Joe McPhee Interview
AAJ: [referring to a performance at the Red Room in Baltimore on April 1, 2000, with Joe Giardullo and Jerome Bourdellon] That Baltimore concert wasthere was so much tension hanging in the air with every note, becauseI think in that particular room there's a sense in which everyone trusts each other; people are there because they really care about listening. I wonder if maybe, as a musician, there are certain performance spaces where you feel more comfortable really letting go, or, you know, really losing yourself to the moment?
JM: Well that's a situation where I try to be as often as possible, because I don't want any constraintsI don't want to think about anythinglike I said: the thought process will slow you down. It's very important to hear what's happening and to have a sense of the people you're playing with. And there's a lot of trust thereit's, again, akin to walking naked on a razor blade: you walk very carefully; you can do it, but you have to be careful in where you put your down and how you do it, and be respectful of other peoplethey can knock you off and you'll be cut to shreds, you know. That's what it's all aboutnot interesting to me, but, some peoplethat's what it's aboutseeing if you can cut somebody up or whateverthese kind of competitive thingsI'm not interested in that. And with Joe and with Jerome it's not competitive; it's sharing.
AAJ: When you were first getting involved with musicwell, performance in your twenties I guess, you know, the availability of electronic instruments was quite different. Were you sort of a hobbyist with electronics to an extent?
JM: With electronics? Yeah, I was always fascinated with electronicsall kind of electronics, and I always tinkered with things. One of my first experiences wasin the army I built a portable record player and I had a transmitter, which I connected it to a radio transmitter, which I could play my recordings over the radio to the people in the barracks, and I would play Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and stuff, and make it come in on theirbecause I'd block out the other sounds, you know, cause, although it was small, inside the building, would be powerful enough to block out certain stations, and I'd play that stuff, and nobody could ever figure out where it was coming from. [laughter]
JM: And since it ran on batteries I could it do it, you know, they said "Lights outturn the lights out; power off", you couldn't hear anything in my room, but
AAJ: That's hilarious!
What was it like, actually, getting your hands on records when you were in the army and that kind of thingtrying to keep up with what was happening in the jazz world?
JM: It was a bit difficult. I would suppose virtually impossible as I rememberI wasn't able to findI found a few things, but not very much, and I was stationed in Germany, so that made it doubly difficult. I took my portable recorder with me, which allowed me to play stuff for a while, because there was a difference of current- -50 cycles here, 60 cycles therewhich changed the pitch of the music, even if you used a converter, so I bought eventually a turntable there, a record player"Hi-Fi"with these little detachable speakers, which was fine over there, and I brought it back and I couldn't play it because the pitch was wrong when we played it here. But I took a lot of stuff with meyou know, things that I was interested ina whole collectionand there were some other people who had recordings and I listened to things there, and then I read Downbeat magazine and found out about how certain people were talking about Anti-Jazz and hating Coltrane, and hating Eric Dolphy, and saying that they were not playing real music, and that argument went on and on, and introduced to Ornette Coleman and why he didn't work and blah blah blah and so on like that. So then I heard about Albert Ayler and what was going on in various places, and it intrigued me, so of course the first thing I did was look for the music they were castigating and try and determine for myself whether I liked it, and I said, "I like it, and I don't know what they're talking about"; I had no idea why these people are carrying on like this; I guess it sold magazines or somethingI don't know.
AAJ: Especially now, I think, for younger people, who, when they're first learning about Jazz, they learn about the whole history at once, and so you don't have this sense ofit's harder to appreciate why Ornette, and maybe even Albert Ayler, were actually considered to be, you know, radical, cause now it's so accepted...
JM: Yeah, a lot of the elements that were a part of their music is a part of pop music; it's been co-opted. Also, I was in an army band, and we had a certain job to do, and I went to an army band training school, because my experience, my training in music, was limited to what I learned from my father; and I played in high school and grade school; I went to band classes and I played all the time, but theory and harmony, I didn't take in school. I learned that in the army band, and the army band school was very intense, and dealt with those things, like traditional harmony and composition and stuff ear training and things like that, which were great; it was like being in accelerated college courses. And then I'm thrust into this band in Germany, and all we did wasfrom the time we woke up in the morning until the eveningwas rehearse. You know, we rehearsed band music, and light concert music, and stuff like thatand virtually denied any opportunity to improvise; in fact, we were forbidden toit was just not to be done, so we did it on our free time, and we played in some little clubs and stuff, and we had a project where we'd have to compose things and play them, you know, once a week and stuff like that, so we kept ourselves going.