Jazz drummer Winard Harper leads his own group known as Jeli Posse in performances around the United States while also playing and recording with many great jazz artists such as the well-known Delfeayo Marsalis and Jimmy Heath. Winard’s first big performance was in 1982 where he played alongside Dexter Gordon and he went on to spend four years as a drummer for the legendary singer Betty Carter. This experience prepared him to be a bandleader and in the late 1980s, Winard partnered with his brother, Philip, to launch the Harper Brothers. The group subsequently went on to become one of the hottest jazz groups in the world. Additionally, Winard served as a drummer for Dr. Billy Taylor whilst also headlining at prestigious venues such as the Kennedy Center and Yoshi’s Jazz Club.
Winard is still going strong; his most recent CD, Co-Exist, reached to top of the JazzWeek charts shortly after its release in 2013. Moreover, the album made Jeli Posse highly in-demand to play at festivals, concerts and jazz clubs. In mid-September of 2016, Winard received the Hot House Jazz Award for Favorite Drummer. Winard is passionate about the power and spirituality of jazz, its ability to bring people together and its capabilities of easing the daily tensions of the world and his warm personality and virtuosic playing demonstrate these concepts daily. Recently, Winard spoke about his experiences working as a musician and his hopes for the future:
AXS: How and when did you decide to become a jazz musician?
WH: When I was only three or four years old, my father encouraged me to take up the drums, which I did. By the time I was five, I was playing well enough to sit in with my older brother Danny’s band. I think the real turning point for me came when I was around ten or eleven when I heard a record by Max Roach whose group at the time included the great Clifford Jordan. I was fascinated by what Max could do and so I started listening to everything he recorded. I became hooked on the music early on but I can’t truly say there was one particular moment when I decided to become a jazz musician.
AXS: Growing up, what kinds of music interested you?
WH: In school I listened to and played all types of music from classical to Gospel. I participated in everything my schools had to offer from the symphony orchestra to the marching band. I loved the snare parts in Sousa marches, but I also enjoyed much of the classical music repertoire. And I really enjoyed listening to popular music from R&B to rock with a particular attraction to some of the great musicians of the seventies including Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind & Fire. Some Wonder classics are still part of my group’s repertoire.
AXS: How would you describe your music and what inspires it?
WH: Our music is joyful. I really believe that jazz is powerful and spiritual and it can do a lot of good for people. The essence of jazz is improvisation which means that both the musicians and the audience have to play close attention to what each person is expressing. It’s really democracy at work. In jazz, everyone not only must be able to step forward to solo, but just as importantly, they have to accompany and compliment what everyone else is doing. Through jazz, we can influence people to listen to and compliment or support others. It pushes everyone to work together so we hope in a small way that our music makes the world a better place. The music can tell a story, create a mood or just bring happiness to people.
AXS: How did you go about finding places to perform?
WH: The answer to that question is not straightforward. Often booking agents or club owners will reach out to us for a booking. At other times, we hear about a great place to play through other musicians so our own booking agents will let people know that the band is available. I have a regular weekly gig at Moore’s Lounge in my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey, but still spend a great deal of time on the road either with Jeli Posse or as the drummer for a leading jazz artist.
AXS: How did you get involved with On Stage at Kingsborough?
WH: The Executive Director for On Stage, Anna Becker, heard the group and gave me a call. The timing worked well because we had an opportunity to bring the great singer Denise Thimes to New York so she will be joining us for this performance.
AXS: Put of all your music, do you have a favorite song? What is your favorite song, period?
WH: That’s an impossible question to answer because my favorite song changes almost daily. One day it may be a ballad, another day a hard-driving classic, who knows? And asking if I have a favorite among my own compositions is like asking me if I have a favorite among my ten children. Each one is different, yet special. How can I choose? I can’t and I really don’t want to have to choose. I love all music whether I’m playing or listening.
AXS: To date, what has been the most rewarding experience involving your musical career?
WH: Wow! I’ve had so many rewarding experiences over the years. I am truly blessed to have worked with some giants of jazz who have not only influenced me, but inspired me including Dr. Billy Taylor, Betty Carter, Frank Wess and Jimmy Heath. And it’s always very rewarding to me to work with young people, particularly for school time programs. Recently we have had a close relationship with the WBGO Kids Jazz Concert Series and it is special to be able to introduce this great music to young children.
AXS: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to become a jazz musician?
WH: Both Dr. Billy Taylor and Betty Carter gave me lots of wonderful advice which I always share with aspiring young musicians. First and foremost, of course, is to practice hard to be the best you can be. With Betty, I learned consistency and persistence. She taught me a lot about the business side of jazz and I tell young musicians that it is just as important to pay attention to your work as a small business owner as it is about your work on the bandstand. With Dr. Taylor I learned the importance of being a good listener and a good person. If you are both a good player and a good person, then you will get the calls to work. You have to be a part of team and learn to work well with others. The life of a jazz musician is not an easy one, but there isn’t anything I would rather do.
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