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Preview of the UTA Staten Island Jazz Festival

Joining me to talk about The Universal Temple of the Arts (UTA) 35th Staten Island Jazz Festival is the music director and producer, Dr. Darrell Smith and the esteemed tenor saxophonist, composer, producer and band leader, Billy Harper, who is the festival headliner. This year Billy and his Quintet have been celebrating his 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his renowned debut album Capra Black. The Universal Temple of the Arts 35th annual Staten Island Jazz Festivalwill be held on Friday, December 15 from 7 to 10 pm at the historic St. George Theatre.

In keeping with their mission, UTA is honoring individuals whose work and leadership have positively impacted the community and have spiritually supported people of all ages and circumstances. The honorees are The Reverend Dr. Demetrius S. Carolina, The Reverend Dr. Agnes M. McBeth, Bishop Laverne Larkins-Owens, The Reverend Dr. Alfred Correra and Dr. Reverend Terry Troia. Also performing at the festival will be Nabaté Isle, the Santi Debriano Septet, The DLG Trio, Winard Harper & Jeli Posse, The Universal Temple of the Arts All Star Jazz Ensemble and others. I look forward to hosting this wonderful festival.

Listen to our conversation, above.


Interview transcript:

Sheila Anderson:  Darryl, I want to start with you. I want to talk about the festival and how long you've been involved with it. Full disclosure, I'm the emcee and I’m looking forward to that.

Dr. Darrell Smith: I've been a part of the Staten Island Jazz Festival for the last 12 years. I started playing it in my early twenties. Over the last couple of years, after the passing of its founder, Sajda Musawwir, I took over as the producer and the music director of the whole festival. I'm in charge of producing the talent and bringing people to my beloved island of Staten Island. Over the last couple of years with some of my background and foundations here in New York City, I've gotten some amazing players to come and play, including those who are playing at this upcoming festival, like Mr. Billy Harper.

In years past, we've had many greats like Randy Weston, Barry Harris, Reggie Workman and several other jazz masters that have come out and performed with our festival, as well as up and coming new artists like Nikara Warren, Bria Skonberg, Winard Harper, and others. This year we have an array of guests, including trumpeter Nabaté Isle, bassist Santi DeBriano, vocalist Antoinette Montague, drummer Winard Harper & Jeli Posse and several other special guests that will be joining us.

The headliner of the festival is a man whom I've known for over 20 years and admired greatly. I love your music. I love you.  I want to read a quote about your album Capra Black. “Capra Black remains one of the seminal recordings of jazz's Black consciousness movement, a profoundly spiritual effort that channels both the intellectual complexity of the avant garde, as well as the emotional potency of gospel. Its focus and assurance belie Billy Harper's experience as a leader.” How do you respond to that? It's now celebrating 50 years. Let's go back to 1973, when you made this recording.

Billy Harper: What comes to mind with Capra Black is that I remember when I was writing this, I wanted it to be a modern progressive kind of thing, but also have a grounded kind of thing. Underneath, I thought of the rhythm—bang, dang, dang, dong, dong, dong. In a way that kind of sounds a little like Indian or Native American. I like that kind of rhythm. And that's the rhythm that's basically under Capra Black.

Speaking of songs, one of my favorite songs of yours is “The Priestess.” That song really, no matter whether I hear you performing it or someone else, just lingers for hours after I've heard it. Talk about that song.

“The Priestess” has different forms, actually. We could play that form that sounds a little frisky. Another version of it that sounds moody. But I think the melody is, in the long run, what people hear.

Is it true that it came to you after hearing a commercial song, a song that had the words, “I want you around my arms.”

It’s my “Now That I’ve Found You.” I haven't sung that myself in ages. I usually write the lyrics because when I was little, I was singing, before I even got the horn. So, if I hear a melody, it's probably gonna be a singing kind of thing. Those are the ones that people like best.

You started out as a singer. At what age did you pick up the horn?

I was 11, but they had me on stage since I was three, singing.

Did you grow up in the church?


You hail from Houston. There's something about the water there in Houston because y'all are some soulful musicians. Do you have an idea why?

Yes, there are so many musicians there and a lot of churches there too. If you're small and your parents are upcoming, you're going to go to church.

Your uncle grew up with Kenny Dorham, is that right? And they worked together as well?

Well, no, I think they were just friends. But he heard Kenny a lot. As soon as I started playing, he had me listening to Kenny Dorham.

You started playing horn at 11, but you formed a quintet when you were 14. Were you working a lot? To get a quintet together at 14, that's pretty impressive.

Well, the music was so interesting to all the musicians. So they wanted to play it. When we were on our little talent shows in school, we played. A lot of the kids, of course, wanted to hear something a little more popular. But we had some listeners.

What year did you come to New York and who was the first musician that you got to work with?

As soon as I got here, in my head, I wanted to work with Art Blakey to start with. I was in North Texas State University in Denton, Texas, and when I came in 1965 or something like that, I went directly to hear something with Art Blakey and I got a chance to make a rehearsal with him. Once I made the rehearsal, I was in the band.

And Lee Morgan was on trumpet at the time, right?

Yes, I also played with Lee later.

You were on Lee’s last recording. I keep looking at you and I keep thinking that you can't be 80 years old. You look like you're 60 or 65.

It's amazing. I used to run a lot, jogging every morning, so it might've helped.

Who is going to be in your band at the jazz festival? It’s amazing that they've been with you for so long. That shows how much they love you and your music. Talk about who's in the group.

One of the people who's been there for 40 years was Francesca Tanksley. She knows everything about the music and how to make different feelings and so forth. On drums, Aaron Scott, who's played with me quite a while, and Benjamin Young on bass, and, of course, Freddie Hendrix, who's been with the group a long time on trumpet. A lot of guys want to just feature their one horn, so they have quartets. But I always hear trumpet. I've always liked the trumpet. I heard it with Kenny Durham, with Lee Morgan and so on. I just hear trumpet with tenor.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


In 1995 Sheila E. Anderson joined the staff of WBGO in Newark, New Jersey where she hosts Weekend Jazz Overnight and Salon Sessions. She has authored four books: The Quotable Musician: From Bach to Tupac (2003), How to Grow as A Musician: What All Musicians Must Know to Succeed (2005) (both published by Allworth Press), The Little Red Book of Musicians Wisdom (Skyhorse Press, 2012) and the 2nd edition of How to Grow as A Musician was published in 2019,

In addition to curating jazz at the Newark Museum of Art, Ms. Anderson is a 2017 Columbia University Community Scholar, an inaugural Dan
Morgenstern Fellow by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark
(2020), is a graduate of Baruch College and resides in Harlem, NYC.