Joe McPhee: Artistic Sacrifice from a Musical Prophet
JM: Dewey Redman invited me to be on a recording with him about a year later, along with Rashied Ali, Earl Cross and David Izenson. And Dewey planned to take it to RCA and Blue Note, but RCA didn't want it, and Blue Note said it had absolutely no commercial value. And now that Dewey is no longer with us, I don't know what happened to it. And this was in the '60s, before everybody's music got so precious"This is my music, and you cannot play it, blah, blah, blah, blah"which was just before the Loft scene happened in New York. And the Loft scene was great until it was written about in the New York Times and became "Loft Scene."
AAJ: Where was Sam Rivers when this was happening?
JM: He was around; Studio Rivbea was happening, as well as Warren Smith's Studio, WE, Soundscape and John Fischer's Environ. All these were very important as musicians tried to gain control of their business situations. There was a lot of strong music happening around that time, and the Rivbea Wildflowers series (Casablanca, 1976) comes to mind.
I played in the first Newport in New York Festival, in 1972 at Slugs, with my band Trinity on a double bill with the Paul Bley Trio. There was also a counter festival called the New York Musicians Jazz Festival, and everybody you could imagine was a part of that. The music and the scene were just so rich, so alive.
AAJ: One of the early pioneers of this music, Craig Johnson, was also one of the original people that helped you get started.
JM: Craig Johnson is one of the people who jumpstarted my recording career and, in doing so, opened doors for many untold musicians. And against my better judgment, he created CJR Records to release my music. He suggested that I should record solo, and my response was, "Who would want to hear that?"
His friend, Chris Albertson, who received a Grammy for his Columbia Records production of a series of Bessie Smith recordings, advised him on how to get started. With no experience, he purchased recording equipment and went to work.
And when Werner Uehlinger, who was just a jazz fan at the time, heard the early recordings of the Nation Time concert, he decided to contact Craig and me and offered to release it as Black Magic Man (Hat Hut, 1975). And that's how Hat Hut Records came to be.
Werner Uehlinger was a very important part of my life. He recorded my early solo works and my large ensemble pieces while eventually inviting me to be a part of Hat Hut Records operations. Thanks to him, I was able to transition from working in an automotive ball-bearing factory, to living my dream.
And now, 37 years later, hundreds of musicians such as Archie Shepp, Max Roach, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and Steve Lacy, to many lesser-known artists, have important documents now recorded for us to enjoy. Bottom line, Craig Johnson's contributions in the jazz continuum are enormous and far beyond me.
AAJ: Bill Dixon was also a significant influence for you.
JM: He is one of my real heroes. I love his music. He is a crusted curmudgeon, in a way, and I am sure that he will give me hell, in his inimitable way, for saying that. He was very opinionated and full of stuff! He had his own way of doing things. He was once on a panel at Wesleyan University with Ran Blake, Anthony Braxton and a journalist from Italy. There was a moderator who was taking questions online, and Anthony took the first question, and he went on for what must have been about 15 minutes. And Bill had on these big owl-like glasses, sitting there, and when Anthony finally stopped, Bill said in his deep voice, "A-N-T-H-O-N-Y, if I had an hour and a bottle of scotch, then perhaps I would understand just what the fuck you said." But bottom line, I think he's right, and I love and respect him for all of who he is. [Laughs.]
I once made the mistake of saying something about jazz being America's classical music, and he said, "You, never say that to me ever again," but he said it had nothing to do with that. "Joe, sometimes you have to remember that it's necessary just to say no." And I know what that was about, because I asked him if it would be possible for him to play with us in Trio X. And he said, no, he wouldn't do it. I like him very much. I think he was one of three really important warriors on the planet, like Cecil Taylor and people like that.
AAJ: You and Ken Vandermark have built a unique relationship.
JM: Yes. After Ken received the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, he really received so much shit. He paid my way to Chicago, and that's how the Emancipation Proclamation (Okka Disc, 2001) project happened with Hamid Drake, at a time when I couldn't get a gig in New York. It was Ken that would be the first person to invite me back to Chicago in 1995. And that happened because I had met him a couple of years before in Vancouver.
Ken had mentioned my recording Tenor (Hat Hut, 1977) in a magazine interview, and said that his father told him that if he wanted to learn how to play the saxophone, that he would have to listen to this record. And Ken made some really wonderful comments about me, and was embarrassingly kind. I ran into him in Vancouver, B.C., and I just thanked him.
He then invited me to a concert where his band was performing one of my pieces, and I had never heard anyone play my music before. It was called "Goodbye Tom B." And then he invited me to Chicago and we made a recording called A Meeting in Chicago (Eighth Day, 1997), and we never rehearsed.
The money that Ken received for the grant was all put back into the music. He put every bit of that money back into the music. Ken is an amazing guy, and I love the guy. He is driven like nobody I have ever known, and I don't know how he does what he does, but I worry about him. He has always championed my music, and it's not only mine, but what he has done in Chicago is fantastic. But he takes a lot of shit, and he's not the kind of guy that is going to push back.