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Charles McPherson: The Art Of Teaching

Photo credit: Tina Krohn

Jim Trageser By

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To teach is to learn. You’ve brought it out of the world of the mind and brought it into a three-dimensional reality. In order to do that, you have to define it, and to define it, you really do have to understand it. —Charles McPherson
Charles McPherson will always be known for his alto sax playing. A favorite of Hollywood director Clint Eastwood, McPherson first gained a national reputation playing in Charles Mingus' combo in the late 1950s. By 1964 he was recording as a leader (although he'd continue to perform with Mingus for another half-decade), and later re-created Charlie Parker's playing for the 1988 Eastwood film Bird.

Still busy into his ninth decade, the 81-year-old McPherson has recently added another role to his already busy schedule: Teacher.

And, he says, teaching online has been a salve during a pandemic that has kept him—like most musicians—from being able to perform.

"I've always done it to some extent," McPherson said of teaching by phone earlier this month from his San Diego home. "In the last seven, eight, nine years I've concentrated more on teaching. Years ago, I'd have one student, but never consistently. What happens is, you get one student, and then they tell someone else: word of mouth, the grapevine. They grow up, they go to college, and then they're gone—but new ones come up because they've heard of me.

"I've got a kind of a rep now—people like Wynton Marsalis know that I teach. People who chair jazz departments across the U.S. will give my number. I do clinics as well. People will come from out of town. I do clinics and master classes all over the world—I've been doing that for a while now. In a town like San Diego, basically not really a big city, everybody knows what you're doing."

Still, it's not as if McPherson is focused solely on teaching: He has a new album coming out September 20, Jazz Dance Suites (Chazz Mack), and is working with the San Diego Ballet (where his daughter Camille is a featured soloist) on a related new production—many of the songs on the new CD will be choreographed for the performance (hopefully live, otherwise streamed online).

"I love to play and perform—I just love it," he said in expounding on his philosophical approach to both music and teaching. "If I could push a button and do only that, I would do that. I love to play the horn. I would do that all day every day.

"But I'm the kind of guy if I'm going to teach, then I have to give it my all! Even though I'd rather be playing a gig, I can't shortchange anybody. If I'm doing it, I'm doing it! It's got to be fun for them and me—I've learned how to do that.

"Also, I discovered that to teach is to learn. I never thought of that before. That gave me more of an incentive. Don't feel like teaching is wasting your time. The minute you have to put abstract concepts into three-dimensional language, then you have to explain things that maybe you yourself never thought about in a deep way because you could just do it. To put it into words for somebody who can't do it, it forces you to come up with words to define exactly what you mean.

"In that is the lesson for yourself. It cements a concept in your own mind that you might have just glossed over. To teach is to learn. You've brought it out of the world of the mind and brought it into a three-dimensional reality. In order to do that, you have to define it, and to define it, you really do have to understand it. To put abstract concepts into simple words then you really have to understand whatever it is you're talking about."

While the pandemic has forced him to stop teaching his San Diego students in person, teaching online has allowed him to expand his geographic reach.

"People from New York, people from Europe—you're able to do that. They know who I am, they know I teach. It's not just local—even though that's the bulk of it."

He laughingly said he wasn't too keen on the whole online Zoom meeting concept at first—but said his wife, Lynn, worked with him to get up to speed and now he finds advantages to it.

"A lot of the young musicians, this is all their world. They know a lot about this. A guy like me, I'm 81 years old—it's kind of daunting to me. To me, it's better to not be online. The ideal thing is to be right there in the room with the people—whether you're teaching or performing. Although, online you can be less distracted in a very subtle way. Now you have knowledge to be dispersed to somebody—it's just pure 'I'm here, you're here.'"

Interestingly, he occasionally gets non-saxophonists as students—but given his own history as a student of pianist Barry Harris, perhaps that isn't surprising.

"I get piano players, trumpet players. Really, what I teach them is improvising: how to improvise, how to be creative. I have to show them.

"Different students look for different things, and students are at different levels. I usually don't take students who don't know anything. My students usually know something about theory and harmony. There's some stuff you have to know—you have to know scales, harmony, at least Western harmony. There's craft you have to have. I just give the information I think is pertinent and valid and insightful and informative. I figure out how to give the information, what language to use, depending on the level the student is at. Then how do you use it. Most of them know something. I really show them how to use it, what to focus on.

"There's a trick in teaching. First of all, you have to know the level of who you are teaching—how much do they know, how much do they not know. If you do it long enough and think about it, you do learn how. You have to be good at nailing abstract, complicated concepts in 10 words or less, and be able to use analogy and metaphor to bring about the understanding and cause the epiphany for the student. Then the student will say, 'Ah! I see!' Even if they don't quite understand all of the mechanics, they see the general picture and then you fill in the specifics.

