John McNeil: More Than Just Notes, Man
Trumpeter John McNeil arrived in New York in the early 1970s and has played with such luminaries as Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Horace Silver and Gerry Mulligan. He has led his own bands since 1980 and his recordings have garnered worldwide critical acclaim. In addition to his touring schedule, McNeil co-leads a quartet with saxophonist Bill McHenry every Sunday night at Biscuit BBQ (formerly Night and Day) in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. With his eyes frequently brimming with mischief, the quick-witted, good-humored and wonderfully profane composer, producer and author sat down to share his thoughts on his involvement in the upcoming  Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT) and his opinions and memories from a long career in jazz.
All About Jazz: The first thing I'll ask you about is FONT Music. It seems to be very important to a lot of people. Who decided that there needed to be a festival devoted specifically to the trumpet?
John McNeil: Dave Douglas. He may have had discussions with a couple of other people but basically it was his idea.
AAJ: This is the fifth year for the festival. Was it hard to sell it to club owners and venues and has it gotten any easier since it has gone on?
JM: Oh yeah, it has. I think [New York club] Tonic was the one that signed on first in the first year. But the second year it seemed like nobody wanted to really have it or something and it was all spread out and they had all these weird venues that nobody knew where they were, stuff like that. I think the Vision Festival kind of joined forces with us and helped to promote it a little, but still, it was a drag.
So now it's been around, it's gotten some press and they've gotten some grants and they also achieved nonprofit status. So now they've got more money [and] they've hired a publicist. You get to see trumpet players from all over the world and most often they have two bands per show. So you can go to a show and hear a whole bunch of new stuff you've never heard before.
And now they've expanded over to Brooklyn and I was tasked with doing some booking over here. And [it's] kind of slim pickings for [us to find] a place with a large enough stage to do some of the things. So we're gonna use the Tea Lounge over here. I think it's a great space. It's got a huge stage, relatively speaking. And there's a little joint over on Ninth Street [called] Barbès. That's more of a place where people go to try out music.
And there's been some good music in there, but it's very tiny, you just can't get enough people in there. This place I play down here, Biscuit BBQ, is gonna expand the back room where the music is, adding a good six or seven feet. Probably ten more tables at least and that'll add another twenty or thirty people. Now that would be a hell of a good venue, especially if they solve the acoustic problems, which they're trying to do now.
AAJ: Who determines what acts get to participate? How is that resolved?
JM: Well, I chose the ones for over here [at Tea Lounge]. And Dave Douglas and the guys that sit on the board, people contact them now. Now I don't know how they did it originally. They just called everyone they knew. Dave called me and said, "Look, we're starting this new thing. Do you want to be a part of it? I said absolutely, of course. It was smaller. Now there's a lot more people to keep in contact with.
JM: We started in February 2006, so it's been eighteen months. This thing I'm doing with [saxophonist] Bill [McHenry], [is to take] these old vehicles, these old tunes and we basically just play free on them. We keep the form...we drop in and out of the harmony and the bassist [Joe Martin] and drummer [Jochen Rueckert] [are] able to groove along. And what it does, in these kinds of subtle ways, is that it takes it out of an older era and puts itI don't know where the fuck it puts it, but it ain't back there!
Harmonically, Bill and I are both idea people. That's what makes it work for us... [A]fter about six months or so we [got] into some things where it [was] almost like ESP. We wound up playing the same types of things [and] had a feeling for how long it should go on. That sort of thing is very rewarding and Jochen and Joe, they know our playing by now and they've [begun to] anticipate things that they know that I do.
AAJ: You got to New York in the early 1970s?
JM: I moved here permanently around '74. When I first got to New York I played a lot of free music... Everybody would just play all the time...some of the guys, they'd get high and just keep playing all at once. They didn't really have a feeling of trying to compose something. I didn't dig it, so I would get guys together and we'd just play. Sometimes we used a theme [but] we never played a tune.
AAJ: You played a tune but not a tune in the conventional sense.