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Joe McPhee: Artistic Sacrifice from a Musical Prophet

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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He could have easily chosen a different path: a more successful one or, perhaps we should say, a more commercial one. But that has never been the style or the character of multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee. His saint-like humility reflects a gentle and wise creative spirit; his music and poetry are a mirror into the human condition. He has never catered to the shortsighted vision of industry trends, and he expresses himself with a language that is in tune within his innermost spiritual beauty.

To imagine an artist that could create from aspects of romanticism, abstraction, impressionism, modernism, realism, futurism or surrealism is to have a better understanding of McPhee's sound landscape. The most creative music lies between the known and the unknown, yet McPhee always pushes towards the spheres of the unknown; his music always begins from a set of values, along with an unorthodox attitude that intensely penetrates from ground zero, every single time. He paints and expresses sound in real time, and the complexity of his art form makes it unlikely to gain many listeners from the shallow depths of revenue-driven pop culture—far from it.

Artists like McPhee are not motivated by money because it doesn't exist here; they create because there is no choice if art is going to survive. It is a passion and it is a sacrifice, and there are no compromises...at any level.McPhee's Nation Time (CJR, 1970), Underground Railroad (CJR, 1969), Pieces of Light (CJR, 1974) and Trinity (CJR, 1971) define a period of time, and will forever stand as monuments in the era of civil rights. These are pieces of music with critical artistic values that represent what it is to express freely, while in the shadows of oppression. It is art expressed in all its glory and greatness, and McPhee is its prophet.

All About Jazz: Let go back to your roots.

Joe Mcphee: My father was born in the Bahamas, on the island called Exuma, and he came from a very British background. He ended up working for a Greek sponge fisherman who taught him how to speak Greek but also taught him how to run a business, how to keep the books, et cetera. He was really amazing.

But my father left Exuma in 1927, at the age of 25, because he wanted to become an American citizen. He had hoped to join an Army band in Arizona, but at that time, the military was segregated. When he finally did arrive in the United States, the band had already disbanded, so he was stuck in Florida. But it's also where he met my mother, who was from Nassau.

I had the opportunity to take him back to Exuma in 1970, and that was his first time back home since 1927. And at that time, the Bahamas were just about to get their independence, and he couldn't quite understand the concept of not having a king and queen.

My mother's maiden name was Cooper, and her uncle was Alfonso Cooper, who was the leader of the Savoy Sultans. Grachan Moncur who was a bassist in The Sultans was also the father of Grachan Moncur III, the trombonist. He and Alfonso were half brothers and had the nickname "brother," and Al [Alfonso] Cooper, the clarinetist and alto player, was the leader of the band. They were a jump band and the house band at the Savoy Ballroom in New York, and they were also the band that everybody had to go through. If you were a player and came to New York, you had to go through the Sultans. They played between 1937 and 1946, and they were really something.

I had the opportunity to interview Alfonso in 1970 and was hoping to have it published in Cadence Magazine. As a result, I took along a tape recorder to capture the conversation, but became so caught up in the stories of what it was like traveling the "Chitlin Circuit" that I forgot to turn on the tape recorder. Their food was placed on trays, outside on doorsteps, while [they were] being treated like dogs.

Unfortunately, it wasn't long later that Alfonso died. But I was reading an interview with Grachan Moncur in Cadence Magazine a few years ago, and he, too, had an interview with Alfonso and also forgot to turn on his tape recorder. [Laughs.]

However, I did get an interview with Panama Francis, as he and my father were close friends. When Panama was a kid, he wanted to play drums with the Savoy Sultans, but he was too young, and they chased him away. Eventually, he formed his own version of the Savoy Sultans, and they played for years with some of the original members.

He also came to visit my father in 1993, and I was able to videotape their conversation. And Panama told me he was writing a book on how jazz developed on the East Coast, which was very different from what came up the Mississippi because of the Cuban influence. But it hasn't really been documented, not really.

Additionally, the music of Dizzy Gillespie and the Afro-Cuban thing is a lot closer to what Panama was talking about, but it isn't well documented, either. And, unfortunately, Panama died a few years ago, so I'm not sure what happened to his book.

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