Alto Saxophonist Charles McPherson Highlights a Career Spanning 50 Years
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Charles McPherson and his band will perform at Anthology on the evening of Wednesday, July 15th, 2009.
ALAN RAY: You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm Alan Ray, in for Maureen Cavanaugh. His music has been called, and this is a quote now, not my words, 'a felicitous blend of urbane sophistication and youthful passion.' Now, that's the quote. Lots of people say he's just a fine sax man. His name is Charles McPherson. He's joining us now on These Days, performing at Anthology, where he's the artist in residence. Good day, sir.
CHARLES MCPHERSON (Musician): Yeah, thank you. Thank you for having me.
RAY: Now, also and happy birthday. You're coming up on number 70 in a day or so.
MCPHERSON: That's right.
RAY: Wednesday night, there's a party at Anthology. Will you be performing?
MCPHERSON: Yes, I will. That's the fifteenth and we start about 7:30 until nine…
RAY: Will you be performing original compositions?
MCPHERSON: Yeah, original compositions and also, you know, compositions from the American Songbook and jazz standards.
RAY: Okay, birthday celebration for you, 50 year anniversary as a musician. Take a look back a little bit, how did you get started with the saxophone?
MCPHERSON: I originally wanted to play alto saxophone but I started out on trumpet and flugelhorn. I didn't have an instrument of my own at that time and that was what was available.
RAY: Now there are different oral mechanics just in playing those kinds of instruments, isn't there?
MCPHERSON: Oh. Oh, yes, much…
RAY: Did you have to…
MCPHERSON: Very much so.
RAY: Did you have a preference for that reason? Or was it the sound or…?
MCPHERSON: No, the reason was the sound…
MCPHERSON: …I must say, and also the look.
MCPHERSON: I liked the saxophone. I liked the way it looked and I liked the way it sounded.
RAY: Okay. Are you still – is that still your – kind of your mistress today? The sound?
MCPHERSON: Oh, yeah, most definitely.
RAY: You heard Charlie Parker at a pretty young age.
RAY: Did that have any affect on either what you wanted to do or how you wanted to play or what you heard or the way you heard music?
MCPHERSON: Well, all of those. Certainly affected my ambition because after hearing him, I knew then that this is what I wanted to do. And I heard him in a little candy store on a jukebox, and he was referred to me by a young musician in my class that was maybe a couple of years older than I and he knew about Charlie Parker. I didn't at the time. And he told me about him so when I was in the candy store and I looked on the jukebox and saw Bird, Charlie Parker on there, I put the money in and listened. And from that point on, I was hooked.
RAY: Okay, was that a version of "Tico Tico?" Or…?
MCPHERSON: "Tico Tico" was what I heard, yes.
(audio of clip from "Tico Tico" by Charlie Parker)
RAY: Boy, you know, 50 years later, you're dancing in your chair to that.
MCPHERSON: Oh, I'm still dancing.
RAY: Yeah, now…
MCPHERSON: And I'm still – I'm still impressed.
RAY: Okay. Does it bother you at all? How do you feel about being called a Bird disciple?
MCPHERSON: Well, I mean, it used to bother me more than it does now. I think now that I'm a little farther removed from Bird stylistically so it's less bothersome because of that. And also, I am knowledgeable or aware that people naively compare people who play the same instrument to someone else who plays the same instrument. I play alto saxophone, so does Charlie Parker, so the comparable – the comparison's more easily or more readily indulged in. However, because I am a musician and I do know that trumpet players, trombone players, piano players, guitar players, arrangers, writers, all have been influenced very much by Charlie Parker. He's – What he played is so much a part of the musical fabric of the world that, you know, he's inescapable. Now, the saxophone players, and most definitely the alto players, get saddled most with the comparison and I'm aware of that. But if I took a trumpet player of today and analyzed his solo and then with a computer, for instance, took out every Charlie Parker lick that was played by this trumpet player, he would be playing as many Charlie Parker-flavored phrases as I would.
RAY: Well, on the other hand…
MCPHERSON: And then I – But the alto players are compared because he was so ex -- You know, his – he became – it's so much a part of the language, what he innovated. And stylistically, people are really still phrasing like Charlie Parker pretty much.
RAY: So he was that influential in a…
MCPHERSON: Well, he was very influential from the 1940s on. I mean, you know, everybody was really influenced by him and now it's been so long, it's part of the language. People are not even aware that they are influenced by him.
