Harold Ousley


Get your hands together, let’s give a warm applause for Harold Ousley. The tenor saxophonist, born in Chicago in 1929, worked under the radar for much of his professional life. The names Ousley is affiliated with nonetheless say a lot about his capabilities. Ousley played with Billie Holiday, Gene Ammons, Miles Davis and Bud Powell. He operated in the r&b field in the 50s, recording with Dinah Washington and cooperating with Ruth Brown, Billy Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis. Ousley is featured on a couple of records by organist Brother Jack McDuff in the 60s and made a notable appearance on drummer Grassella Oliphant’s The Grass Roots in 1967, contributing no less than five tunes. He debuted as a leader on Bethlehem in 1960 with Tenor Sax, featuring baritone saxophonist Charles Davis, a solid album of mainstream jazz. See my review here.

It took Ousley twelve years to record a sophomore effort. Ousley added greasy funk to his mainstream jazz menu on The Kid (Cobblestone 1971) and Sweet Double Hipness (Muse 1972/80), which display a remarkable ability to sustain the pocket. All in all, Ousley’s discography consists of six albums as a leader. During the 1970s, Ousley was subsequently part of the Lionel Hampton and Count Basie bands. Ousley’s style is soulful, flexible and witty. His resonant and husky sound is very attractive. Attractive is a term that’s not inappropriate for some of Ousley’s record sleeves as well:

All joking and wanking apart, there has always been plenty of competition in the tenor sax department, which might have been one of the reasons why Ousley made a career switch in the 80s. He hosted the cable tv show Harold Ousley Presents and developed music therapy formats for the educational system.

Although his book isn’t extended, Ousley’s writing skills stand out. Both Oliphant and McDuff took a liking to his tunes, respectively recording five (on one album) and four Ousley compositions. He effectively combined quirky blues lines with stop time on One For The Masses and Mrs. O from Grassella Oliphant’s The Grass Roots. Ousley wrote a couple of nifty, danceable Latin-flavored tunes. Haitian Lady appeared on both Oliphant’s album and McDuff’s Walk On By, which also features the lively Carribean groove For Those Who Choose. Also from Oliphant’s album is the avant-leaning The Descendant, which wouldn’t have been out of place on some of the progressive records on Blue Note in the mid-sixties.

Ousley recorded his final album Grit-Gittin’ Feelin’ on Delmark in 2000. He passed away in 2015.

Harold Ousley Tenor Sax (Bethlehem 1960)

Tenor saxophonist Harold Ousley combined relaxed, flowing, bluesy lines with a rich, resonant sound. Tenor Sax is his only album as a leader in the sixties.

Harold Ousley - Tenor Sax


Harold Ousley (tenor sax), Charles Davis (baritone sax), Julian Priester (trombone), Philip Wright (piano), Thomas Williams (bass), Walter Perkins (drums)


in 1960 in NYC


as Bethlehem 6059 in 1960

Track listing

Side A:
Paris Sunday
At Last
Lush Life
Side B:
Struttin’ To Truckin’
Porter’s Groove

Ousley died of unknown causes last year, on August 13, 2015. Born in Chicago, Ousley turned professional in the late fourties, working in circus bands. In the fifties and sixties, Ousley played with Gene Ammons, Billy Holiday, Howard McGhee, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Dinah Washington and organist Jack McDuff. With the reign of fusion and rock in the early seventies, work for tenor saxophonists like Ousley had become quite scarce. Ousley nevertheless held chairs in the big bands of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, while recording a few albums as a leader of jazzfunk ensembles. Ousley continued working in r&b and blues for the rest of his career, playing with Big Maybelle, Ruth Brown, Percy Mayfield, George Benson, Jimmy Witherspoon and organist Bill Doggett.

Ousley also teached jazz programs in schools and developed a method of ‘music as therapy’. Alledgedly, Ousley appeared in the (depending on your taste, silly or wryly funny) blaxploitation movie Cotton Comes To Harlem in 1970. But Ousley is difficult to detect. Not to say, impossible. He isn’t credited. I’m beginning to suspect that the journalists who reported Ousley’s supporting role in their eulogies of Ousley last summer have been putting on the Flophouse Floor Manager. (So if you’ve watched the movie and have found the appearance of Ousley, please report and bust this utterly important jazz myth…)

More work in showbiz followed, as Ousley hosted a cable tv show in the early nineties, Harold Ousley Presents, joining the ranks of fellow musicians Johnny Cash, Tom Jones and Ernest Tubb, who all hosted shows at one time or another in their careers.

