Charles McPherson
interview by Guy MacPherson
June 2004

GUY MACPHERSON: You're practically a Vancouverite now with the number of times you come up here to play.

CHARLES MCPHERSON: Well, yeah, I've been there a couple of times to Cory [Weed]'s club. Let me see... two, three, four... I would imagine about four times.

GM: So when are you just going to move up here?

CM: (laughs) It's very nice. Actually, sometimes I take my family. In fact, after coming up there once, I thought that they would enjoy Vancouver. And they did. I took them maybe the second time I went up there.

GM: Prior to playing Cory's club, had you ever played Vancouver before?

CM: Yeah, I played it years ago with Charlie Mingus in the '60s. In fact, at the other Cellar, the Cellar, which I guess is geographically not far from where Cory is now. Anyway, I played there... this was the middle '60s or late '60s.
[Ed. note: McPherson brought his touring quartet to the Starfish Room in Vancouver around 1999 or 2000.]

GM: When I was growing up, my dad was a jazz saxophone player, too. My name is MacPherson. He's Fraser MacPherson, I don't know if you've heard of him, but...

CM: Now wait a minute. He's a tenor player, right?

GM: Yeah.

CM: Okay, sure. How do you guys spell your name? Is it M-A-C?

GM: It's M-A-C. You're M-C. Yeah, and so as a kid, I'd always look in the record section to see if my dad was there. Or look up in a jazz book. And I'd always see you! Not him.

CM: Yeah. And with M-C instead of M-A-C. Yeah, through the years I've seen that name. "Okay, another MacPherson. And in Canada." But it was the other part of Canada, like Toronto, or something.

GM: No, it was Vancouver.

CM: Oh, it was Vancouver.

GM: You're playing up here, and you have been, with local musicians. Are you ever skeptical when you're put in that situation where you go into another town and you don't know the musicians you're playing with?

CM: Oh, definitely. Because quite often that can not be a good situation. Sometimes it is. More often than not, it's mediocre at best. In other words, quite often everything's at least professional. And that's usually the norm. And then it can be very bad. Or, every now and then it's very good. In this particular situation, I've worked with Jodi Proznick before. And also Ross [Taggart]. The events turned out nice. These people are very, very, very good. There's even a little symbiosis that can happen, which is an extra treat there.

GM: How long does it take you to assess, where you go, "Hey, these guys can play!"?

CM: It depends. Sometimes right away. The first five notes. Or sometimes the second set. Or the third tune in the first set. It's hard to say. Because even with a group that you work with all the time -- your group, let's say -- sometimes the first set is not it, and you've been playing together for years. So that's a hard one to nail down and have a written-in-stone construct about. But usually when there is symbiosis, or at least has the potential of manifesting, usually that's going to happen sooner or later. But there is such a thing as it never happening.

GM: That's gotta be an awkward situation.

CM: Well, yeah. It's stressful. It's stressful for the player, like me, for instance, who's the visitor. But it's also stressful for the players who are playing with people like me because for whatever reason, it might not be their fault or maybe it is their fault, but they feel the stress. So it's a big negative. Fortunately, this situation is very good, and I've already experienced these players before. Except the trumpet player [Brad Turner], and I hear that he's excellent. But he's not in the rhythm section, see? It's not like I have to actually depend on him, so that's a whole different thing. But anyway, it should be very nice.

GM: So when Cory approached you about doing the CD, you weren't hesitant at all about using these musicians.

CM: No, because I had already been up there a couple of times and played with them. And it was fine. And I get nice compliments on that [the CD]. I hope he can distribute it over here [the U.S.] as well.

GM: Was this your most recent CD?

CM: Let me see... The last one I did for an American label called Arabesque, and that was in '99. or something like that. Maybe '98 or '99. I did one for Arabesque just a few months ago. They'll probably release it maybe in the late fall or the winter or something. Maybe early spring. With strings, with a quartet. Playing ballads. Kinda the American songbook. Just love tunes. It's a concept/mood CD for sure. And hopefully they'll release that soon.

