Winard Harper's natural gift for percussion became evident at an age when most children can't yet read.
At 4 years old, as his older brother listened to records in their Baltimore home, Harper would drum on whatever was in sight. His family saw musical potential in him that ended up spawning a 25-plus-year jazz career.
From playing drums with his brother's band in clubs at age 5 to performing with the likes of Ray Bryant and Jimmy Heath, Harper has experienced a lifelong passion for jazz, especially jazz percussion. Since about 1994, he has been sharing this love through his band the Winard Harper Sextet.
On Sunday, Harper, now 45, will return to his hometown when the Winard Harper Sextet comes to the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society's concert series.
"It's the history, the life, the love, the evolution of it," Harper said of jazz. "It's a very intricate music. It's a very powerful and moving music. [It's] one of the closest things to democracy that exists."
The sextet consists of Harper on drums and balafon, Jon Notar on piano, Bruce Harris on trumpet, Albert Rivera on tenor saxophone, Ameen Saleem on bass and Alioune Faye on African percussion.
The sextet, which Harper said has stayed busy with tours and projects since '94, released its latest album, Make it Happen, in 2006. Josh Evans, Lawrence Clark, T.W. Sample and Sean Higgins, though not performing Sunday, were featured on the album along with guests Jeremy Jones, Kevin Jones, Wycliffe Gordon and Antonio Hart, all African drummers.
In the 1980s, Harper, who moved to Atlanta at age 11 and back to the Baltimore-Washington area after high school, played with saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin and singer Betty Carter. The Harper Brothers Band came next, which soon spawned his current group.
Inspired by trumpeter Clifford Brown and percussionist Max Roach early on, Harper said he is blessed to have played with so many legends over the years. His extensive list includes pianist Billy Taylor, guitarist and singer B.B. King, pianist Hank Jones and singer Nancy Wilson.
"The beautiful thing about this is, most jazz musicians are historians of music," Harper said. "These opportunities to play with my heroes or people I had pictures of hanging up were always a highlight."
Describing the sextet's African-influenced jazz sound as "soulful, joyful, moving," the drummer said that many people are not familiar with jazz. "A lot of times people ask me what kind of music I do," he said. "A lot of times I just say good music."
It's at this point in the conversation, he said, that people are surprised to realize that they enjoy a genre of music they previously knew nothing about.
Rarely has Harper had such problems in Baltimore, calling it a city of die-hard jazz fans. The music, he said, has to "feel good," and anything less "doesn't make the grade" in Charm City.
With the sextet's goal of "putting the dance back into the music," Harper said he hopes to attract more young people to jazz music, encouraging Baltimoreans to bring family members who have not been exposed to it. This way, the drummer said, the jazz audience will start to "replenish itself."
Youths and longtime listeners can expect "some really nutritious, soulful injections" of jazz, Harper said.
In returning to his birthplace to perform, Harper knows that the bar is set at its highest. "In some places, you might get away with playing from the head, but here you have to come from the heart as well," he said.
As part of the Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society's Five at 5 series, the Winard Harper Sextet performs at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Tickets are $10-$27. A free preconcert tour begins at 4 p.m. Call 410-385-5888 or go to baltimorechamberjazz.org.