Houston Person still remembers the day in 1950 that changed his life. He was a typical 16-year-old in his hometown of Florence, South Carolina. He sang in the high-school choir and glee club, but he was mostly interested in football and basketball. Then, Christmas morning, his parents gave him a surprise gift: a tenor saxophone.
"I don't know why," says Person, by phone from his home in Great Neck, Long Island. "I've often thought about it as I've gotten older. I don't know if it was preordained or what."
Sixty-three years, hundreds of albums, and thousands of concerts later, his life and career remain centered around the tenor sax. When it comes to soul-jazz, Person has been at the top of the genre for six decades. Through all the different styles coursing through those decades — from hard bop, through fusion, to avant-garde — Person has been steadfast in his dedication.
"I know that I always wanted to play pretty," says Person. "The guys used to call it 'sweet horn.' When I was in college you had to play everything — 'Night Train,' 'Flying Home' — and then you had to play the pretty stuff like 'Stardust.'"
Person has kept it pretty, but he has always done it with commanding style and muscular tone. "The biggest sound in the world — I wanted it," he says.
When Person began his career in the mid-1960's it was a time of upheaval in the jazz world. Players like John Coltrane were taking the tenor saxophone on a ride to the stratosphere.
"Ornette Coleman and others were farther out than 'Trane," says Person. "Everybody was doing their own thing. The only thing that I believe in is natural evolution — it's not contrived. Coltrane paid all of his dues. He went through a natural evolution. He came out of the rhythm and blues bands."
But while Coltrane, Coleman, and others greats like Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter were playing abstract solos miles from the tune's actual notes, Person never strayed too far.
"I'm really just trying to reshape the melody," says Person. "I believe in the melody. I try to play these great melodies that also have great lyrics. I read those lyrics and get what I think the song means and what the composer meant for it to be, and then I want to get right in the middle of all of that and add just a little bit."
Sometimes even a little bit is too much. On his 2011 album, "So Nice," he recorded Stephen Sondheim's "Anyone Can Whistle." "I did straight melody," says Person. "A lot of songs are so beautiful, you don't have to add anything."
He may not be pushing the envelope, but few saxophonists can boast a gorgeous sound like Person's, recalling that of Gene Ammons and Stan Getz. On his latest album, "Naturally," Person injects a bit more into classics like "My Foolish Heart" and "That's All." "I improvised solos that were more bluesy than jazzy," he says.
The blues influence is not surprising considering that blues was on the radio when Person was growing up. Add some classical and gospel and you've got the roots of his sound. "Every home had a piano," says Person. "My mother played piano and I took lessons."
Person switched to sax lessons after receiving his tenor, but his real jazz education came several years later during his military service. Stationed in West Germany in the mid-1950's, Person played in a band with some future jazz greats.
"That was my learning experience," says Person. "Eddie Harris was very helpful to me. Cedar Walton — every weekend we played together. And Don Menza was there, too. We had a lot of fun and I learned everything from those guys." Six decades after his military experience, Walton is the pianist on Person's latest album.
His saxophone prowess developed further at the University of Hartford's Hartt School in Connecticut. "They didn't have any jazz there, it was strictly classical," says Person, who still loves the great composers. "I would lean toward Bach and then the French guys, Debussy and Ravel, and then Franz Liszt — he was an improviser. So was Bach; I don't know how he came up with those things every Sunday."
Person did not have too many encounters with the more experimental side of jazz, although in 1984 he recorded an album with adventurous pianist Ran Blake. "We went to school at the same time," Person says. "He was at Bard and he'd come up to Hartford to hang out. He's far out but he's far in, too. He kept on top of the roots of jazz, gospel music, and blues. He's a little like Cecil Taylor, plus he's a wonderful guy."
Person's longest musical association was with singer Etta Jones. They performed together for 35 years, until her death in 2001. What was the secret of their longevity?
"She felt comfortable," says Person. "She was a great singer. I always tried to get her to go out on her own, but she was comfortable in that situation. She didn't want the hassles of leading a group. She had no ego. I played half a set and she played half a set."
Most musical careers have ebbs and flows; artists who are hot one year sometimes can't find an audience the next. But Person has never had a lull.
"I've had a good run," says Person, who is now in his late 70s. "I formed personal relationships by booking the band myself. I learned early that I could blow my own horn better than anybody else, so I got out there and did it.
"Now I've got to figure out a way to slow down. I just went on a whirlwind West Coast tour," Person says. "I can't do that anymore, but I'm doing it. I play wherever. Whenever they call, I'm there."