GM: Everything I read about you says you're a disciple of Charlie Parker. I also read, though, that one of your other influences was Johnny Hodges, which is at the other end of the spectrum.

CM: I've listened to a lot of people. You listen to a few people as mentors. You become enamored of players as a young apprentice yourself. And Johnny Hodges is different than Charlie Parker in that Charlie Parker plays a million notes and Johnny Hodges plays few notes, and things like that. But you learn from both. There are lessons to be learned from both. It doesn't make any difference. In fact, whatever the differences are, that's good because you're more apt to have more dimension when you have people that you look to that are slightly different from each other in different ways. And hopefully you will get the span, or just more dimension yourself as a young apprentice.

GM: You're drawing from more than just one--

CM: For instance, I don't listen to jazz records. I listen to classical records as much as jazz records, if not more. And then one could say, 'Well, what do they have to do with each other?' The point is that it's all music. Let's put it this way: It's like being a connoisseur of different cuisines. Everybody's using the same food. They're using meat, they're using carbohydrates, they're using vegetables. However, when you go to a Chinese restaurant, those same vegetables and meats -- pork, beef, whatever -- are being used just like in an American restaurant. But they're treated differently. And the spices are different. Well, to me, music's the same way. It's the same notes. It's still F, G, A, B, D minor. All those things are the same. The only thing that differs is the treatment of music itself. I mean, I listen to classical music, but I don't like everything [just] because it is classical. I do have my choices within that genre.

GM: Have you always, or is this something you've come to later?

CM: Well, maybe later. And when I say 'later' it doesn't mean 'lately'. It means 30 years ago. But I listen, and I like certain composers, like Brahms, and Bach very much so. But also Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich and people like that. Quite a few of them are the Russians, the rebels of their day. Bartok and people like that. So I do like that, but I love Bach. So I listen to it, and I learn from it. I also will listen to, like, Earth Wind & Fire, too. So I will listen to anyone. If I hear one bar or three bars or four bars that I like, I can make it mine. I like to do that, and it's a good thing to do. So it's all music to me, the way that you can make it yours. As a performer, as a player.

GM: You played with Mingus for what, 15 years?

CM: It was about 12 years.

GM: What was that experience like?

CM: Well, it was interesting. It was interesting because he was an interesting character.

GM: Did he ever punch you?

CM: Oh, no, no, no. No, but he was not above any of that. I've seen him get into brawls with people. With me, he liked me quite a bit. He didn't go that route. But I've seen him get into problems. He was confrontational and certainly very candid. And he's volatile. So those kinds of people get into stuff, you know? But he was a very strict disciplinarian in terms of the music. He wanted his music played a certain way. And he was never really satisfied. He was always digging deep to try to make it happen and he expected it out of his sidemen to give 110 per cent. Now, that can be a good learning situation to be with someone that exacts that kind of depthful performance, or at least trying to be that. So it was rough. He was not easy as a personality to be with. And his music wasn't that easy, anyway. But when it was right, it was heartfelt and very exciting.

GM: Did you ever think during those 12 years, "I can't take it."

CM: Yeah, I did. One time I quit and I worked for the Internal Revenue for about a year. Then I couldn't take that! Then I went back and finished out my stay with him for a while. By 1972, that was about it. But off and on I was in that band for about 12 years.

GM: And you learned a lot musically?

CM: Well, definitely composition-wise. I learned more about writing. And not that I was trying to learn or was conscious of it. But I can hear some of my own original compositions and to me there are little nuances there that smack of Mingus to me. I can hear that, and it's like, "Oh, wow, this reminds me of this tune, or maybe two bars of this Mingus." It's like slowly by osmosis I'm being influenced from being around him. More that way, in a compositional way, I think the influence for me was, rather than the playing or the performing per se.

GM: In Oscar Peterson's biography, it says, "One slim and slight alto saxophonist who worked for him [Mingus] was so afraid of Mingus that he carried a .32 automatic in his back pocket when he went on the bandstand with him."

