Joe McPhee: Artistic Sacrifice from a Musical Prophet
AAJ: What about your own music roots?
JM: I am thinking about how I felt the first time I heard John Coltrane's, "Chasing the Trane." I worked in this auto factory on second shift, and the moment I got out of work, I would turn on this Chicago radio station that played jazz. There was something about the atmosphere that came in so clear. And then "Chasing the Trane" came on, and I never heard anything like that in my life. So I parked in front of where I lived, opened the windows wide open, put the seat back, with my mouth hanging wide open, and turned the radio up as loud as it could blow. Then my father came out and asked, "What is wrong with you?"
In the morning, I immediately went to our only record store [Record Land] where you could actually listen to an LP before you bought it, and I bought it and listened to it over and over. I had never heard anything like it in my life. It was really something.
But I have now been playing the alto sax for over 30 years, and at this late age, I am also trying to learn the clarinet, because one of these days I am going to dedicate some music to the Savoy Sultans, with a group of similar instrumentation. It will not be that style of music, but it will be as tribute to them, so there are those connections, and I definitely want to make the project happen. I am going to do it.
AAJ: Did you ever see Coltrane perform live?
JM: I first saw Coltrane live at the Village Gate in 1962, with his quartet that included Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison. And the closest I can compare this experience is to being on a jet plane going down the runway. It starts up, you hear the engines, and you begin to get a rush. Then things begin to speed up and race, and there is that sound that slowly speeds up and gets louder. Shuuuuuu ... shuuuuu ... shuuuu ... shuuu ... shuu ... shu. And then you have this anxiety just before liftoff, and it happens, and you go up.
When Coltrane came on stage, it was like that. They built it up and up and up, and I thought I was going to die. I mean, I couldn't even breathe! It was like there was not enough oxygen in the room. It was an extraordinary experience. I really don't like the word "awesome," but that's what it was.
AAJ: Let's talk about some of your recordings. Your record Underground Railroad might make some people think about the history of the Underground Railroad for the first time.
JM: Well, I'm glad to hear that, and thank you for saying that. And that is absolutely the point of why I gave it those titlesso that perhaps someday, somebody might be curious and further investigate what that means. I thought that it might be the only chance that I had, because someone has to be interested in searching for that information. And there are so many nuances as to why, what and who, that you cannot put all that into the music. That's another level completely.
AAJ: So say more about this specific recording, Underground Railroad.
JM: In my notes, it was "dedicated to the Black experience here on planet Earth." So what the hell does that mean, and why did I say that? But it's not just about color, it's about people. It was a way of focusing on people's experiences on this planet in 1968. I don't know what's happening on Saturn, but on this planet, we were doing some pretty awful things to each other. And we had been before that, and we still are.
And the Underground Railroad ran through upstate New York, where I live. We definitely did not learn about it through school. What we did know is that it was a way for slaves to escape to the North. Max Roach talks about how they were helped and why the North Star was so important. And so this opened up a door for me to start investigating about my own history. I was the first person in my family to be born in the United States, since my parents were from a very British background.
My life was probably saved due to lightning striking our house in a storm in Miami where everything was destroyed. After that, my father didn't want to raise his family in the South. So he took a job in Poughkeepsie, New York, and that's how I ended up here. But I don't think I would be here today if I would have had to grow up in Miami, Florida back then. It would have been an entirely different set of circumstances.
AAJ: But it must have been difficult growing up Black anywhere in the '50s and '60s?
JM: Well, I grew up in a very integrated school in a neighborhood that included many immigrant and first-generation families that were like my own. So, in that respect, we all had a lot in common. But things really changed when I was 13 years old and going to high school. I remember being on a corner waiting for my schoolmates that I had known for over 8 years. But all of a sudden, I am waiting on the corner by myself. Nobody came, and now I realize that something was different. I mean, how could I have been so stupid? But I just didn't know.
So now, socially, I'm beginning to date and socialize, and I find out that certain things just didn't work. And then in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered while on a summer vacation. Riots broke out in school, and things like that began to happen. What? What's happening? And then in 1962, I was off to Buffalo, NY, on a Greyhound bus, and at that time, Freedom Riders were on buses that were being burned, with people inside of them!