Great Moments With Mr. Rockefeller: Billy Harper, Garth Brooks and Sonny Rollins

[Ed. Note: To help spread the word about next Friday's benefit for the Houston International Festival's education programs at Rockefeller Hall, featuring Texas Johnny Brown and Marcia Ball, Rocks Off asked iFest director of performing arts and former Houston Chronicle music critic Rick Mitchell to reminisce about the most memorable shows he saw at the venerable Washington Avenue music hall. See more information here or here.]

Billy Harper Quartet: "The Houston-born jazz saxophonist had come to town the night before to take part in a tribute to Arnett Cobb, the great Texas tenor saxophonist who had died in 1989 (the month before I got here), at the Miller Outdoor Theater.

"This was Harper doing his own thing - intense, ecstatic, extended post-Coltrane saxophone improvisations powerful enough to storm the barricades of heaven, and featuring the late Malcolm Pinson, Houston's answer to Art Blakey, thundering on drums. There weren't that many people in the club, but the band didn't care. This was between the musicians and God. My friend Aaron Cohen, the former music director at KTSU, and I were standing up at our table and hollering. Aaron kept repeating, "That's the shit! That's the shit!"

Garth Brooks: "Right. Before he sold out the Astrodome, before he flew out of the rafters at the Cotton Bowl, before he became the best-selling country artist of all time, Garth played Rockefeller's. Although he later caught a lot of flak from purists who complained that he turned country music into pop spectacle, Garth's first couple of albums were pretty much neo-traditional honky-tonk.

"But you could see from his live sets where this was headed. In the confines of a small club, he seemed to have the ability to look everyone right in the eye, from the front row to the back of the balcony, and this rock-star magnetism was something new and necessary for country music. He encored with a rocking Billy Joel tune, 'You May Be Right.' I think the last line of my review was something like, "Welcome to the '90s, Bubba." For once, I was right."

Sonny Rollins Quartet: "My usual listening post at Rockefeller's was to the left of the bar, next to the waitress station where they stacked up the dirty glasses. As long I knew enough to stay out of the way, I could stand there and take notes. And so I stood in awe about 30 feet from the stage as the greatest living jazz improviser of his time, who was in his late fifties then and still a physical specimen of strength and stamina, played more saxophone than I've ever seen anyone do before or since.

"His post-'60s albums have never fully captured his greatness. If there are burn marks on the ceiling above the stage, it would be from the heat coming out of his horn that night."

Stay tuned for more Great Moments With Mr. Rockefeller Wednesday and Friday.

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