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Interviews

Charles McPherson: Keeping the Faith

By Published: December 12, 2007
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Charles Mingus

AAJ: I actually read somewhere that during one of your first gigs with Mingus, Eric Dolphy gave his notice.

CM: Yeah, that's right. Eric was quitting. Eric was working with Mingus up until that point and was quitting to form his own group. And a trumpet player that was also working with Mingus at that time, along with Eric, was Ted Curson. He was also quitting to do his own thing; not with Eric, but his own agenda he had. Both these guys were leaving so he [Mingus] was in need of a trumpet player and an alto player. We were recommended by Yusef Lateef, a fellow Detroiter that also would occasionally work with Mingus. He was aware that Mingus need a new trumpet player and alto saxophonist. He apprised Mingus of the fact that Lonnie and I were in New York and needed work. So Mingus hired us.

AAJ: Was that your first professional gig?

CharlesCM: No I had worked professionally around Detroit before leaving for New York. It was the first gig where I started traveling, nationally and going to Europe.

AAJ: Was your first recording with him the 1962 Town Hall Concert (United Artists, 1962)?

CM: No, I think the first recording was on a label called Candid. Mingus had a record deal with Candid at that time. I had just joined the band.



You know, when I joined the band Eric and the trumpet player both stayed for two weeks, because in those days you gave a two week notice. You stayed there, showed the other people the music and then you leave. For about two weeks there were two saxophone players and two trumpet players. Then, of course, they left.



During that time Mingus did record and I was on that date, along with Lonnie and probably a lot of other people.



You know with Mingus' record dates, he always augmented his group for record dates. So whatever core group he might have been working with at that point in time, when he did record dates he would augment that. He would have five/six horn players along with his core group. His record dates were always a multi-instrumentalist affair. I think Candid, this date was like that.



So that might have been my first record date. Probably in like the early '60s.

AAJ: What do you remember about the Live at Town Hall concert? I know for a lot of people that's an acquired taste, that recording.

CM: It was a fiasco. It was disorganized. People were copying music on the stage while waiting for fresh music to be put in front of you by a copyist. Then playing it for the record, making a record, while all this is going on.



It is kind of equivalent to a movie being made and filmed, and the new script for the actors to play is put in front of them and then they have to read it and learn it and deliver lines and while they're doing that they're being filmed. To make the analogy work they would have to have it memorized, then actually say the parts, interact and film it. Then say, "OK, here it is we can press this up now it's a take. It's equivalent to that, so that was a very difficult situation and real unorganized and so that's how that was.



I don't know what the music sounds like. I haven't heard any of that.

CharlesAAJ: It has some nice moments but it is pretty discordant.

CM: Yeah, OK.

AAJ: How did Mingus view that concert after the fact?

CM: I can't really remember. I'm sure he was disappointed. Probably, some of it, the stuff being all disarranged and out of order....I don't know who's fault it was, but I am sure the fault could be spread around, of why that record date was not organized and was kind of in a shambles and all that. You could probably spread the blame around pretty evenly.



But I can't remember, it was so long ago. I am 68 years old; when that happened I was 22. I can't even remember half of that stuff.

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The Legacy of Bird

AAJ: Often, when you're reviewed—your record or live performance---whether the review's good or bad, they call you a "Bird disciple. Does that term bother you?

CM: Yeah it does. Here's the reason why: it doesn't just bother me, it bothers a lot of alto players. It probably bothers Phil Woods, it probably bothered Cannonball, it probably bothered Sonny Stitt. The reason why it bothers them is because usually writers, they tend deal with constructs, paradigms, clichés, boxes and pigeonholes. They tend to want two or three words to describe a whole person or a whole genre of music. This is just part of the game. If I were writing I would probably do the same thing because it saves time, it saves words, it saves space.