CM: I don't know who that was. It wasn't me. It might have been somebody like Shafi Hadi. Because I know there was a Detroit guy who's older than me that was in Mingus's earlier band, like late '50s. You know what? I've never heard that story. But when I think of all the saxophone players that worked with Mingus, he would be the one who I could see that fitting his personality profile. Yeah, because I don't know if he was afraid of Mingus --I don't know if that's the right word. It might have been that this guy definitely did not take any stuff. He did not take any kind of crap from people. If it's the same person. In other words, he didn't take any foolishness, and if it meant him being armed, he was willing to do that. He definitely wasn't the type to take foolishness.

GM: It was a different time, wasn't it?

CM: Yeah, definitely. That's a funny story. And this guy... I bet money it was him. He was tall and skinny. He was a decent saxophone player. He was pretty good. He's from Detroit. And I'm from Detroit. I remember being in the band when Mingus would augment his groups every now and then for record dates or concerts. I can remember this saxophone player being involved sometimes. As well as people like John Handy. So Mingus would augment his groups sometimes with ex-alumnis and people like that, or even new people. But he was quite the character.

GM: You've played on some soundtracks, including 'Bird'.

CM: Yeah, I did that with Clint Eastwood.

GM: What did you think of the film?

CM: Well, I thought the film was too dark, just in terms of lighting. Too much darkness. I thought the writing was... oh, I don't know. It had some interest. I appreciate the fact that someone with the power of Clint Eastwood would even do a project like that, which is admirable. So I think it was fine. But I could nitpick and take it apart and say, "Hey, I would have done this, and less of this and more of that." All in all, I think the film had some interest.

GM: You didn't play all the parts.

CM: No. They were able to use some of his tapes. I played on things involving scenes where they could not use him. Or there were certain situations where certain musicians didn't allow themselves to be used. Some musicians said no. They're on the original records and they're still living at the time, and they're saying, "I don't want you to use it." You'd have to have the permission of people. And in circumstances like that, and also circumstances where Bird couldn't possibly do it -- there's no record or piece of him doing it -- they'd use me. Like at the Jewish wedding, for instance. There's no recording of that, so I'm it. And I'm the one playing when Bird is riding around in his car in L.A. and they go by Stravinsky's house and look at the house. Well, that's me in the background.

GM: Did you show Forrest Whittaker how to hold a sax?

CM: Yeah, I did some of that.

GM: Did he do a good job?

CM: He wasn't bad. It's not the easiest thing to do. But I guess it makes it easier because you've got 90 million keys on the saxophone and all you have to do is kinda wiggle your fingers and it's harder for people to say, "Hey! He didn't play that note!" It's a lot easier to do it that way than on the trumpet.

GM: Unless you're a musician and you know better.

CM: Yeah. But he wasn't bad doing any of that stuff. He was a little young for the part. Charlie Parker poses problems for people because someone's got to be an actor that actually plays Charlie Parker, right? Well, Charlie Parker -- you're probably too young to have seen Bird in person -- but Charlie Parker, to capture his persona, you'd have to almost be a Charlie Parker yourself. I don't know if you could pull that off. He was quite regal. His persona in person, there was a regality about him. And you gotta have that yourself as an actor.

GM: He had a real presence.

CM: Bird had a presence you could cut with a knife. It was thick. The musician Teddy Edwards was telling me when Bird was in the house, the whole house was different. Teddy told me he could walk in the house and tell if Bird was in there. Because the house was different. People were different in the house. And this was before he got to the room where Charlie Parker was. I know what he meant by that because I did see Bird a couple of times. I saw him a couple of times, and Bird was, indeed... man, you'd have to have someone like Orson Welles playing Charlie Parker.

GM: And that wouldn't work!

CM: No, it wouldn't. But you see what I mean. It was that kind of presence. Or somebody like Marlon Brando. So Bird was kinda difficult.

GM: You mention you appreciated the fact that someone of Clint Eastwood's stature would make the movie. But it's always -- and I guess it has to be to make a movie about it -- but it's always these tragic figures who die young or on drugs because you need that tension in a movie.

CM: You gotta have that otherwise it has no interest.

GM: But then it kind of skews the perception of jazz. Like all the musicians are druggies. And all die young. That's the general perception.