"One thing I learned about explaining complex, abstract constructs to a student who doesn't know as much as you is you have to be a master of metaphor and analogy. You have to be able to come up with analogies or metaphors that make the point. You're talking to a student who is still learning the language of whatever you are teaching, but they have to learn the functionality of what it is—not just the semantics. You're doing more than one thing at a time, depending on the level of the student's knowledge."

McPherson emphasized that he believes in teaching the students the why of what they're doing, not just the how. He said if they understand the big picture, it can make it easier for them to grasp the details.

"I've learned how to do that. That to me is really the real meaning of teaching. I had a student once who had Asperger's. When his father first came to me, I could tell something was amiss because the son didn't look at me, he didn't speak, he just came in the house and sat down. I thought he was rude or spoiled, because that's how it can appear if you don't know. I gave him a lesson and said I wanted to talk to his father. The father said he was just shy—but later on, they had him tested, and he was on the Spectrum. I went online and learned everything I could about Asperger's—traits, how do they learn, what does it look like to them. I adjusted the way I taught him. And the guy was like a little genius—but the regular mechanical way of doing things didn't resonate with him. But if I did it, he could replicate it!"

Every teacher—in every discipline—is, of course, influenced by their own teachers. In the case of McPherson's students, they're gaining from his relationship with his formative teacher, pianist Barry Harris.

McPherson's family moved from his native Joplin, Mo., to Detroit when he was nine years old. Down the street from his family's new home was The Blue Bird Club— where Harris was in the house band with drummer Elvin Jones and bassists Paul Chambers and Beans Richardson.

"When I met Barry, he was about 24 or 25, and I was about 15. By that time I had already started playing saxophone—meeting him is when I learned about theory and harmony, which one must really understand in order to improvise or compose.

"Miles Davis was living in Detroit at that time, and this club was kind of a home base for him for awhile. I used to listen outside; I was too young to go in. I would just listen, and then the musicians would come out and take a break and this was how I met Barry. Other young musicians would be listening out front—15, 16, 17 years old. This was a very famous club, and great musicians were playing there, so up and coming youngsters would sit out front, learning.

"There is a certain approach that Barry had that I remember was helpful for me. It was really that you have to make the student understand basic harmony—basic Western harmony, if you will. There are a lot of ways to teach it. His way was quite effective—you have to make things simple."

While McPherson taught a small-combo improv class at San Diego State in the early 1980s, he said it has been offering private lessons that has most developed his approach to teaching. He defined his mode of teaching as coming down to craft vs. art, and incorporating both.

"When I teach, I kind of delineate the two concepts. And I have two different approaches: I show them things that have to do with academia—basically, it's a craft, you do this, you learn these scales, you practice this way. I give them a lot of information on how to go about practicing and learning the craft—just the physicalities of the instrument, of harmony and theory. I'm showing them things. I think of left brain vs. right brain: it's all information, but it's processed in different ways and I'm aware of that. I give them things to practice that are concrete, that are definite.

"The other part of the brain that's dealing with art: the analytical part of the brain is taking the information, looking at it upside down and understanding it. That part of the brain is taking that information and, because of the flow of consciousness, everything you have learned will come out and show itself.

"Using a basketball practice as an analogy, the coach says 'I want all you guys to just practice layups for a half hour.' This next 15 minutes is nothing but jump shots, then 30 minutes of 3-point shots. Now, when a game starts what happens is all these things you have been practicing, whatever the moment demands is what you do. Whatever the particular moment and geography of the player in relation to the other players and the basket, you are ready to do it. This is how I approach practicing. You practice these very analytic things, but when the game starts all bets are off and all bets are on! Now it's the flow of consciousness—to be creative in the moment. You have the tools, but you have to know which tool to use in the moment.

"I'm aware that the brain is a big fat piece of meat that's very compartmentalized, but there is another thing that coordinates everything to work as one. I tip my hat to both hemispheres and let them know that there is a unifying frame of mind that actually puts you in the right place to take all the information and let it organically come out.

"I try to be aware of all of that."

Given his own decades as a performer and recording artist, McPherson said he also tries to impart basic rudiments of the business side of music to those students who indicate a desire to enter the field professionally.

"Music is a pretty big area. You can stand up and play sax, trumpet, piano, or sing. You can also compose. You can teach. There's a lot of things they can do. We're living in an age of information. I tell them to go online and learn everything they can about making money. It's not just about playing "Giant Steps" in a bar someplace. There's the digital world, the streaming world. Understand as much as possible. A lot of people make money through music. It's not all playing in a club—but that's the fun!

"You have to have an understanding with whomever you're working for: It's good to have contracts. People get screwed, and certainly jazz musicians are open to being screwed. You hope that doesn't happen. The jazz musician kind of has a hard time: First of all, you're dealing with a form that isn't really popular. It's esoteric, but it's not a popular form. It's art music, it's not show business music. Art in any society is precarious, and jazz is art. You proceed at your own risk. Learn more about the business end of music and if you want to be a performer then you have to zero in on that but still know the business side."

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