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Charles McPherson: Passionate Bopper

Ken Dryden By

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Charles McPherson, one of many artists inspired by Charlie Parker, has been a professional jazz musician for nearly a half-century. Growing up in Detroit, he played in his school band and studied with pianist Barry Harris. Soon after he left for New York City, McPherson joined Charles Mingus' band and recorded with the bassist on numerous occasions between 1960 and 1974. In addition to recording with Barry Harris, Art Farmer, Lionel Hampton and Charles Tolliver, among others, the alto saxophonist has led around two dozen dates of his own and played the ensemble parts for the soundtrack to the Charlie Parker biopic Bird.

All About Jazz: Did you grow up in a musical family?

Charles McPherson: Not really. My mom played a little bit of piano but I didn't know that she played until years later. She took lessons as a kid and could play a little blues. I'm an only child and didn't hear much music around the house until I moved to Detroit from Joplin, Missouri at the age of nine. I start playing trumpet and flugelhorn at twelve in junior high school. When I went to join the band, I wanted to play saxophone, but there weren't any available; I had a choice of trumpet and drums. My mom bought me a sax at thirteen and that's when I really got into music. I loved the saxophone immediately.

AAJ: Were you listening to jazz then?

CM: Yeah, but we didn't have a lot of records around the house. I listened to Johnny Hodges and Duke Ellington. I hadn't heard any bebop then. I probably bought a Johnny Hodges book. At fourteen, a guy in the band who was a little older told me to check out Charlie Parker. One day I saw Bird's name in the jukebox, I played it and that was it! It made perfect sense to me; I didn't have to wean myself to the music. It was around 1953. When I found out he was a part of the group of modern jazz musicians, I was hooked. There was a club called the Bluebird down the street from my house. When I found out that it featured this music I had just discovered, it was heaven. I started going down there to listen to the music and stood outside because I was too young to get in. The house band was Elvin Jones, Pepper Adams, Thad Jones, Paul Chambers and Barry Harris, all great musicians.

AAJ: You played or recorded with most of them later.

CM: I played with Pepper a couple of times and alongside him with Mingus. I never worked with Thad Jones, but I played with Barry Harris quite a bit. I was on record dates with Paul Chambers. By the time I could take part in the jazz community, all of them were already gone from Detroit, it was starting to dwindle during the middle 1950s.

AAJ: Was your recording debut with Charles Mingus in 1960?

CM: Yeah, for Candid. I started working with Mingus around 1959; Eric Dolphy was in the group at the time and he had handed in his notice. I joined the band, along with a young Detroit trumpeter, Lonnie Hillyer. I stayed, off and on, for twelve years with Mingus.

AAJ: You did quite a bit of recording with Mingus. What was it like working with him?

CM: He was a hard person to work with because he was very particular. He insisted on his music being played with a certain amount of passion and gusto. But he was moody and confrontational, not with us, but with audiences. He demanded silence from people, if we were playing a ballad, he would get outraged with a guy talking at a front table and stop to tell him to shut up. It would put a strain on the performances. Some people would threaten to come back and shoot him. He had ethics: he had a good heart, he paid fairly well and if you played his music well, there was no problem. I got along with him.

AAJ: How do you go about composing?

CM: I have to be inspired to write. Some of the better things I've written are the ones that wrote themselves, that came easy. I can make deadlines to write for a record date, though it can be laborious until the juices loosen up. I go to the piano, the horn or I sing it and it writes itself. Usually, I write better when I'm happy.

AAJ: Do you find yourself having ideas come to you at odd times?

CM: That happens a lot, great ideas happen when I walk the dog. I carry a tape recorder in case an idea hits. I use the piano, but I'm not trained. My wife teaches classical piano and she is very well trained. We have a nice piano. She has shown me how to finger things, but I can solo a little bit if they're not too fast and I can write with it.

AAJ: Are there any composers who influenced your writing style?

CM: I think I got something from Mingus by way of osmosis. I can hear something reminiscent of him in a couple of my tunes, though it's not like I tried for it. I listen to Monk, Bird, Dizzy and some classical composers. For me, there's a background in my consciousness that's like a river, with musical chords, notes and musical statements that are always there, that are disorganized and not constructed, freely floating around. If I feel moved, I'll take elements of it and construct something.

AAJ: What do you have in the can and what are your future plans?

CM: I have a record that was recorded a couple of years ago that hasn't come out, with a string quartet, with just all ballads. There's a money issue, so it hasn't been released.

AAJ: Tell me about your upcoming show with Tom Harrell at Dizzy's Club.

CM: I work with Tom quite often. I first worked with him on a Larry Vuckovich date in the early 1980s. He's a beautiful player. We do some of his originals, some of mine, Bird & Diz and standards. We'll [also] feature the trio [Ronnie Mathews, Ray Drummond and Jimmy Cobb] on a tune.

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