CM: Yeah. But you have to take a little bit of that as part of the baggage. But that aspect of sensationalism is the very thing that draws people, because they don't care anything about what kind of notes you play. So it's the life of the person that sort of is the attracting thing. And let's face it, Mary Poppins personalities are not the ones that people are interested in. They're interested in the one who leads kind of a debilitating life. That's why actors and actresses like to play parts like that, because it offers more of whatever they want to call that.

GM: There isn't as much of that lifestyle in today's jazz scene, is there? I get the impression that most musicians now are young, upstanding citizens.

CM: Well, yeah, they are. There is more of that than anything else.

GM: And maybe that's hurting jazz.

CM: It shouldn't be, but I can see it. What might be hurting jazz is not that people are clean, but that people are learning by way of academics things that might have been better for them to have learned in the field. On the stand. Academics: there's a dichotomy there. Education, there's a dichotomy that can happen. There are pros and cons. Because so much information is available for the young aspiring jazz student who goes to Berklee, who goes to these schools. The technology being what it is today, the information being available and accessibly today, makes it easy for just a whole body of information to be thrown right in front of the little player's face, and to be assessed, learned and practiced, and all the things you do. Now, that's a good thing in a way because it's information. The downside of that is is that there are lessons being learned when a young player has to learn how to eke out the right notes amongst the many wrong ones. There's a lesson learned in learning, in walking through the minefield of wrong notes and eking out the ones that are right and saying, "Oh! This is right, and I know it because I hear it. Aw, not this one." There are lessons in that kind of trial and error. Because what's happening is, everything you're learning, right or wrong, your brain is the only piece of meat you have that actually grows, that gains mass by experience. So when you're groping to find right notes out of the many wrong ones, there are lessons and there are [neural] networks being created in terms of association with your brain and your ear that are connecting up in this way. That's very valuable. So if you take these notes and just show them to a young player, "These are the right notes. Trust me." Okay, he might learn the right notes. But he will have been denied the experience of learning and creating his own private associations for finding out the right notes and having his brain say, "Ah! When I feel this way and think that way, I know that this note is right." And having those kind of associations. This is how genius happens.

GM: Reminds me of "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day...".

CM: Yeah, right. And he can still eat later. So it's like that. So education has something to do with that. So what happens with education quite often, it does bring about a broad mediocrity where you are able to have many people do something fairly well. And that is a blessing if you say, well, before it was less than that. However, in terms of genius, and how that comes about, and what one does to nurture that, that's quite a different thing. So that might be more of what's wrong with a young player; not so much that he doesn't use heroin anymore. He doesn't learn how to play from going to some joint and watching the great piano player play and walking up to him and saying, "How do you do this?" You read Bird's book that Ross Russell wrote, right? [Bird Lives, 1972, Quartet Books]

GM: No.

CM: Oh, you didn't read it? Well, Bird is lurking in these clubs, behind balconies and bannisters, looking at Lester Young's fingers and listening to every note. And going out to the woods with a Lester Young record and learning the solo, and all that. See, that's what's missing. So when the young player, you hear him today, quite often you're hearing a very pristine example of education. But a lot of times you don't hear the story. What kind of story is this person playing on this instrument? Now, you're using music as a medium, but what kind of story is he telling me? Basically quite often there's no story at all. You're hearing what F minor is to B-flat. You're hearing music; you're not hearing stories by way of music.

GM: Does it breed a certain sameness amongst them?

CM: Well, that's the other thing, yeah. It takes away because why? There are thousands of people going to Berklee or Texas State or wherever. Before, years ago, you could categorize musicians by territories. You could hear a tenor player and say, "I can tell he's from Texas." Or you can tell this guy's from Philly. Why? Because they have a certain way of playing. So Philadelphia musicians had a certain way, and you could tell that they're from Philly. You could tell New York guys. You could tell people from Kansas City. The rhythm sections play differently. Now that's no longer the case because the guy from Kansas City goes to Berkley along with the guy from Philly. They both go to Berkley and learn the same thing from the same teacher. So the individuality and the idiosyncratic nuances that make this group, this territory of people, sound this way, and this other group sound another way, that's gone also. So what happens is, you have all the alto players sounding alike, all the trumpet players have kinda the same sound, every piano player's the same. So you've just got this Xeroxed, clone thing. So that's the down side. So to me, education, I guess the way you got to do it is really know what to take, how much of the educational thing to use, then when to say, "Okay, that's enough. Let me go this other route." So it's up to you to be discriminative and know how to take information and get the positives and then say, "Now let me get the rest of this information myself."

