All Jazzed Up
Saxophonist Charles McPherson Remembers The Sound That Mad Perfect Sense.
By Dave McElfresh
OCTOBER 12, 1998: WHILE THERE ARE plenty of aging jazzers embarrassingly wistful about the good old days, their sloppy sentimentalism doesn't mean that previous eras didn't offer a helluva lot more jazz than we're currently given.
"Back in the early '50s" recalls alto saxophonist Charles McPherson regarding his youthful days in Detroit, "I was in this candy store that had a jukebox, and I saw the name Charlie Parker and put a nickel in, wanting to hear this guy. It was a cut off South Of The Border. I was about 14 years old."
You don't have to be a bitter old fogey to miss a time when a commercial form of musical entertainment offered something more substantial than anything currently found flipping the entire span, west-to-far-east, of the radio dial--let alone the limited selections of the local bar's jukebox.
But a barely teenaged McPherson lived in a community that had already made him surprisingly familiar with jazz.
"Parker didn't sound that revolutionary to me," he remembers, regarding his introduction to probably the most radical innovator in jazz history. "I didn't know anything about the genres, the differences between swing and the other, later styles. It was all jazz to me. But I remember the overwhelming feeling I had when I heard Bird. I felt this was the way it should go. It made perfect sense. All the notes that he played connected up right, fit together like well-constructed sentences. I could sense the melodic logic in his lines."
And McPherson wasn't the exception.
"A lot of kids were into Charlie Parker back then. It was kind of a poor neighborhood bordering on a middle-to-upper-class black neighborhood. Most of the kids liked doowop better, but there was a hub of totally different kids, smarter kids--both bookwormish nerds and real hipsters, not necessarily the egghead type--who were equally touched by the urgency and virtuosity of bebop."
McPherson's passion for jazz led him to study with jazz pianist Barry Harris from age 15 to 20.
"Harris had some very interesting concepts about harmony. He was kind of a guru in Detroit. I remember Coltrane coming by his house--every day was a musical day for anyone visiting him who was coming through town."
McPherson's next advance was even more significant.
"I hooked up with bassist Charles Mingus through Yusef Lateef. In 1959 we played some afternoon jam sessions at a placed called Cafe Wha?, a little coffee shop in Greenwich Village, along with players like tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin. Mingus had heard of me through Lateef, and was in need of a trumpet and saxophone player. Eric Dolphy and Ted Curson were working with Mingus and were going to quit in order to start their own groups, so Mingus heard Ervin and me and hired us."
McPherson worked with the temperamental Mingus off and on for 12 years.
"Mingus was hard to play with," the altoist admits. "He was very exacting and pretty much the taskmaster. He wrote in a very complicated manner because he was a complicated person, but I learned a lot from him, especially in terms of composition."
McPherson's reputation as a Charlie Parker adulator led him to Clint Eastwood.
"I was called by Lennie Niehaus, Eastwood's musical director. I sent him a tape and we got together for the soundtrack of Bird. There were some scenes where I was replicating Charlie Parker because they couldn't use Bird's music for whatever reason. Bird is certainly my main influence, so it wasn't like I had to change a lot."
McPherson, though, is not living off his reputation as a bebop replicator. On the heels of his appearance at Tucson's annual Jazz Sundae, he'll return to New York for an extremely prestigious gig: Lincoln Center commissioned him to write a program of original music, which he'll perform in mid-October. In spite of the minimal amount of attention currently given to jazz--certainly none is currently to be found on a jukebox--the altoist does not believe that the future of the music is reliant on a heightened degree of exposure.
"Young people who are so inclined will find the music. Some little kid is going to search the radio and say, stop right there, what's that? Just like I did. So I feel confident that jazz will always be a part of the global fabric of music. It might always be esoteric music, but it's not going to go away."
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