Influential: Charles McPherson's Playlist
Now in his 80s, the San Diego jazz saxophonist is still performing and recently released new work. Get to know the works that shaped him and continue to drive his music.
Influential is a KPBS music feature in which we ask San Diego musicians to make us a playlist and talk us through the music that shaped their careers. This is a way of sharing music together while we can't quite get out to live music performances, plus get to know the artists we love and maybe discover something new.
Charles McPherson has been releasing music since 1964. The jazz saxophonist has performed with Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis, and recently, alongside his daughter, a dancer in the San Diego Ballet, as composer-in-residence. We asked McPherson, now in his 80s, about his influences: the music that shaped his sound, his approach to songwriting, improvising and performing, and how it all resulted in his latest record, "Jazz Dance Suites," released in late 2020.
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And here it is in McPherson's own words.
Even if I can't perform, just to have music in my mind, I hear it in my mind and to be able to just go to the piano and play a few chords, or go to the saxophone and play what I hear. So I try to be busy and try to be creative, even though these are some trying times. Just the passion and the love I have for the art itself, it just makes me happy just the fact that I can do it and hear it and I can actually entertain myself.
'Tico Tico' By Charlie Parker
One of my inspirations is Charlie Parker and one of the first compositions — or songs — that I heard Charlie Parker play was a song called "Tico Tico." I didn't know Charlie Parker. I had never heard him before. And when I heard that, I heard it on the jukebox in my neighborhood and it immediately resonated with me.
I was about 14 years old when I first heard this, and even though I wouldn't come up with the words I would come up with now to explain why this resonated with me, it was his sense of melodic, linear logic.
In other words, these long, beautiful musical phrases, improvised phrases, well-connected in a linear, melodic and a very logical way. And even though I was a kid, I could hear this logic. It made sense to me.
And that was the thing that just jumped off the page for me listening to Charlie Parker, because I had never heard any improvised soloing jazz musicians on any instrument play that many notes, but with that kind of linear, melodic logic and also rhythmic phrasing. And I knew right then that, OK, this is it. This is the way you're supposed to do this. You're just supposed to have your own notes. But having this kind of logic and these long, beautiful musical sentences, this is what you're supposed to do and how you're supposed to do it.
So I immediately got all the records I could from this man, Charlie Parker, and I really started listening to the kind of jazz music that he played. And that was my introduction to what we call bebop or modern jazz in those days. They call it progressive jazz, modern jazz, bebop. And that whole genre of jazz music opened up for me. And I started listening to not only Charlie Parker, but all of the players and musicians that played this kind of jazz.
'You've Changed' By Billie Holiday
There's an album by Billie Holiday that impressed me a lot — it's a famous record, it's entitled "Lady in Satin."
Now, this is much later in my development when I discovered this record, but I just fell in love with it. It's beautiful. The songs are beautiful, just beautiful songs from the American songbook, so well-written. And the arrangements are just gorgeous and just with strings and an orchestra.
So I fell in love with this record. And some of these tunes, the lyrics, the poetry of the lyrics were so compelling and so intelligent and so heartfelt.
And then the way that Billie Holiday was singing these tunes, the way she phrased it, how she would bend a note here, bend a note there, slow down the phrasing a bit here, rush the phrasing here. She's just one of the greatest storytellers that I've ever heard, with this gorgeous, very original sounding voice. It just resonated — I mean, I cry now talking about listening to some of this.
And I learned so much from Billie Holiday in particular, not just this record, because in her, besides having this really nice, pleasant voice, there is this high level degree of honesty in how she sings and how she interprets, there's no egoic sense of trying to impress people. It's just she opens her mouth, she sings the song, and there's no affectation. There's no trying to prove anything. There's nothing narcissistic about it.
It's just pure emotional honesty and a very deep understanding of the words that she's singing. And that's very impressive when you hear a singer that knows how to do this.
And what I mean by this deep understanding of the words of the song that she's singing: to understand the words, I don't mean dictionary definition of the words being used in the lyrics. That's dictionary understanding. But I'm talking about emotional understanding of what the words mean as a human being. That's deeper than dictionary definition. And there are a lot of singers that when they sing, they know what the words mean, but they might not have that level of emotional connection to what the words mean, as it describes the human condition and the human soul, she really knew how to do that.
So for me, being a saxophone player, the saxophone is my voice.
And so I try to treat the saxophone and how I think about it as the human voice, as if I were singing. So for me to have that same kind of emotional connection to whatever song I'm playing and improvising on, even though I'm not dealing with the spoken word. But for me to try to convey that kind of emotionality and that kind of response with the horn — that's a whole different way of thinking about playing a horn.