I’m really fond of Ousley’s marshmellow sound. He’s a gentle player with sly humour, who stays in the middle register for most of the time and favors a slightly dragging beat. Ousley is comfortable with rapid, multi-note lines as well. Of his scarce work as a recording sideman, his appearance on drummer Grassella Oliphant’s The Grass Roots (Atlantic 1965) is easily his best, a successful symbiosis of sound and style. He also contributed five tunes for that album, among them Haitian Lady and One For The Masses, which Ousley would re-visit later on; the contagious, bossa-fied hard bop tune Haitian Lady would appear on Brother Jack McDuff’s Walk On By (Prestige 1966). (Ousley contributed three tunes to that album and played on a number of McDuff sessions for Prestige, probably as a sub for Red Holloway) One For The Masses returned on both Ousley’s jazzfunk albums from 1972, The Kid and Sweet Double Hipness.

Ousley’s elegant, lush playing style is already present on Tenor Sax. His tenor mixes nicely with the other two reed instruments, resulting in a warm, full-bodied group sound. The rhythm section keeps a good groove. But they are playing it pretty safe, accenting the basic formula of theme-solo’s-theme as if they’re fresh out of music college, careful not to step on anyone’s toes.

Priester, one of the most promising trombonists at that time in his career, is swift and imposing. Charles Davis speaks huskily, eloquently. Surprise lurks around the corners of Ousley’s lines, and he embellishes the mid-and uptempo tunes with patiently executed, bluesy phrases. Those attractive mid-and uptempo tunes, like Paris Sunday, are set opposite a most satisfactory, intimate, breathy version of the classic ballad Lush Life.

Nice tenor work. It’s quite incomprehensible that it took the tenor saxophonist twelve years to follow up Tenor Sax with another album under his own name.

Grassella Oliphant The Grass Is Greener (Atlantic 1967)

It gets to you. That slow draggin’ beat of Get Out My Life, Woman that makes you think you’re listening to an alternative backing track of the Allen Touissant tune as performed by Lee Dorsey with Clark Terry ‘singing’ through his pocket trumpet, flavored with the lazy horns that state the well-known theme and the added bonus of John Patton’s greasy organ. A surprising start to a hip record by obscure drummer Grassella Oliphant.

Grassella Oliphant - The Grass Is Greener


Grassella Oliphant (drums), Grant Green (guitar), John Patton (organ), Harold Ousley (tenor saxophone A1, A2, A4, B1, B3, B4), Clark Terry (trumpet, fluegelhorn, pocket trumpet A1, A2, A4, B1, B3, B4), Major Holley (bass)


in 1965 in NYC


as SD 1494 in 1967

Track listing

Side A:
Get Out My Life, Woman
Ain’t That Peculiar
Soul Woman
Peaches Are Better Down The Road
Side B:
The Yodel
Cantaloupe Woman
The Latter Days
Rapid Shave

Well, not that obscure. A number of hip hop artists have plundered The Grass Is Greener for beats, as well as Lee Dorsey’s funky recording of Allen Touissant’s composition. Think what you like about these methods – whether it’s pure theft or a mature artistic effort – at least they had good taste.

I wouldn’t call The Grass Is Greener an all-out smash, though. One’s search for a bit of flair in Oliphant’s drumming in the two jazzier bits will remain fruitless. And from the soul and funk-jazz tunes that luckily comprise the main part of the album, Ain’t That Peculiar (the 1965 hit for Marvin Gaye that was written by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and was a very popular cover among soul jazz artists of that period) doesn’t really pick up steam and is redeemed largely by the sharp-as-a-tack presence of guitarist Grant Green. The rest, however, and especially organist John Patton’s compositions Soul Woman and The Yodel are on the ball from start to finish.

Both tunes receive an unconventional snare treatment by Oliphant, a continuous, rollicking roll that is continued throughout. It’s powerful and stimulating for the other musicians. The Yodel is a particularly heavy cooker in which Patton and Green trade red hot solo’s. With such hard bop giants in tow, it’s hard to go wrong, and Oliphant doesn’t.

A comparison with John Patton’s album Got A Good Thing Goin’ (recorded April 29, 1966), that also has got Grant Green aboard, is justified. An uncommon figure of three tunes overlap with The Grass Is Greener: The Yodel, Soul Woman and Ain’t That Peculiar. It includes a version of the latter that runs smoother than Oliphant’s take. John Patton’s originals are cookin’ and faster executed, including outstanding Green and Patton solo’s. Nevertheless, I prefer the earlier 1965 versions of The Yodel and Soul Woman, that possess the added tenor sax of Harold Ousley on The Yodel and a more ‘southern’ feel. Both fine albums, I dutifully stipulate, deserve a place in your shopping bag.

Grassella Oliphant (nicknamed “Grass”) dropped out of the business in 1970, only to return professionally after a 40-year hiatus in 2010 in the New Jersey area. He won’t make the cover of Downbeat Magazine, but will undoubtly serve the citizens of New Jersey a tasty and spicy meal.