The right place at the right time

The jazz ed­u­ca­tion of Charles McPherson

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - 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.”

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