Having started his professional career at the age of nineteen, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson found himself working with Charles Mingus from 1960 to 1972, while also recording for the Prestige label under his own name.
Always inspired by Charlie Parker, but far more than just an acolyte, he has kept the bop fires blazing with his own distinctive sound and a body of work which is as impressive as it is enjoyable.
McPherson took time during his Fall 2007 tour to talk with AAJ contributor Maxwell Chandler.
- Early Years
- Barry Harris
- Charles Mingus
- The Legacy of Bird
- Sources of Inspiration
- East Coast/West Coast and Touring
- Personal Picks
All About Jazz: What initially attracted you to the saxophone?
Charles McPherson: Well, I moved from Joplin, Missouri when I was about nine years old, and before that I used to see bands come through this town, Joplin; they'd come once a year. I was pretty enamored of the musicians and the instruments at a very early age, maybe six or seven years old; especially the saxophone. I liked the music and so if I could have played that soon I probably would have but I was pretty little then; but interest was there. So I moved from Joplin to Detroit, and at about twelve I started playing in the junior high school band. I played trumpet and flugelhorn. And then the next year at age thirteen I started playing the alto saxophone.
AAJ: Do you remember what your first saxophone was? Your mother got you your first?
CM: Yes, she did. It was a Conn. It was a very good Conn, a used Conn. I knew nothing about instruments and neither did she. But it just so happens that it was a good one. And, of course, Conn at that time was very good. That was it. And I knew that I wanted to play very early on and that music was my passion.
AAJ: Once you finally got your saxophone did you ever play flugelhorn again?
CM: No, I never did. The only reason I played it in the first place was because there were no saxophones available. The school had none to rent out to you. They were all taken. Everybody wants to play saxophone. The only thing left was drums and/or flugelhorn. So I just chose trumpet/flugelhorn. A year later I got my saxophone and I was still in junior high. And then I played it of course all through high school.
AAJ: You studied at the age of nineteen under the pianist Barry Harris?
CM: Sooner than that actually. I met Barry when I was about fifteen.
AAJ: Was that in Detroit?
CM: Yes, that was in Detroit. Now, Barry lived literally around the corner from me, on the west side of Detroit. He also worked at a jazz club called The Bluebird, which was right down the street from both of us, within walking distance.
I met Barry because he was the house pianist at this club. At this time I was interested in jazz and I knew that this jazz club down the street from me featured the kind of jazz I was interested in. I would walk down there, when I was fifteen/sixteen to go listen outside. I was too young to get in so I would just listen outdoors. The musicians would come out on their breaks, especially in the summer, and that's how I met Barry.
He saw my horn and he would see us walking down the street with our horns so he knew we played. He just said, "Well, sometimes you can come over and I will show you some things. That is how I met him.
AAJ: So the lessons were kind of informal?
CM: Informal only in that it wasn't some university setting. Formal in terms of how organized it was. Once I started coming, I guess he figured that I had some talent, and once he saw that, then he got more organized in, "Okay now what should I show him and how shall I show him....what's the best way? And then this started a process for him, I think, in seriously thinking about how to teach or to teach at all. And to this day Barry's main livelihood, he teaches more than he actually plays.
He's in the New York area now, been there since the '60s. He has really changed his life into more of a teacher. He goes all over the world and teaches in colleges and universities, in Europe and anyplace else. So he does that, maybe, eighty percent of the time. Twenty percent maybe he plays clubs or something. But most of the time he's really teaching heavily. So back in those days, which was middle-to-late '50s, he hadn't thought of himself has a teacher per se, you know he knows a lot and knew a lot, he'd be willing to share things with people and stuff.
And then there was another youngster, my age, that lived in the neighborhood, who was very talented. A guy named Lonnie Hillyer. Lonnie, of course he passed around the mid-'80s, but anyway [was] a very talented man. We all lived in this neighborhood within blocks of each other. He [Barry] became very organized in how to formulate ideas and methods of teaching, and how to do it, the whole bit. Just in doing it with us, Lonnie and myself. Then, I think he got pretty serious about it. We worked Barry hard because he was working with two young guys who were pretty serious about it. We'd come over his house and he would show us about mostly harmony and theory. Pretty soon we were playing.
I left Detroit, around '59 and went to New York. After being there for a few months I ended up auditioning for Charlie Mingus and, in fact, Lonnie did as well. We both joined Mingus' band around late '59.
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?
CM: 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.
AAJ: 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.
The Legacy of Bird
AAJ: Often, when you're reviewedyour 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.
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.
