Emery A. Smith leading his trio in the opening set at 6 p.m.

Although he hasn't played in the capital city for some time, Harper still feels a deep connection with the city where he and his brother, trumpeter Philip Harper, studied as young men in the early 1980s with Jackie McLean at the late, legendary alto saxophonist's pioneering jazz program at the University of Hartford's Hartt School.

"That was a very important period for me since Jackie was one of the guys we grew up listening to. I learned a lot from Jackie about the jazz legacy, about the history of the music and the history of Africa. It was Jackie and his wife, Dollie, who sent us over to teach at the Artists Collective (the community arts and cultural learning center in Hartford founded by Jackie McLean), which was the first time that we did some teaching, and was an invaluable experience for us," Harper says by phone from Cincinnati, a stop on his current tour with the trombonist/bandleader Delfeayo Marsalis.

"My brother and I always had a lot of respect for what Jackie and Dollie were doing for the community, and that carried over to what I've been doing and continue to do today, reaching out into the community and giving opportunity to young people," he says.

Harper's college days at Hartt were cut short when he got the call to go on the road with the great tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. It was an opportunity of a lifetime for the young drummer, one that led to a series of much coveted stints as a sideman with an array of jazz greats ranging from Betty Carter (a formative four-year learning period) to Pharoah Sanders.

After learning the ropes from Carter, Winard hooked up with his brother Philip and formed their own trailblazing band, The Harper Brothers.

In more recent years as a successful maestro who magically mixes modern jazz traditions with innovative uses of Caribbean and African rhythms, Harper has toured and recorded with his own acclaimed, hard-swinging, young bands. In the tradition of his mentor McLean and drummer Art Blakey, Harper's combos have become hothouses for nurturing young talents, including an elite corps from Hartford.

Asked why his music seems to make him as happy as it does his audience, this drummer, who has the most luminous smile and shows the greatest joy at the drums since the famously upbeat and brilliant Billy Higgins, says: "When you know you're serving a great meal to people, you're happy about it. So, you don't want to serve that kind of meal with a frown on your face. You want people to feel as good about it as you do."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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