So if you can come up with a term that consists of four words, and that describes a thousand words or pictures, then people do that. It is part of the gig. It is part of what it is to write. So if you can say "Bebop, and you cover a thousand people that play within certain nuances, then you say "Bebop and that takes care of that. So this is the nature of print and the nature of media. In doing so, now we aren't talking about is it bad or good, we understand that in some sort of way it seems to help description or it seems to help definition. You need all the help you can get. You're dealing with print; you're dealing with so much space. The point is that when you do stuff like that, when it comes to analyzing or assessing a particular artist, it's very easy to use these clichés, the constructs that have already been set by other writers before you; to make a point or whatever you need to make.



It happens that with alto players, since Charlie Parker was strong influence, it's hard to not be compared to him. When you play the same instrument as him, and even if you are different or different enough to be different; it is still very seductive to make the comparison or to just associate the player.



Now that same player if he were playing tenor or trumpet, the association wouldn't even be made. So the fact is that Charlie Parker was such a strong influence in music since 1940 that everybody since 1940 has been heavily propagandized by Charlie Parker. Not just alto players but tenor players, trumpet players, guitar players, trombone players, arrangers, piano players and everybody else. But the alto saxophonist, because he plays the same instrument, it's more likely to be used; or it's more easily discernible, his influence. It's more discernible when you hear another saxophonist than it would be if you heard a trombone player playing a Charlie Parker solo. It wouldn't even come to mind that, "Hey he sounds like Charlie Parker because the trombone is not a saxophone. So they wouldn't even hear it.



But musicians know. We know, the trombone player knows, the pianist knows that this trombone player, for instance: There's a trombone player named Jimmy Knepper, who worked with Mingus a lot. Now Jimmy Knepper sounds like Charlie Parker, I mean about as much as a trombone player can. 'Cause he loved Charlie Parker. He's the first to admit that he's heavily influenced by Charlie Parker, but see everybody was heavily influenced by Charlie Parker; and Jimmy Knepper maybe more so than a lot of people. No one would ever say Jimmy Knepper sounds like Charlie Parker because they can't get past the sound of the trombone; it wouldn't even come to mind to make the comparison. But I can play that same solo on alto and then people say, "I can tell he's influenced by Charlie Parker.

Charles

The real fact of the matter is that everybody has been influenced by Charlie Parker. Charlie Parker is like Bach. So it would be like saying people that have heard Bach are influenced by Bach. Well of course you are because certain people have added so much to the language that it becomes part of the language. That yes, you are influenced, even if you don't know it. Twenty five generations removed, you are because his language is in the language.



Now alto players become sensitive to it because people make the comparison more than they do with anybody else. They don't think about trumpet players. Clifford Brown, if you took a Clifford Brown solo and said, "I'm gonna erase every note and every phrase out of a Clifford Brown solo that smacks of Charlie Parker, do you know how many notes you'd have left? Not many, if any!



The thing is that everybody's been influenced by Charlie Parker. Even people like Ornette Coleman have, believe it or not. You say, "Man, that's the most different thing, but if you listen to Ornette's tunes or just a certain attitude, that couldn't exist without Charlie Parker. John Coltrane's whole style wouldn't even be what it was if it had not been for Charlie Parker. You can't go from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane. How can you? How can you go from Louis Armstrong to Michael Brecker? How can you? You can't! Because Charlie Parker's in there. And none of that would be happening if it weren't for Charlie Parker.



Since Charlie Parker, there have been people who have stepped to the side a bit, or jump here or there, but he is the seminal figure. You can't get away. He's such an important part of the puzzle that there's no music after him that in some kind of way is not connected; I mean fusion...anything. It doesn't make any difference. I guess alto players, why do we get saddled with it?



That happens so much, for me it doesn't even evoke an emotional response because I am so... it doesn't even have power that much anymore. I must say, in my case, I don't hear it as much or see it as much in print; where they refer to me and then refer to Bird. There's a little less of it than there was say, twenty years ago. Maybe because I am a little bit more different than I was twenty years ago, from Charlie Parker.



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