AAJ: Your first albums on Prestige were under your own name. Mentor Barry Harris was on piano. Was this your actual working group, or was there just that chemistry which gave an organic aspect to the overall feel when in the studio?
CM: The first record I did with Barry it was his date, he's the boss. So I'm just doing what he wants and how he wants to do it. I had a real affinity with Barry musically, so anything he wanted to do with music was fine with me, generally. But you know he's ten years older than I am. Lonnie, I think, was on that date as well and other people, of course. It was Barry's date, his music, his arrangements; we just, of course, deferred to him.
My first record date under my name was Bebop Revisited (Prestige, 1964), with Barry on piano.
AAJ: Two of your earliest Prestige albums were live datesCharles McPherson Quintet Live (Prestige, 1966) and Live at the Five Spot 1966 (Prestige, 1966)featuring the same band. Was there a greater appeal to you in making live records?
CM: As it does now, in a way. A live date is more apt to capture the spontaneity and the real feeling of extemporaneous improvisation. Really what that supposedly means, and what you would like it to mean, is this element of spontaneity.
Live dates tend to have that ambience more than studio. Now studios are cleaner, more pristine. And perhaps more organized, so you are able to deal with the sound, and sound problems, and mics and that whole bit. Live dates are a little more problematic in that area, of course, but at the same time they do tend to have a certain electricity about them. The fact that the audience is there, and [that] you hear people. So its more organic so far as I'm concerned, and if everything is in place: you have a great group; the synergy is there (with the people you're playing with); the music is well rehearsed and well digested by everybody; the room is great; the piano is great; the audience is great; the acoustics in the room unto themselves are very good; everybody's happy; the engineers are happy; and everything is so relaxed that the players actually maybe forget, in a way, that they are recording, then that's great.
Sources of Inspiration
AAJ: It seems like a generational thing that people of a certain age, when they cite their wellspring of improvisation they cite Bird, but then people of a different age will say Coltrane or Sonny Rollins.
CM: It is, but see, that is by way of Charlie Parker. You still hear Charlie Parker. It's just once you get away from it now you're starting to emulate people that emulate people that emulated. So you get these generations and you get far down. You get so far it's not direct anymore.
You've got to realize that all these people that are enamored of Charlie Parker, also there are these differences. Yet everyone is still who they are and they are a little different. It is almost as if you takeand this is the way evolution comes about artistically quite often or certainly within musiceveryone learns from someone else. You take that which you learn, and you are influenced by this or that. Then, as you grow as an artist yourself or performer, hopefully you grow into your own way of doing things musically (and whatever else).
You think of John Coltrane for instance, he's a child of bebop. Coltrane was born in 1926; he's just six years younger than Charlie Parker. He's not twenty years younger than Charlie Parker. Charlie Parker was already a full-fledged genius, while 'Trane was six years younger and not nearly as good as Charlie Parker at that time.
Charlie Parker is like a big brother to people like Miles Davis, Coltrane. He's like a father figure to me but he's a big brother to those guys. He's only a couple, few years older than those people. So people like Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, they come up as people who are very influenced by people like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
When they add their own little thing to the language, like Sonny Rollins is different than 'Trane; so what he [Coltrane] got from Charlie Parker and what he did with it is different than what Sonny Rollins got from Bird and what he does with it. Because of your own individual person, [you] will tweak this or that. So it comes out a little differently. But they both have one common denominator and that is Charlie Parker.
Yet still 'Trane developed into what he did and Sonny Rollins is different. But it's like a family tree; they both go back to this. The farther back you go everybody's all connected up some way.
So here I am, I don't sound like Phil Woods, I don't sound like Cannonball. Cannonball doesn't sound like Lou Donaldson. But we all have one common denominator and that is Charlie Parker, along with 'Trane and Sonny Rollins and everybody else. Now Charlie Parker had Lester Young and Buster Smith and Louis Armstrong and whomever. Louis Armstrong had somebody, whoever it is; but everybody has somebody.
He [Charlie Parker] was one of the innovator guys. There have been a few but his influence was so seductive because he was so good in so many areas. Such a perfect player, and at such a young age. That's what is so amazing. The older I get the amazement is, "Wow this guy was so young and able to be this.
East Coast/West Coast and Touring
AAJ: Eventually you moved from New York to the west coast. Did you initially find the social/artistic climate different and did it have any impact on your work?
CM: Yes, and it still is different. Maybe the difference is three thousand miles or something. It is different. The musicians in New York seem to, are much more...it would be exactly what you would expect. Weather definitely effects temperament, and how people feel and what they do, when they do it. Back east it's a whole different vibe and it certainly reflects in the music. What is that? I would say there is a different kind of energy that east coast musicians seem to be involved with. They both have different energies. There is certainly a different temperament. I am not judging it whether good or bad; I am just saying that there is a difference.
