Did McPherson think about the saxophone all day, even when he wasn't playing it?
"Yeah, I do. I'm in love with the instrument. It's such a complicated piece of physics, first of all. It's a complicated piece of machinery. It's a lot of moving parts. So Murphy's Law has a wonderful time with the saxophone: if it can go wrong, it will. And there's plenty of things that can go wrong. And many of the things that go wrong can make you sound bad on the horn, if the instrument isn't up to snuff, you know. The parts have to move right, and the pads can't leak. No air should get out of any part of the horn that you don't want it to get out of. So I tinker. I fix things. Although some problems are too big, and you have to take the horn to someone who has all the tools and that stuff."
Does that get expensive?
"An overhaul for the sax might cost somewhere around $700. That'll last for maybe three or four years. But you always know your horn is in a state of decline. It's never getting any better."
How much was McPherson's horn to begin with?
"Well, I have a vintage Selmer. And most guys do play Selmer, even though there are other good horns on the market. But Selmer is kind of like the Stradivarius of the saxophone. And I could probably sell my horn for $6500, for sure."
Did McPherson name his horn?
"No, no, no," he said slowly. "That's for rock-and-roll guys."
Where did he keep it?
"It's in its case. In the den. And usually, when I leave, I'm so paranoid about it, that when I go someplace, I'll hide it. You know, I'll put it in an area of the house where it's not real obvious. So if someone breaks in, they're apt not to see it."
What about traveling with his sax?
"I have to take it on the airplane. It's too delicate to put under the plane. And quite often, when you take it through security at the airport, it often becomes an object of interest. They want to look at it. And sometimes, the minute they go in there, I have to step forward and say, 'Okay, let me do it. I'll pick the horn up; I'll handle it; I'll do anything you say; you can look anywhere you want.' But I'm the one who's going to handle it. Because there's so many delicate moving parts. It's like a piece of china. They don't know, and they might just grab it, and something might get damaged."
McPherson told me he likes the horn he has now very much. And when I went to see him play at Dizzy's downtown, I could hear why.
Dizzy's, while we're on the subject, is a dedicated, relatively small concert space on the edge of the Gaslamp -- a high-ceilinged, wide-open warehouse with unfinished walls and portable (comfortable) chairs. They don't serve alcohol there -- it's all ages, always -- and no one who goes to hear jazz muddles the experience by talking or reading or eating. Dizzy's is about the music, plain and simple.
And what music! McPherson's quintet (which featured local trumpet whiz Gilbert Castellanos) smoked and cooked and worked it through, tune after tune. Over 100 jazz enjoyers packed little Dizzy's and clapped enthusiastically between songs and after all the solos. McPherson's tone on that old Selmer alto burst into the room, the sound impossibly full, as though the notes had begun deep in his own throat and the horn was just an extended vocal apparatus. But McPherson could play quietly, too, threading the ballads with a sound like sugar wind.
I asked McPherson what kind of music he listens to.
"Certainly jazz," he said. "Though not as much as I used to years ago. But I'll listen to jazz radio, you know, KSDS. And I will listen to classical music quite a bit. Every now and then, I'll listen to pop, too, and see if there's anything interesting, although there isn't very much."
(I have to mention, contrary to what you may have heard, that bad sax isn't better than no sax at all. Soft jazz, "cheesy" listening, bubble-gum-Kenny G-type pop, and especially Muzak all count on the unfortunate saxophone to carry melodies and replace vocal lines. It's almost enough to dilute this incredible instrument's esteemed pedigree.)
And what about that pedigree? What saxophone players did McPherson emulate and admire?
"Most of the guys I admire aren't here anymore. You know, like Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt...I tend to like the bebop guys. Those are the guys I learned from, who were quite strong as I was growing up. But I don't listen to as much music as I used to, because I'm more into doing it, rather than listening to it."
By "doing it," did McPherson mean not only playing music but also teaching it?
"Yes, I teach," he said, "I have a few students. You know, mostly college guys. And I teach intermediate sax, or advanced, but not so much the basics anymore."
Did he have any female students? (I was envisioning a potentially inflammatory direction for my questioning.)
"I had one. But she moved to New York."
So how come so few women played the saxophone?
"That's a complicated question. It probably has to do with socialization and society at large. Maybe little girls think they're not supposed to play, like it's a man's thing. You know, why aren't more women carpenters? You know, they can be, and there are some, but..."
So why were there more African-American sax players than Caucasian ones?
"I don't know if that's the truth," McPherson shot back, though he didn't sound provoked. "I mean, maybe it is. I don't know."
When you considered all the great jazz innovators, for every white musician (Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz come immediately to mind) there were at least five or ten black ones, right?