The right place at the right time
The jazz education of Charles McPherson
McPherson is among the last of a breed — an authentic bebopper who keeps his eye on the melody and whose breakneck improvisations are logical, bluesy, and joy-infused. He grew up at a time when jazz had street credibility, and when the art form was bubbling away in African-American neighborhoods around the nation.
HOW do you explain the path of a musician? The inspiration. The artistry. The feeling of the blues. Where does it all come from? Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson’s earliest memories are of life in Joplin, Missouri, about 150 miles due south of Kansas City. When he was six or seven years old — in the mid1940s — his parents would take him to concerts in a park around the corner from their house.
“I remember there were bands playing that were probably coming to our town from Kansas City,” McPherson said, “and I was enamored.” He was so awestruck that he wonders if the sounds he heard as a boy may have left a stamp on his own musical DNA. The idea makes sense. Just a few years earlier, Kansas City had been the nation’s jazz laboratory, the place where the swing of Count Basie gave way to the bluesy bebop of Charlie Parker, the alto saxophonist and K.C. native who would become McPherson’s hero. “And being so young, I wouldn’t know who these musicians were that I saw in the park,” McPherson said. “But If I could push a button and go back in time, I’d bet money it’d be people like Andy Kirk or Jay McShann.”
If you’re a jazz fan, you can connect the dots: Kirk and McShann were Kansas City elders, mentors to Charlie Parker, who by the mid-’40s was turning jazz on its head. Now, as McPherson imagines it, it was almost as if they were sending him a signal, pulling him toward the lineage before he had even touched an instrument: “The music did speak to me at an early age,” he recalled, talking by phone from his house in San Diego. “And I did like the sound of the saxophone, even then.”
He is even more dedicated to the instrument in 2018, he said, now that he is well into his journey as a musician. McPherson will turn seventy-nine later this month when he brings his quartet to Northern New Mexico — his first performances here in 20 years, with stops in Santa Fe (Wednesday, July 25), Albuquerque (Thursday, July 26), and Taos ( July 27) as part of the New Mexico Jazz Festival. He still plays fabulously. McPherson is among the last of a breed — an authentic bebopper who keeps his eye on the melody and whose breakneck improvisations are logical, bluesy, and joy-infused. He grew up at a time when jazz had street credibility, when the art form was bubbling away in AfricanAmerican neighborhoods around the nation, and when seasoned musicians passed their secrets along to newcomers on the bandstand. McPherson made it to the top of the heap, landing in New York and spending about 12 years in bands led by bassist and composer Charles Mingus, a tough boss and a genius. McPherson isn’t always happy when he gets pegged as a carrier of Parker’s torch — Bird wasn’t an endpoint for McPherson; he was a springboard toward his own expression of jazz. Still, Mingus used to say that no one understood Parker’s message better than McPherson. Talk about a high compliment.
McPherson moved to Detroit in, when he was nine, and he remembers being impressed by the people who walked past his house in the early evening. They dressed sharply. They had “a certain kind of consciousness about them,” he said. Some of the groups were interracial. All were heading to the Blue Bird Inn, the neighborhood jazz club. When he was thirteen or fourteen years old and going to middle school, McPherson took up the saxophone and began hanging around the Blue Bird, standing out in the street with his friend Lonnie Hillyer, a trumpet player, listening from afar to the house band. Detroit was a hotbed for jazz and the Blue Bird’s resident group included master players: drummer Elvin Jones, pianist Barry Harris, bassist Paul Chambers, trumpeter Thad Jones, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams. Sometimes Miles Davis, who briefly lived in Detroit during this period, was there, too. “And I’m outside listening, especially on the weekends,” McPherson said. “And I would see Barry come out and Elvin come out on the breaks in the summertime, and I would ask them questions. And one time the club owner let me in for the matinee. That is when I first heard the band from inside the club, and I was just totally blown away; I never had heard that kind of virtuosity.”
Already, he’d heard a Charlie Parker tune, “Tico Tico,” on a neighborhood jukebox. “Somebody said, ‘Well, that’s bebop, that’s modern jazz, progressive jazz.’ Okay, from that point on, I want to know everything about this particular kind of music.”
More serendipity: Not only was the Blue Bird two or three blocks from McPherson’s house, but Barry Harris lived in the neighborhood. His house was a meeting place for musicians, and McPherson and Hillyer accepted the pianist’s invitation to come by and learn about scales and chords and harmony: “You kids don’t know about that,” Harris told them. McPherson began learning these lessons, but he also was struck by the fact that the musicians at Harris’ place talked about more than music. They discussed literature, politics, philosophy. “I would hear these names batted around — Spinoza, Schopenhauer. I thought, ‘Man, these people are really different.’ ”
McPherson likes to tell a story about Harris asking to see his report card. He had a C average and Harris wasn’t impressed: “Oh, you’re an average kind of guy,” the pianist told McPherson. “It won’t work, because this music is complicated and you’re not going to be able to play it if you’re a C kind of guy.” The admonition continued: “You have to read more. You have to broaden everything about your mental capacity. You can’t be in this narrow, skinny bubble here. You have to expand, because when you play this kind of music, the bigger your view is, the better you play. It’s not just notes and chords.’”
Sixteen-year-old McPherson took the warning to heart. He began reading. He started doing The New
York Times crossword puzzle, one of Harris’ daily obsessions. At Harris’ house, McPherson also rubbed shoulders with some of his heroes who came through
town, including saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. In 1959, he and Hillyer moved to New York where Mingus, coincidentally, needed to hire a new saxophonist and trumpeter. (Eric Dolphy and Ted Curson, famous players, had announced that they were leaving.) Mingus stopped by a club called the Café Wha? on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, where McPherson and Hillyer were playing in a jam session. He hired them.
Was McPherson nervous about joining one of New York’s top bands? “Very nervous. Mingus had a reputation for being difficult, confrontational, and erratic. We knew that already. And we were young — twenty or twenty-one — and he was forty or fortyone, imposing, 300 pounds. After a couple of years, you’re getting older, you’re in the band longer, so you’re not intimidated as much. But Mingus was not easy to work for.”
Midway through his tenure with Mingus, McPherson — who had a young family — took a year off and went to work for the IRS. “And every now and then I’d run across a tax return that I’d recognize. Sometimes it would be somebody like Dorothy Kilgallen — and I also remember seeing Coltrane’s! It was amazing. This was during the period of ‘My Favorite Things’ ” — Coltrane had had a hit, transforming the Broadway show tune — “and I think he made a hundred grand that year. For a jazz musician back then to make $100,000, that was kind of eye-catching.”
Living in San Diego since the late ’70s, McPherson has never stopped touring or recording; he has a couple of dozen albums as a leader. Nor has he ever forgotten the lessons that Barry Harris taught him: Read. Grow. Change. McPherson’s daughter Camille is a dancer with the San Diego Ballet, and the saxophonist, whose eightieth birthday is on the horizon, has become a composer in residence with the company. “I’m trying to evolve as an artist and a human being, as a soul on planet Earth,” he explained. “There’s some kind of journey going on, and as I get older, what Barry told me makes a lot of sense. You have to be as wide as possible to play this music. You almost have to be a musical — what’s that word? ‘Thespian.’ It’s like you have to be an actor; you have to understand all the human emotions. There’s hate, there’s ecstasy, there’s reverence, there’s eros, there’s agape, which is God’s love. If you’re going to be an artist, this is what you’ve got to learn about besides the craft. You have to express all of it. It’s not just notes and chords.”