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2007 marks the 40th anniversary of a major event in jazz, the passing of John Coltrane. It also marks another event that may escape most people, a birth of sorts: the recording debut of multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, as a sideman on Clifford Thornton's Freedom And Unity, recorded the day after Coltrane's funeral. Those 48 hours were a watershed period in McPhee's life.
McPhee grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY. At 8, his father, who played trumpet on the side, called him in from playing in the streets and presented him with a trumpet. He told him it was time to play. "I much preferred to be playing in the street. But that was the beginning of it. He was a very good trumpet player, a first chair trumpet player. He was a big Louis Armstrong fan. In fact, he even looked like Louis Armstrong. I played trumpet all through high school but then I didn't want to play anymore. I got tired of playing in marching bands and all that sort of thing. I wanted to study electronic technology in college. But then I got drafted. When presented with the option of playing in the Army band or going into the infantry, "That was a no brainer. That was how I ended up in Germany in the Army Band. But it turned out OK. Playing everyday and learning theory and that stuff, it was a great experience.
Back in the US in 1965, McPhee lived in Poughkeepsie but spent a lot of time in New York. He immersed himself in the then-evolving new jazz. He struck up a partnership with Thornton. One day he was alone at his loft on Barrow Street. "I was in the apartment practicing and there was a knock on the door. I opened it and there was Ornette with this trumpet. [He had a loft in the same building.] I think it was a Bach Stradivarius trumpet, if I remember correctly. And he said, 'I heard you playing. Why don't you try this one?' "I couldn't believe it! Ornette Coleman was handing me this trumpet? And I hadn't even met him before! He said, 'When you're finished with it, just put it back.' That kind of encouragement convinced McPhee to pursue his direction.
A short while later, Coleman's generosity manifested itself again with McPhee. "Coltrane had died. I ran into Ornette at Clifford's apartment and he said, 'Are you going to go to the funeral?' I said, 'I don't have any clothes. I don't look presentable.' Ornette said, 'That doesn't matter. Come on.' Coleman and Ayler played at the funeral. "After the funeral Ornette came up to me again and said, 'We're going out to Long Island for the burial, do you want to come with us?' "He, Billy Higgins, Harold Avent [Thornton's drummer] and I piled into the car. In the process, we got stuck in heavy traffic, so when we got there, the ceremony at the gravesite was over but there was a tent over the grave. Seeing Ornette alone standing over Coltrane's grave was...it's hard to describe...it was a very moving experience. The next day, McPhee entered the studio with Clifford Thornton and his recording career began.
But by 1968, McPhee was feeling the trumpet wasn't the full extent of his range. He was hearing other voices in his head. "I was buying all these records by Coltrane, Ayler and Coleman. And they were all saxophonists. And I thought these were the players who were doing the real new music. So I thought, well, I'll try the saxophone. The transition was not easy.
"In the beginning with the saxophone, it was a question of building embouchure muscles and learning the technical aspects of the instrument. The dichotomy between playing the two instruments is always a struggle. "It's constant adjustment. In my opinion, the brass instruments are much more demanding in terms of muscular stamina because the sound is made by the physical vibration of the lips. I do some pretty extreme extended technical things which would never make me a candidate for a symphony chair but which informs my personal identity on the horns. It's a very destructive process, with bits and pieces of your body actually flying through the instrument along with the notes and sounds.
When he first played the saxophone in public with some musicians with whom he normally played, they told him not to bring the saxophone with him the next time he came. Ironically, these were the same musicians who played with McPhee a year later on Underground Railroad, his debut album.
It was around 1966 that McPhee met painter Craig Johnson. "Craig Johnson lived across the river from me in West Park and he worked at Holy Cross Monastery. He used to come and listen to us play music in this little bar we played at. We'd get into conversations about music from time to time and over drinks. He said 'Why don't we make a record?' Johnson had never done anything like that before. By the time Johnson had bought recording equipment, McPhee had made the leap to saxophone and the stage was set for his debut recording.