RAY: And one of the names that comes up in terms of jazz, actually going back really to "Play Misty For Me," is Clint Eastwood.
RAY: And he asked you to perform for his film on Bird.
MCPHERSON: Right. And so…
RAY: Can you talk about how that process went a little bit?
MCPHERSON: Well, he – you know, technically they were able to use Charlie Parker but there were instances where they could not. Maybe there weren't any tapes or maybe there were contractual issues or other kind of issues. So there were circumstances where they couldn't use him, and then this is where I came in.
MCPHERSON: There were scenes, incidental scenes, in the movie where they wanted, you know, Bird to be playing. Of course, Bird couldn't play. And I was used for those scenes. For instance, there was a Jewish wedding. That actually happened with Red Rodney, who was Jewish. And Bird and Red Rodney played together all the time and in this – at this particular occasion, they were playing in the mountains in New York at the resorts up there. And this truly happened. So they – there was a scene in the movie involving that and of course they couldn't use Charlie Parker so I was used for that. So, you know, scenes like that.
RAY: Was that a little strange to you to be called upon almost to echo somebody you had revered that much?
MCPHERSON: No, it wasn't strange. And, in fact, you actually get wrapped up in the technology of what's going on at the moment so you don't really have time to indulge in the novelty of it or whatever because there's a lot of stuff going on. We were in the record studio. There's what they call a click track. There are scenes that's happening on the screen that you have to synchronize with the music. So much going on that you don't really think about those things.
RAY: Okay. There's a scene where Bird, who's played by Forest Whittaker, is sightseeing in Hollywood.
RAY: What happens then?
MCPHERSON: Yeah, this happened also. I think there was a friend driving Charlie Parker around and they were in this – Beverly Hills, probably, or one of these really great neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Hollywood, whatever. And they were looking at, you know, famous movie stars' homes and they came by Igor Stravinsky's. They were in his neighborhood and the person with Charlie Parker that was driving said, well, you know, Igor Stravinsky lives on this block here. Now Bird was very much interested in that and he wanted to be shown that house. And he was. And when they parked in front, Bird got out of the car and just stood on the street and looked at it for a few moments and got back in the car. Now this actually happened and, of course, it was in one of the scenes in the movie. Clint Eastwood was in the studio when we were recording some of the soundtrack and for this particular scene, he had an idea which involved me playing the blues Kansas City style, while Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite" was playing. So he superimposed my blues playing against or up on Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite." So you had this kind of very ethereal effect, other-worldly effect going on with Stravinsky's music…
MCPHERSON: …and Charlie Parker. You know, Charlie Parker was a great blues player from Kansas City, of course, and me playing this blues. I thought it was a novel idea. I thought it was interesting. And it came off, it worked well for the scene, you know.
RAY: Okay. Let's go back to Detroit a little bit. You eventually formed a band and started playing at proms?
MCPHERSON: Well, you know, we played high school dances and proms and the like. So when I was, let's see, I was playing professionally at nineteen, eighteen or nineteen, so I graduated from high school at seventeen. Now before that, we played the school dances and things like that. I was too young to play in clubs at that time and that was it…
MCPHERSON: …you know.
RAY: Now you eventually hooked up with Charles Mingus.
MCPHERSON: Yeah, I worked with Charles Mingus when I came to New York, which was the early sixties, I think '59,
'60, maybe '60.
RAY: How did that come together?
MCPHERSON: Well, Mingus was in need of a saxophone player and a trumpet player. Eric Dolphy, great saxophonist, was working with Mingus. He was getting ready to quit the band and form his own group. Yusef Lateef, great tenor saxophone player, also from Detroit, knew that I was in town in need of a job. And also a young trumpet player was in town, my friend Lonnie Hillyer. And we both wanted to work. We needed to work, and Mingus did need a new saxophone player and a new trumpet player. So Yusef told – apprised Mingus that we were in town, so we – Mingus came to hear us play at a jam session. And he hired Lonnie, young trumpet player, and myself, and that was the beginning of my 12-year engagement with Mingus.
RAY: Now he was a man known for his temper. He was called the angry man of jazz. Did you ever get caught in the heat?
MCPHERSON: Well, you know, he liked me very much and so I was able to escape Mingus' – a lot of his shenanigans. But he could be difficult. He was brutally honest, very candid, and he could be confrontational. There were many incidences in clubs with patrons and people who would be talking too loudly and he would have an issue with that.