AAJ: With almost no place allowing smoking now, air travel far less rarefied and all we know about the importance of eating right, has the nature of touring changed? Has it become easier but less fun?
CM: Touring is certainly better to play in places where there's no smoking or to be anyplace where there is no smoking. We all know its better for your health, but it feels better to play in an environment like that. It is easier to go from point A to point B. Not like when people were getting around on buses or trains. But it is expensive. Traveling with five musicians, and the overweight instrument charges and the heightened security makes it unpleasant.
For instance, if I were to take a group to Europe, where ten-fifteen years ago the bassist would take his basshe would either buy a ticket to have a seat for the bass or a huge case that the bass could be in and be in the belly of the plane and get off he plane in Europe somewhere and go make the gigsnow the ticket for a bass is too expensive or just traveling intra-Europe on the small commuter planes it isn't really feasible to bring a bass fiddle. The bass players now have to rent a bass, so that is harder than it used to be. Some guys still travel with theirs or they use a rental that might be OK, but likely not a great instrument.
AAJ: When on the road do you bring your own band or use local pick-up ensembles for each city?
CM: Both. Sometimes I will bring my own group, but sometimes I might go as a single to Europe, for instance, and play with whomever. I might go to Holland and I'll play with Dutch musicians. Sometimes I might bring a group and tour, say through Italy. So it works both ways, but it is better to work with your own group.
AAJ: Out of your rich body of work, what are your favorite recordings and the ones which you would recommend to someone just discovering your work?
CM: Of recent times I would say Come Play with Me (Arabesque Records, 1995), some of my Arabesque records of late and Manhattan Nocturne (Arabesque Records, 1998). Maybe older stuff; there's one I did as tribute to Billie Holiday involving strings, doing tunes that she made popular and a couple of tunes that she wrote as well. It's on a label called Mainstream, it's called Siku Ya Bib (Mainstream Records, 1972), which is Swahili for "The Day of the Lady. It has arrangements by Jimmy Wilkins, with strings and orchestra on there, and we are doing mostly ballads and tunes that she did.
AAJ: Do you have any dream projects which you have yet a chance to do?
CM: I did a project for Arabesque three or four years ago with a string quartet. I wrote some of the arrangements, [and] a young pianist wrote a few more of the arrangements. They haven't released it yet. There are some issues with this record company. Hopefully, they'll put that out in another year or so. It has some nice ballads, some of the [Great] American Songbook.
If I could push a button and do what I wanted to right now, I would like to do a CD of Afro-Cuban music, some of the Latin-based genre of music; mix the jazz with that. I do like that kind of music; I like the congas and the timbales. I would like to do a project with that kind of a rhythm section, with all of the sound effects and that kind of thing. I want to approach the music going that way.
AAJ: You used congas on Manhattan Nocturne, correct?
CM: Yeah, a couple of time. So I have flirted with it, but I would like to do a whole album like that.
Then it's a work in progress. I always want my latest thing to be the best.
Charles McPherson, Live At The Cellar (Cellar Jazz, 2002)
Charles McPherson, Manhattan Nocturne (Arabesque Records, 1998)
Charles McPherson, Come Play With Me (Arabesque Records, 1995)
Charles McPherson, Illusions In Blue (Chazz Jazz, 1995)
Charles McPherson, First Flight Out (Arabesque Records, 1994)
Charles McPherson, Follow the Bouncing Ball (Musicraft Records, 1992)
Charles McPherson, The Prophet (Discovery Records, 1984)
Charles McPherson, Free Bop (Xanadu Records, 1978)
Charles McPherson, New Horizons (Xanadu Records, 1977)
Charles McPherson, Live In Tokyo (Xanadu Records, 1976)
Charles McPherson, Today's Man (Mainstream Records, 1974)
Charles McPherson, Siku Ya Bibi (Mainstream Records, 1972)
Charles McPherson, McPherson's Mood (Prestige Records, 1969)
Charles McPherson, Horizons (Prestige Records, 1969)
Charles McPherson, From This Moment On! (Prestige Records, 1968)
Charles McPherson, The Quintet Live! (Prestige Records, 1966)
Charles McPherson, Live At The Five Spot (Prestige Records. 1966)
Charles McPherson, Con Alma! (Prestige Records, 1965)
Charles McPherson, Be-bop Revisited! (Prestige Records, 1964)
Top Photo: Jos L. Knaepen
Center Photo: Courtesy of Charles McPherson
Bottom Photo: Sue Storey