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.

AAJ: What about your own music roots?

JM: I am thinking about how I felt the first time I heard John Coltrane's, "Chasing the Trane." I worked in this auto factory on second shift, and the moment I got out of work, I would turn on this Chicago radio station that played jazz. There was something about the atmosphere that came in so clear. And then "Chasing the Trane" came on, and I never heard anything like that in my life. So I parked in front of where I lived, opened the windows wide open, put the seat back, with my mouth hanging wide open, and turned the radio up as loud as it could blow. Then my father came out and asked, "What is wrong with you?"

In the morning, I immediately went to our only record store [Record Land] where you could actually listen to an LP before you bought it, and I bought it and listened to it over and over. I had never heard anything like it in my life. It was really something.

But I have now been playing the alto sax for over 30 years, and at this late age, I am also trying to learn the clarinet, because one of these days I am going to dedicate some music to the Savoy Sultans, with a group of similar instrumentation. It will not be that style of music, but it will be as tribute to them, so there are those connections, and I definitely want to make the project happen. I am going to do it.

AAJ: Did you ever see Coltrane perform live?

JM: I first saw Coltrane live at the Village Gate in 1962, with his quartet that included Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison. And the closest I can compare this experience is to being on a jet plane going down the runway. It starts up, you hear the engines, and you begin to get a rush. Then things begin to speed up and race, and there is that sound that slowly speeds up and gets louder. Shuuuuuu ... shuuuuu ... shuuuu ... shuuu ... shuu ... shu. And then you have this anxiety just before liftoff, and it happens, and you go up.

When Coltrane came on stage, it was like that. They built it up and up and up, and I thought I was going to die. I mean, I couldn't even breathe! It was like there was not enough oxygen in the room. It was an extraordinary experience. I really don't like the word "awesome," but that's what it was.

AAJ: Let's talk about some of your recordings. Your record Underground Railroad might make some people think about the history of the Underground Railroad for the first time.

JM: Well, I'm glad to hear that, and thank you for saying that. And that is absolutely the point of why I gave it those titles—so that perhaps someday, somebody might be curious and further investigate what that means. I thought that it might be the only chance that I had, because someone has to be interested in searching for that information. And there are so many nuances as to why, what and who, that you cannot put all that into the music. That's another level completely.

AAJ: So say more about this specific recording, Underground Railroad.

JM: In my notes, it was "dedicated to the Black experience here on planet Earth." So what the hell does that mean, and why did I say that? But it's not just about color, it's about people. It was a way of focusing on people's experiences on this planet in 1968. I don't know what's happening on Saturn, but on this planet, we were doing some pretty awful things to each other. And we had been before that, and we still are.

And the Underground Railroad ran through upstate New York, where I live. We definitely did not learn about it through school. What we did know is that it was a way for slaves to escape to the North. Max Roach talks about how they were helped and why the North Star was so important. And so this opened up a door for me to start investigating about my own history. I was the first person in my family to be born in the United States, since my parents were from a very British background.

My life was probably saved due to lightning striking our house in a storm in Miami where everything was destroyed. After that, my father didn't want to raise his family in the South. So he took a job in Poughkeepsie, New York, and that's how I ended up here. But I don't think I would be here today if I would have had to grow up in Miami, Florida back then. It would have been an entirely different set of circumstances.

AAJ: But it must have been difficult growing up Black anywhere in the '50s and '60s?

JM: Well, I grew up in a very integrated school in a neighborhood that included many immigrant and first-generation families that were like my own. So, in that respect, we all had a lot in common. But things really changed when I was 13 years old and going to high school. I remember being on a corner waiting for my schoolmates that I had known for over 8 years. But all of a sudden, I am waiting on the corner by myself. Nobody came, and now I realize that something was different. I mean, how could I have been so stupid? But I just didn't know.

So now, socially, I'm beginning to date and socialize, and I find out that certain things just didn't work. And then in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered while on a summer vacation. Riots broke out in school, and things like that began to happen. What? What's happening? And then in 1962, I was off to Buffalo, NY, on a Greyhound bus, and at that time, Freedom Riders were on buses that were being burned, with people inside of them!

AAJ: How did this affect you?

JM: I'll give you an example. I was on a Greyhound bus with my friends, and we were taking one of them to register for college at Buffalo State University. We went into this little lounge to buy some beer and then left when we were finished. However, we were followed by some guys who had chains and brass knuckles, and they wanted to beat the shit out of us. It was like a bad science-fiction movie, and we only escaped by being able to outrun them. And people were trying to hit us with their cars because they automatically assumed that we had done something wrong. I was punched and got my jaw dislocated, and was then knocked to the pavement, and was covered with dirt and road tar.

That was so humiliating and so awful—and to also be chased by the police as if we were the bad guys. The police never even asked us what happened. It put things in perspective in the land of the free, home of the brave! But you know what, none of that even comes close to what the real brave souls on those Freedom Rides experienced.

When Martin Luther King died in 1968, there was a rally and a parade in Poughkeepsie. And I was in the front of the parade wearing my army boots, black pants, black shirt, black tie, black beret, and kind of looked like the Panthers even though I didn't know much about them. I was wearing what appeared to be a symbol, but I was really wearing these clothes because I was in mourning, and I wore as much black as I could.

The police and the F.B.I. were there, and James Meredith came and gave a speech. And you know what he said? He said, "You better go home and get your guns." And everybody was stunned. What? He said we needed to protect ourselves, and do it now. Whoa, think about that! I only knew that we were there to mourn Dr. Martin Luther King and that it was important to be there. There were speeches, rallies, and it was important to be involved.
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