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Interviews

Joe McPhee Interview

By Published: June 16, 2005

AAJ: When you were first getting involved with music—well, 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 electronics—all kind of electronics, and I always tinkered with things. One of my first experiences was—in 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 their—because 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]

AAJ: Congratulations!

JM: And since it ran on batteries I could it do it, you know, they said "Lights out—turn 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 thing—trying to keep up with what was happening in the jazz world?

JM: It was a bit difficult. I would suppose virtually impossible as I remember—I wasn't able to find—I 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 there—which 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 me—you know, things that I was interested in—a whole collection—and 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 something—I 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 of—it'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 was—from the time we woke up in the morning until the evening—was rehearse. You know, we rehearsed band music, and light concert music, and stuff like that—and virtually denied any opportunity to improvise; in fact, we were forbidden to—it 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.

AAJ: So if you weren't in the army, you might not have had an opportunity to have such an intense musical education?

JM: No, probably I would've stopped playing. Maybe I would've come back to it at some point. In fact, I had no intention of playing music in the army; I wanted to study electronics; that was what I was qualified for; I went to school for that; I thought I could get some kind of practical application, you know, for a background that would get me a job at IBM or something, and I went once on a field trip—because I was studying electronics in college, electronics technology and stuff like that, and I thought I'd get this background—I went to IBM on a field trip and absolutely hated it; I hated everything that had to do with it; it was tedious, and awful people; I said, "No, man, this is not for me". And the army was an accident, with the music, because I did have that background and I qualified for this school in electronics. They said, "Okay, but we don't have an opening now, and you're finished with basic training—what do you wanna do? We need trumpet players; if you wanna do that: fine, we can take you now; otherwise you'll end up in the infantry"—"That's a no-brainer; I'm not going in infantry, and I'm not going to be in some tanks and all that crap—No! trumpet!": I ended up in the band school.

JM: I played in a band that was sort of like a soul band; it was called Ira and the Soul Project, and the other saxophonist, Otis Green, was in it. Strangely enough, in 1974, when we were doing this recording I mentioned called Pieces of Light, with John Snyder, we took a break and we went to this little French restaurant that was just down the road from where we were recording. And while we were there, Otis Green, the alto player, came into the place and we saw him and I waved and I said "Otis, what are you doing here?", and he was looking very confused and so on, and he said "You know, I have no idea". He said "I was driving by and I went down the road and suddenly I slammed on the brakes, turned around, and came back here." He said "I've never been in this place before in my life and I don't know why I'm here now." And he said "But, you know what, I was looking for you Joe; I'm going to have to leave"—he worked for IBM—he said "I'm being transferred some place and I was looking for you to see if you would take my place in this band. Would you be willing to do that?" I said "Yeah, okay." So I ended up playing with that band for about five years—Ira and the Soul Project. So that was very strange. It was the end of the CJR recordings, and CJR of course helped to begin the Hat HUT recordings...Ira Frazier was a singer, who sang in sort of the style of Marvin Gaye, and we had a drummer, guitarist, a Hammond B3 player, and myself. We played on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights in a club that was called the Monte Carlo in Poughkeepsie, and before Ira showed up to sing—and people dancing; it was great—there'd be a jam session.



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