"Well, you know, I, okay, let me see," Charles McPherson sounded more spirited than stumped.
I'd just asked a saxophone legend — Charles McPherson! — what originally attracted him to the saxophone. That was like asking the sun why it was hot. But McPherson's husky, perpetually happy-sounding voice shaded into a playful growl. "I guess we'll get into some primordial..." and then McPherson breathed in and started off — improvising soulful answers. "I was attracted to the sax first of all when I was really young, when I was, say, four, when bands used to come through Joplin, Missouri, at the foot of the Ozarks." (When McPherson says "Missouri," it sounds like "Mizzura.") "And these territorial swing bands would come through the area in the summertime and play at a big park, and I was mesmerized and very attracted to the saxophone. Now what got me, of course, was the shiny, gold color." (The gruff and feeling way McPherson punched that word, "gold....") "And I guess the shape of it," he said. (He drew out the word "shape," swooping through the intonation as though his mouth were imagining a sax's swanlike nape, and valved and keyed body, and the sudden swerve upward to its opening, called a "bell.") And then McPherson said it again, "The sha-a-aype of a saxophone." He went on, "And, of course, I liked the sound itself. But I didn't get a chance to play one until I was about 12 or 13."
(As an aside: I've begun to notice, after a few weeks of talking to saxophonists, that they all speak clearly yet distinctively. They all seem to keep their tonal quirks and accents, their twangs, drawls, burrs, and brogues, yet you can understand perfectly every word out of a saxophonist's mouth.)
So Charles McPherson finally got the chance to put his hands on a saxophone, and how did he know what to do? Who taught the man to play?
"In school I got a horn when I was in school," he said. "A secondhand saxophone that was a pretty good one, by the way. And with the horn, you got a few free lessons. So I did take a few free lessons with the retail store that sold the horn. And then after that, I studied at a music school that was quite prestigious in Detroit, called Larry Teal's. Larry Teal was a classical saxophonist of note. He's probably not living now. But he had probably the premier privately run music school in the area."
Did McPherson learn to play other instruments as well?
"I play tenor," he said, "and I play piano a little bit."
By "tenor," McPherson meant "tenor saxophone." He was telling me that his main instrument was the alto sax -- a smaller, lighter, more agile, higher-toned, and differently tuned instrument than the tenor sax.
Five types of saxophones exist, although the fifth, the bass sax, is an oversized curiosity and is hardly played anywhere anymore. The other four saxes -- soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone -- are distinct and separate musical entities, even though the only physical differences are how long they are and how they're tuned. (To get longer, saxes go from straight, to curved, to bigger and curved, to bigger still and curved and with a brass curlicue on top. The subject of instrumental tuning is fascinating but would take us deep into the scientific study of acoustics.)
Instead, back to Charles McPherson! Why did he concentrate on the alto sax?
"The alto was what I had," he said matter-of-factly. "My mom was able to buy one because they were a little cheaper than tenors. And they were smaller, maybe a little better suited for me, being a kid. So that was it, more than the sound."
How did McPherson get his break into the professional-music world?
"I played with Charlie Mingus," he said, invoking the name of one of the five or six greatest all-time jazz composers. Then, with characteristic understatement, McPherson added, "The bass player."
He went on. "Now Mingus was old enough to be my father, and he was pretty well known, and when I joined his band I was only 20 years old."
And McPherson had to try out?
"Yeah, I had to audition, along with a trumpet player. And we got in his band. And that was the beginning of my career. Playing with Mingus, who was an internationally known figure."
McPherson played with Mingus throughout the '60s and went on to record and tour with such jazz greats as Billy Eckstein, Lionel Hampton, Art Farmer, and Wynton Marsalis. Probably McPherson's greatest claim to fame came in 1988, when Clint Eastwood chose him to rerecord the alto saxophone parts for late jazz great Charlie Parker's ensembles in the major motion picture Bird, starring Forest Whitaker.
Surely such a distinguished career had required a lot of practice?
"I practice at home," McPherson told me. "I try to get in at least three hours a day. I can't always do that, but if I could have my way, I would probably practice four or five hours a day."
Always at the same time?
"No. I get it when I can."
And were people bothered?
"I'm sure someone's bothered." He laughed. "You know, usually, I stop around 10 o'clock in the evening."
Did McPherson live alone?
"No, I'm married. And I got a little kid. My youngest kid is 13."
His practicing at home didn't bother them?
McPherson's tone grew jovial and maybe half-facetious. "Well, you know, I got a feeling I do bother them." He chuckled. "But I try to be considerate. I go away in the other part of the house and I close doors. Or I have my garage nicely situated, and I can go in there and practice and not bother anybody."
What were his practice sessions like?
"I practice scales. I'll spend a lot of time doing finger exercises. I practice harmonic progressions, you know, harmonic movements going from point A to point B. And then I have records that I'll play along with. They're called Minus One. And basically, they have the rhythm section playing on these tunes, and that's all, so you can play along. So it's kind of like the karaoke of the jazz world."