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Joe McPhee Interview

By Published: June 16, 2005

AAJ: Sure.

JM: Actually, yes, but, you know, not in a concert situation - just with some kids. You know, balloons that have these little horns on them, and you let out a certain amount of air and they squeak and they do things like that - just playing with children and those kind of contexts, giving, you know, various toys and things to kids and letting them make an orchestra out of it.

AAJ: Great. Actually, have you been involved with sort of music education for young children, sort of getting young children to improvise?

JM: Yeah, the first time was in Switzerland; I was invited - I think it was around 1983 or 1982 or something like that - I was invited to Switzerland to a school where I was told - well, first I was invited by a teacher who, in fact, came to that concert that's on the cover - the photograph's on the cover - of that Cadence magazine [pointing to the interviewer's copy of the January 1977 issue of Cadence, which has a picture of McPhee playing saxophone and pocket cornet simultaneously]. He liked improvisation and so-called free jazz and so on like that, and he wanted to see what would happen if I came into a school where there were these children who having some - either learning disabilities or they were considered to be, by Swiss standards, from lower-class families and therefore difficult I guess, or something like that, and what effect this process of improvisation and music - being exposed to me - would have on the kids. So I went in this school, and I took my pocket trumpet and my tenor saxophone, and an orange- painted conch shell, some bells and whistles and so on like that, and I put them in the middle of the floor - it was in a gymnasium. And then the first class was unleashed upon me and in came all these kids. First they were startled because I didn't look like any of them; they saw all of these instruments in the middle of the floor, and so that's when they all came in making a lot of noise, and then they came to a screeching halt, and like "what is this about?" They didn't speak English and I didn't speak Swiss German, but there were teachers there who were translators. So the first thing I did was a few rhythmic exercises, pounding the floor, clapping hands and so on like that, and trying to get their attention, and then I sent them all to the far corners of the room and asked them to listen, and they giggled and so forth, and they came back, and then I asked them what they heard, through these translators, of course. And they would say they heard the person next to them laughing or shuffling feet or making rude noises and so on like that. So we did some more exercises and what I was trying to do was get them to follow directions, and so on like that, in a real organized kind of way. And then I sent them away again, and I asked them to listen very carefully and come back and tell me what they heard. Now the first time they not only heard the people next to them, but they heard trucks passing outside, an airplane, a guy on a bicycle - I remember a bell and so on, but the second time they came back, and they had listened very carefully, they began to hear the breathing of the person next to them; they could hear their own heartbeat, and a high-pitched sound in their ear - it was kind of like from their own nervous systems, and they were really beginning to listen very carefully, and they were interested. So then I asked them if they wanted to try and play my instruments - of course they didn't really want to do them. I asked them if they played any instruments and so on like that. So they were all in a circle, and they tried to play the pocket trumpet and couldn't, and they'd puff out their cheeks and so on like that. And there was one little boy who was like the class clown, I guess, and they were always making fun of him and saying "Let him do it." So he did it, of course, and he really eventually could play the trumpet - not play it, but I mean he'd make sounds on it, and then he became kind of like a hero because he was adventurous enough to try it, and then he was able to make a sound, you know. And then there was one little girl who - she was very shy, and I said "you try it," and she tried it, and I said "Do any of you play any other instruments?" and she said she played the piano, so she played some little things she had learned on the piano, and no one knew she played piano - she was very shy, and all of a sudden she became sort of like, you know, very interesting, and people wanted to know her and stuff like that. And then we made some more rhythm things and so on like that, and then we sat around and asked what they thought about it, if they knew anything about jazz - of course they didn't really have any experience with that, except I think they heard of Louis Armstrong at one point, and they all said that they were gonna write me because they had, you know, such a good time, and so on. And then, that class was finished, and the second class came in. But between the first and second class I found out that there was a closet full of instruments there in that school that the teachers never let the children play with because they thought they would break them. I said, "Oh really? [not with the common rising intonation that indicates surprise, but with the special intonation that indicates he is about to set them straight]. Take every instrument out of the closet and bring it here." They just played my saxophone and my trumpet and I wasn't worrying about them breaking them, cause I didn't think they were gonna do that. Take them all out and put them in the middle of the floor. So the next class comes out, similar to the first one - they ran into the room, screaming and yelling, and they screeched to a halt when they saw me, and all of that pile of wonderful devices all over the place, you know. Same thing - we repeated the same thing, and the same result happened: they listened more intently. And then I gave them instruments and I created sections - music sections - and I had them play following my direction. Within 10 to 15 minutes I had an orchestra, organized, following directions and the teachers were sitting there with their mouths hanging open: "How can you do that? They never listen to anything. They never do what we tell them to do." So they played and so on; I let them play my instruments, and the same thing: I spoke to them and blah blah and we had a wonderful time. And that happened three times in a row. And in the end we had a little meeting, and they said "What did you do? How could you do that to them?" and I said "I didn't do anything. I just let them, you know, free, to do what they wanted to do, and they were not going to break the instruments," and I said, "You know, it's ridiculous that they're all there in the closet." They said, "Oh, we'll have to try that. So maybe something changed at that school. And then I went to another camp with a similar experience. And, finally I went touring in France with some musicians I play with - Raymond Boni, Andre Jaume and a bassist named Francois Mechali - and we went to some schools. The schools that had the most money, the kids were more open, more willing to talk about their experiences with jazz, and the people they knew, and it was similar to the Swiss experience. And then we went to a very poor school and the children hardly spoke. You know, we asked them questions about music, what do they like to do and they just sat there. And it was clear that these kids didn't have a chance; they were beaten from the very start, you know, because of the social situation, and the stigma of the fact that they didn't have a lot of money and so on like that, and it was very sad. And subsequently - I'd say about three years ago - I did the same thing at a school in Woodstock, New York, and the children were a little older, but I got them to tell me stories, make up stories, in a kind of a group situation where they would pass around an idea and create stories, and make poetry and whatever, as part of this improvisational exercise. And some of the stories were not very nice - one guy was talking about a dog on the highway, getting run over by a bus, blah blah blah - and I said, you know, "That's part of it. Okay, great [laughing]," you know, and they were all laughing, like "This is really rotten, you know, what an awful thing to say". But they had great fun, putting the story together, and then we, you know, did the same thing - made an orchestra - and I'd say within 10 or 15 minutes I had an organized orchestra of kids who could follow directions. The music teacher there was surprised that I could do that. I said "You know, did you ever think about it?" I mean, I don't know, it wasn't anything extraordinary as far as I could see.

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