RAY: Well, that seems largely an issue of respect.
MCPHERSON: Well, of course, and it's disrespectful for people to be in a place where music is being played and where people have paid money to listen, and some people are there to really listen, and for other people to engage in loud conversation, you know, to the point that they're louder than the music, well, that is rude. And Mingus really didn't like that and he would go out and confront people. And, of course, that could turn into a catastrophic situation which sometimes it did. It would end up with, you know, physical, you know, scuffles, you know, and I would be watching all that happen, you know.
RAY: As far as his relationships with the people he played with, did he ever turn angry at you? Or did his temper…
MCPHERSON: Well, he…
RAY: …ever make you a better musician?
MCPHERSON: Yeah, he would get angry with some people. He did not like people to be late. If there were any kind of drug situations going on, he didn't tolerate that at all. He was very short with that. He liked me because once we did a benefit for a poet named Kenneth Patton, kind of a popular poet during the fifties, late fifties, you know, Jack Kerouac and those kind of people. He was that kind of a, you know, a beat poet, if you will. And he was ill so Mingus was a personal friend of his and the band did a benefit for him. And at the end of the benefit, Mingus started doling out five dollar bills to the guys in the band, you know, just to give them something because the man was his friend. We didn't know him, you know, and he felt obligated. And so everybody in the band took the five dollars and then when he got to me to give me the five dollars, I just said, well, what is five doll – How's that going to change my life? Just give it to him. And he looked at me. His eyes watered up a little bit and from that moment on, he put me in a different category than the rest of the people because I was about 21 years old at the time.
MCPHERSON: So he was, you know, he – Once he pigeonholed people, you were in his box and you were what he thought you were and then nothing you did after that could change that. So I was in the box of nice guy, and so he always treated me nicely, actually.
RAY: There's a tribute album to Mingus titled "Pussy Cat Dues" and you're featured playing sax on a track called "Reincarnation of a Lovebird."
(audio of clip from "Reincarnation of a Lovebird")
RAY: Now that is sweet.
MCPHERSON: Thank you.
RAY: Yes, that is sweet. Talking with Charles McPherson. He's performing at Anthology. He's the artist in residence. He is a great alto sax player and you'll be performing at Anthology.
MCPHERSON: Yes, that's right. The fifteenth, and also every third Wednesday through December.
RAY: What did you learn from playing with Charles Mingus?
MCPHERSON: Well, let's see, I learned a lot, actually. I learned a lot about music but I also learned about – I learned a lot about human behavior and people as well. Mingus was well into his forties, I was just twenty, so I was quite – You know, I mean, he was, you know, a real – I mean, he was so much older than I, so I was maybe a little bit intimidated and overwhelmed. And…
RAY: Would it be fair to say he was a legend in music circles?
MCPHERSON: Oh, I would say so, sure. Yeah. And he was a great musician, really. He was a wonderful writer. I learned, you know, I would think – I learned mostly from him in composition. You know, his compositions were interesting. And I certainly learned from him about that.
RAY: When did you start writing for yourself?
MCPHERSON: Well, I started writing not long after I started working with him. I started being interested in writing and maybe because of him. So I would say, '64, '65, because I hadn't been terribly interested in writing, and I did become more interested just because of him and listening to – and watching him write and watching the creative process unfold sometimes. Because we would be over to his house at rehearsals and he would be writing out music that we would play, you know, a half hour later. It was sort of interesting to see that happen.
RAY: I can understand where lyrics can – lyricists can sit down and you got – the words come to you.
RAY: What happens when you're working only with instruments? Where does the idea come from for any composition?
MCPHERSON: Well, you hear it. I mean, as, you know, music is the nonverbal, you know, it's the Esperanto of the soul, you know, so it's the nonverbal language of the soul. So it's a language. And like you hear language that we speak, you also hear music. If you are a musician, you hear the music already. It's in your head, it's there, it's out there. It's to be, you know, accessed, it's there. And, you know, since you are what you are, you – it's available to you.
RAY: Okay, given that you were working and playing for and with a legend, was it a little intimidating to start writing for yourself?
MCPHERSON: No, I didn't think of it that way. I mean, what's intimidating is sitting down or thinking or eking out the one idea out of the millions that are available and finding the one that you can get to work, that's intimidating.