GM: With trumpet players, especially, I find there's a lack of identifiability now. When you think of Miles or Chet Baker or Red Allen or Roy Eldridge and these guys, you only need to hear three notes and you go, "Aha! That's who it is!"

CM: Exactly! And see, that's the same thing. Now, even if you have little players who could be little geniuses possibly, they will be denied -- what we're talking about right now -- because it becomes a process thing. I talk to teachers about this. People who teach and jazz academics. And they understand what I mean. And there are some teachers that are saying, you know, "I'm gonna have to find a way to teach these people but also do it in a way that I can have a little bit of that old time thing." And with the accessibility of knowledge that we have at our disposal these days, for them to be able to access that, but also to know how to temper it. So we won't be just shuffling out a bunch of clones and every trumpet player sounds alike and all that. And people get hip to it, you know.

GM: And the fact that the young superstars in jazz are maybe elevated too soon. They don't have the chance to be sidemen, like you worked with Mingus for twelve years.

CM: Right. That's exactly right. And that's denying important development. And it's good in one way, that a young man is able to make a living quickly and soon. That's a good thing. That's wonderful. But at the same time, the esthetic might suffer from that.

GM: Do you teach?

CM: I used to at San Diego State a few years back. And I teach privately now. I have five, six, seven students.

GM: And you try to impart this knowledge to them.

CM: Oh, yeah, I definitely do that. I have the information now, but I try to have it so that I make them use... I'm gonna give them the information which they don't even have to think. Here it is. But I try to make all the rest of that part of the brain be in it, involved, like the left-brain, right-brain, the whole thing... You know what, I'm gonna have to start watching the clock. You see, I can get wound up and you'll have to shut me up.

GM: Just a couple more questions. Do you tour much these days?

CM: Yeah, I'm gonna be at Birdland in July. I'm going to be doing the Playboy Jazz Festival in L.A. in June. And then this new building wing that's being added to Lincoln Center... They're having this opening ceremonious thing in November. And in this wing, in this building, there's also a club called Dizzy's, or Diz's, something like that, and I will be working there with Nicholas Payton in late October. So I'm involved with the Lincoln Center situation and a few other things. And then I might go to Europe as well, to Italy.

GM: And how's the San Diego scene?

CM: Uh, not that good, really. There's not enough venues. That's what's really wrong. There's a couple of little clubs. That's it.

GM: You've been through the decades: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s. Where are we now with the scene in general?

CM: I'm convinced jazz will always be. It's too much a part of the global fabric. So it'll always be, but I think it might always be esoteric, and always only appreciated and partaken of by the few. It'll never be a pop idiom.

GM: And that's okay?

CM: Well, there's a down and a positive like everything. The downside is there are great people not able to take care of their families and themselves in the right way because of it. That's the down side. The other side, if you want to look at it as an up, is that if it's not accepted by a bunch of folks, it's probably really good. And being true to what it should be. Because, I mean, in order for something to really be acceptable by many, many people, you're going to have to lower your standards. Unless you are going to make them come up to you. And how many people are going to try that one? And the jazz musician, I might add, is one of the few people in society that either because they're so selfish that they don't care and they're just going to do what they're going to do, or they actually say, "Well, look, I'm just egotistical enough and vain enough to think that maybe you should come up to me and come up to the level of the artist just a little bit because I'm not going to come down to you." So you're gonna call that vanity, or whatever one wants to call that. But he's one of the few people -- and he pays the price because he doesn't make a great living... Everybody else is like, "Well, whatever I can do to make this dollar. If I have water this down, I will." That's the price you pay.