So she was very instrumental in me understanding that.
'The Miraculous Mandarin Suite' By Béla Bartók
Béla Bartók — I really love him and I got interested in him. It's very funny the way it came about: I moved into this apartment and the preceding people had left a bunch of classical records that they didn't take with them and they were in good shape.
There were LPs, a lot of them, and they were basically modern classical music. And one of them was a symphony called "The Miraculous Mandarin Suite" by Béla Bartók. And I listened to this. And I was mesmerized for about 40 minutes or however long it is.
And I fell in love with him right then. And pretty much like what I did with Charlie Parker, I started looking for everything Béla Bartók wrote.
And melodically and harmonically, it's just just gorgeous as far as I'm concerned, and I learned a lot and that sort of introduced me to classical music in more of a deeper way. I really started actively listening to different composers and spending time doing that.
And when you do things like that, any time you learn anything new, it broadens you. It just gives you more dimension as an artist and as a person. Any new skill you learn, even if it's bowling or playing baseball, it doesn't make any difference, you are changed just because you've experienced something that you didn't know about before. Certainly with music.
So I started listening to a lot of different people, people like Stravinsky, of course Bartók, and then even the older composers, Bach. I love Bach. So I just listened to different kinds of music rather than just jazz.
And to me, it just adds to your mental garage, I think of the mind as being like a garage and with all kinds of tools in there, everything in there: a saw, a hammer, nails.
And when you need to fix something, you go to the garage. And if your garage has all the tools and a lot of tools and diverse tools, there's a lot of things you can fix. And you just go in there and if you want a hacksaw, you're going to have a hacksaw. Well, it's the same way with music.
So I think when you listen to different kinds of music by different people, different styles, it's just more that you have in your musical garage. And when you need to go to this garage or to your mind to compose yourself, you just have all these different sounds in your head and you just get a bucket of song and take these sounds and make them yours.
'Portrait' By Charles Mingus
The thing about Charles Mingus' writing, as far as I'm concerned, his ballot writing is just beautiful.
I worked with Mingus for about 12 years and I was about 20 years old when I first joined his band. Mingus was in his early 40s, I think. To me, Mingus's ballad writing in particular was interesting because there was something haunting about his melodies, mixed with sensuality and also his melodic inventions were a little different. There were certain musical curveballs all over the place. So I was quite impressed with that. And with my own writing, every now and then I can hear influences from Mingus — and not because I'm trying to do it on a conscious level, just because of osmosis and years of being with him and having, you know, the sounds and chords from some of his music in my mind. I will hear little things that remind me of Mingus.
Also, I did learn from Mingus how to be thematic in my writing because Mingus wrote lyrics to his tunes. He was very political. And he wrote political songs with protest words. You know, I used to hear that because I worked with him in the '60s when a lot of things were going on in this country. But he wrote love songs. He wrote his own words, and he also wrote ballet music. He wrote for dance and movement. I think that also influenced me, where I started thinking about music in an episodic way, because he certainly did.
I think that kind of consciousness he brought to me, I became aware of that, that you just don't write a bunch of notes. You have a reason. You have a story that you want to tell. And I mean, there are many tunes, ballads, that Mingus wrote that I love. "Portrait" is one of them, just the beauty of the melodic statement that's being made, just the beauty of it.
It's a slow song. This tune to me is not just about love, like between man and woman or just physical love. There's a reverence about it. And also it has (something) very spiritual about it. You know, something about the melody. It has a hauntingness and mystery. So this tune to me has all of these things.
It's just beautiful. And I like the vibe, the emotionality of it.
But what I learned from Mingus and just my whole — Bartók and all the different variety of music and styles that I've listened to through the years — all of that has impacted how I think about music and certainly led to me thinking episodically about music and not just writing notes for instruments to play, but also for people to dance. And the experience being resident composer with the San Diego Ballet really brought all that to fore. I learned how to write for dance and how to be aware of a storyline and not just to ramble, but write meaningfully and to be structured.
And also, my daughter Camille is one of the principal dancers with the San Diego Ballet. So basically she's the inspiration for doing that project, the "Jazz Dance Suites," because I used to take her to her little ballet class when she was four years old. And so I've been watching her dance. And anyway, that's how I got connected with the ballet company here. And that's what brought about the writing of the Jazz Suites.
--Charles McPherson, February 2021.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can find a playlist of McPherson's influences on Spotify here. You can find Charles McPherson's "Jazz Dance Suites" here. McPherson will livestream from the Athenaeum on May 17, 2021 at 7 p.m.