Joe McPhee: Artistic Sacrifice from a Musical Prophet
JM: I'll give you an example. I was on a Greyhound bus with my friends, and we were taking one of them to register for college at Buffalo State University. We went into this little lounge to buy some beer and then left when we were finished. However, we were followed by some guys who had chains and brass knuckles, and they wanted to beat the shit out of us. It was like a bad science-fiction movie, and we only escaped by being able to outrun them. And people were trying to hit us with their cars because they automatically assumed that we had done something wrong. I was punched and got my jaw dislocated, and was then knocked to the pavement, and was covered with dirt and road tar.
That was so humiliating and so awfuland to also be chased by the police as if we were the bad guys. The police never even asked us what happened. It put things in perspective in the land of the free, home of the brave! But you know what, none of that even comes close to what the real brave souls on those Freedom Rides experienced.
When Martin Luther King died in 1968, there was a rally and a parade in Poughkeepsie. And I was in the front of the parade wearing my army boots, black pants, black shirt, black tie, black beret, and kind of looked like the Panthers even though I didn't know much about them. I was wearing what appeared to be a symbol, but I was really wearing these clothes because I was in mourning, and I wore as much black as I could.
The police and the F.B.I. were there, and James Meredith came and gave a speech. And you know what he said? He said, "You better go home and get your guns." And everybody was stunned. What? He said we needed to protect ourselves, and do it now. Whoa, think about that! I only knew that we were there to mourn Dr. Martin Luther King and that it was important to be there. There were speeches, rallies, and it was important to be involved.
AAJ: As someone who grew up during that period, do you think America really listened to Martin Luther King, or was it due to the fear driven by Malcolm X that America started to listen to Dr. King?
JM: Yes, there is that, but I don't think America was really listening, because they are not listening now.
AAJ: Just before Dr. King was assassinated, John Coltrane passed away, and you were invited to play at the funeral.
JM: Yes, but there is a bit of a story to that. I was involved in my first recording with Clifford Thornton in July of 1967, and the record was called Freedom & Unity (Third World). We were rehearsing in this apartment on Barrow Street, and it turned out that the apartment where we were having the rehearsals was right across the hall from an apartment that Ornette Coleman had. He was rehearsing with Charles Moffett and David Izenson.
Well, there was a day I was practicing alone, and there was a knock on the door. It was Ornette, and he had this trumpet in his hand. Now for me, when I was in the Army, I had painted a watercolor portrait of Ornette. You know how in the Army, guys have pictures of girls taped to their lockers? Well, I had a picture of Ornette, as I was so enamored by his music. So I open the door and here he is with this trumpet, and he says, "I heard you practicing. Try this."
AAJ: Did you know it was him as soon as you opened the door?
JM: Oh, absolutely! Then he said, "I have to go to Texas to visit my family, and I am going to be away for awhile. So when you are finished with the trumpet, the door is open, and just go ahead and put it inside."
So I said, "Thank you," and I took it and I tried to play it. But I thought to myself, "I can't do this," so I just put it back as he asked.
But I also had to go back home, and on the way, I had heard that John Coltrane had died. When I had arrived back to the apartment, there was another knock on the door, and again it was Ornette, and he said, "There is a funeral for John Coltrane. Are you going to go?" And I said that I couldn't, that I didn't have the proper clothes. And his response was, "You don't need clothes to go; you just go." So that's how I happened to be there. As a result, I heard Ornette playing with his quartet, and I heard Albert Ayler playing with his quartet, which was all just fantastic, and I saw Coltrane in the coffin. And it wasn't a sad event; it was a very glorious thing.
AAJ: What happened next?
JM: So I am standing outside of the church up on Lexington Avenue and just trying to absorb and take everything in, and then Ornette came out and saw me and said, "We are going to the cemetery. Would you like to go?" It was he, Billy Higgins, and a drummer named Harold Avent, and then me.
Ornette had this Cadillac limousine that we all jumped in and then headed out to Long Island, and I'm thinking, "How can this be happening?" We get caught up in traffic but we eventually get to the cemetery. The service is over, nobody else is there and there is a tent over Coltrane's grave. And now here is Ornette standing over the grave. And incredibly, there was like a transfer of some kind from 'Trane to Ornette, if you could imagine that.
From there, we went to visit Harold's father, who was blind, and then he and Ornette got into a conversation about music, and in the conversation, he mentioned that he always wanted to play piano. So Ornette buys him a piano and had it sent to his house.
Later that night, Ornette's Trio was playing at the Vanguard. He played things like "Naima," but he also played more like Charlie Parker than I had ever heard him. He recorded everything on a little Nagra tape recorder, so everything he played that night still exists somewhere. For me, I was like a groupie, walking down Seventh Avenue, stopping at a chicken joint for a bite to eat and carrying his saxophone. This is probably the closest that I'll ever get to heaven.