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.