Two or three new jazz clubs open each year in Atlanta without much fanfare or notice, and they tend to disappear soon after they arrive. Jazz musicians emerge and grow without a great deal of public notice, but tend to travel elsewhere to make a living unless they are able and willing to perform multiple genres, take a day job or teach. Competition for paying gigs is high, and many musicians demonstrate little staying power. Trumpeter Danny Harper, however, has proven the exception — a consistent and prominent force, fundamental to the Atlanta jazz scene for the past 12 years.
There are a lot of clichés and misconceptions when it comes to jazz and jazz clubs. One imagines a dark, smoke-filled room filled with terminally hip poets and jazz snobs. But Harper exudes the polar opposite of pretension as he mentors, entertains, teaches and inspires via his weekly jazz jam session held Tuesday nights in the Whisper Room of the Churchill Grounds Jazz Café. This oasis for jazz offers all the ambiance, romance and artistry one might expect from a big-city jazz club, without the smoke or attitude.
Harper almost quit the jam sessions after the first couple of years, but his brother and fellow trumpet player Philip prevailed on him to keep them going, because where else could new jazz musicians in Atlanta gain stage experience? “I had to think about it long and hard,” Harper says. “My motives for quitting would have been more selfish-oriented. After giving it some thought I decided he was right, and I did my best to hang on to it to keep helping cultivate young musicians coming on the scene.”
Twelve years on, many of those musicians are now professional and performing around the world. Several, such as local bass player Ramon Pooser, doubt that they would have become jazz musicians if it wasn’t for Harper’s influence and mentorship.
While focused on straight-ahead jazz tradition, Harper’s jams have brought out a diverse group over the years, including seasoned jazz and blues vocalists, up-and-coming young musicians and cutting-edge jazz stylists, and he has provided many local musicians their start. The sessions have attracted a wide variety of ages and cultures: locals, tourists and quite a few celebrities, from jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and hip-hop star Ludacris to singers India Arie and Liz Wright and movie stars Clint Eastwood and Winona Ryder.
On Sunday, Harper will receive the inaugural “Jazz Hero” award from the Atlanta chapter of the Jazz Journalists Association, an international group with more than 450 members. For the past 15 years, the association has hosted an annual awards ceremony in New York City to honor excellence in jazz music, recordings, presentation and journalism. Atlanta will hold its first satellite party for these awards at Churchill Grounds at 7 p.m. (Disclosure: I will be one of the hosts of the event.)
Harper is the eldest brother of the Harper family, which also produced one of the most popular jazz groups of the late 1980s and early ’90s: the Harper Brothers, featuring drummer Winard and trumpeter Philip. Danny Harper received a degree in music education from Atlanta’s Morris Brown College and fell under the wing of jazz legend Donald Byrd, who encouraged him to go to New York and study with pianist and bebop scholar Barry Harris. While living there in the mid-’80s, Harper led the house band at the legendary Blue Note jazz club, hosting its midnight jam sessions.
He returned to Atlanta to complete a master’s degree in music and jazz studies at Georgia State University. In 2000, he approached Churchill Grounds owner Sam Yi with the proposal for the weekly jam sessions, which Yi gladly accepted.
Harper’s sessions are signature events at Churchill Grounds, long Atlanta’s premier jazz club, and they are significant to its success. The artists Harper has mentored include saxophonist Sherman Irby, who went on to play with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; trumpeter Lee Hogans, who went on to play with Prince, Jill Scott, Jaz-Z and Diddy; and saxophonist and pianist Brian Hogans, now performing with the Sean Jones Quintet.
“After helping coach and teach my brothers, I decided to go underground and teach a lot of guys one on one, privately,” Harper says. “I’m teaching a lot of local guys here in Atlanta by the use of this jam session, as well as my two sons that are coming along and playing now. I have 12 complete years and I’m working on Year 13, and pretty soon I’m looking forward to my son taking it over.”
Ask just about any jazz musician in Atlanta about Danny Harper, and most will eagerly tell you that he has inspired or mentored them in some way and encouraged them to keep going and keep playing. “It’s been tough sometimes, but he has remained true to his goal — to make sure that people properly learn the jazz tradition and to provide them with a good foundation,” says Harper’s wife, Terry, a jazz vocalist. “He is naturally an educator; that’s just who he is.”
Harper will soon be focused on Birmingham, where he hopes to invigorate that city’s jazz scene. “I’m trying to create a jazz program at Miles College in Fairfield, which is right next door to Birmingham,” he says. The Churchill Grounds sessions will continue under the leadership of his son, Daniel Terence Harper. And the circle of influence continues.