RAY: Okay, your last album of original compositions called "Manhattan Nocturne" can you talk about the ideas behind that?
MCPHERSON: Well, I was living in California and missing New York a bit. I wanted to do – it was time to do an album, a CD, and I just got the idea of dedicating this to New York and all of its nuances. So I called it "Manhattan Nocturne." I wrote a tune on there called "Manhattan Nocturne," which is a nocturne, it's a tune that's inspired by the night and, certainly, Manhattan nights. I tried to keep that ambiance of that with that music. And then I involved, you know, Caribbean music and some of the Puerto Rican and Cuban music also on that particular CD because that's all part of – you've got all the ethnic varieties going on in New York. So I tried to mix a little bit of that and be eclectic to a point and just have that all in one CD.
RAY: Okay, there's another track called "Morning Dance." Can you talk a little bit about the story there?
MCPHERSON: Okay, now "Morning Dance" actually has nothing to do with New York. This actually is a sort of a bizarre story because I wrote the music for some gentlemen who were, of all things, tracking Bigfoot. This was their whole – But these guys were scientist types now.
MCPHERSON: These weren't, you know, a bunch of kooks. These guys had, you know, great equipment, you know, all the technological equipment at their disposal. So they were up and around Washington and there were sightings up there and they had this sophisticated, you know, acoustical equipment to hear the sounds of these creatures, which they did. And they actually, you know, captured that, came back to laboratories and analyzed that. So to make a long story short, the end result was they didn't know what it was. They knew it was real, they knew it wasn't fake, and they figured it was some kind of primate but they couldn't really identify it. So having said that, that was the end of that. But anyway, my job, because I knew one of the nephews of these guys, and my job was to write music for that. And so, what is it? "Morning…
RAY: "Morning Dance."
MCPHERSON: …Dance" is basically a tune that's depicting them drinking coffee out in the woods, getting ready to do what they do very early in the morning, and that was it.
(audio of clip from "Morning Dance")
RAY: And "Manhattan Nocturne's" about New York. You've lived in San Diego a long time, though. How did you get here?
MCPHERSON: Well, I came originally just to visit my mom. I'm an only child, she was getting on in age, I hadn't seen her in a year or two. I wanted – And she lived by herself. I wanted to just kind of be around her and see how she was doing, and I came out just to maybe spend a couple of months with her and then I ended up staying.
RAY: Okay. You still composing?
MCPHERSON: Well, I try. You know, it's like pulling teeth sometimes for me but the quest is on.
RAY: Okay. I'd like to end with an album, talking about an album you made with the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra. It's called "Charles McPherson with Strings." It's a tribute to Charlie Parker. How did that happen? Talk a little about that.
MCPHERSON: Well, it wasn't my idea. Actually, I had a manager at the time and it was his idea to do that. I actually wanted to shy – initially, I wanted to shy away from that just because of the comparisons of, you know, the comparison made. And he sort of talked me into it so I thought of it, you know, maybe as being a challenge to be able to do this and not sound exactly like Charlie Parker, and just to see what happens. And I did it. It wasn't originally supposed to be recorded. It was, you know, just a concert. And – But it was recorded. But it wasn't recorded for the purpose of releasing, it was just recorded because that's what people do. And then this guy, the manager guy, heard it and said, you know, it sounds good, let's put it out. And so he did put it out. And there it is.
RAY: Okay, now these were classics for somebody else. How did you make them your own?
MCPHERSON: Well, you make it your own by – just because you are who you are. Because you are your own. So these tunes are tunes from the American Songbook. You have to interpret them the way that you want to, you know, because you are. You know, it took a long time for nature to come together to here you are. It's millions of years of evolution so you are who you are. All right? So all you have to do is be yourself and so that's one approach. And then also, now the challenge here was because these arrangements were the original arrangements that Charlie Parker played on which means that you must enter, you must exit, you know, according to the arrangement because it's set. Now this makes it difficult. However, there is one tune that I think you might play, "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." Now, this is a tune that was played on Charlie Parker's recordings but it is an original arrangement.
(audio of clip from "I Didn't Know What Time It Was")
RAY: Charles McPherson, thank you very much.
MCPHERSON: Thank you.
RAY: And happy birthday.
MCPHERSON: Yeah, thank you very much.
RAY: You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm Alan Ray, in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Have a good day.