Charles McPherson makes his living playing the devil’s horn, otherwise known as the saxophone. According to sax-historian Michael Segell, the pope denounced sax in 1903 and decreed it an instrument associated with disgust and scandal. If that factoid bothers McPherson, who lives not far from SDSU with his wife and daughter in a neighborhood called Talmadge Park, it doesn’t show.
“I’m getting ready to go to New York in June to play a club called the Jazz Standard,” he says, “and I might go to Detroit in the fall.”
McPherson was born in Joplin, Missouri, and grew up in Detroit. He turns 73 in July. His jazz career began in earnest in New York in 1959 with Charles Mingus.
I was at your first local gig ever — at the Catamaran, I think it was.
“I came here in 1978. Joe Marillo, he’s a tenor sax player, he was booking the Catamaran. I played there in ’78 or ’79. But now that I think about it, it could have been the Bahia. Jimmy Cheatham was hosting shows there, too. I also played at the Blue Parrot in La Jolla in the ’80s. Chuck’s Steak House. Elario’s. The Crab Catcher, that was in La Jolla, too. Then there was the Black Frog — on Market?"
When you moved here you’d just broken off with Mingus for the second time. How did you get into his band?
“At the time, he needed a sax player and a trumpet player. The guys he had were quitting. A fellow Detroiter named Yusef Lateef introduced me and my friend, a trumpet player, to Mingus. He came to hear us play at a jam that night, and he hired us.” McPherson chuckles. “It was Mr. Toad’s wild ride.”
That ride lasted for at least a dozen years and was your first steady jazz paycheck. You were only, what, 20 when he hired you? When did you start playing sax?
“I started when I was about 13. I grew up in Detroit. I started playing in junior high school band, then high school. After that I started playing in clubs around Detroit. Then I moved to New York and worked for Mingus. I did that for six or seven years, and then I quit.”
And did what?
“I got a job. I went to work for the Internal Revenue Service.”
What drove you from Mingus to a day job with the federal government?
“The pressure. Just Mingus. Just the way he was. He was a talented man. I learned a lot, but it was not an easy ride. He was very confrontational. It was just issue after issue; every issue that could come up with a human being. But also, by that time I had a couple of kids and I thought I’d like to see about getting a regular job.”
But then you left the IRS and went back to Mingus.
How would you describe your music in terms of genre?
“What I play I would say is definitely informed by bop, post bop, or bebop, or whatever you want to say. But it’s not exactly that. Labels are hard to come by. I like to call it neo bop. A guy like me is informed by Charlie Parker. When I write music, it’s different than Charlie or Dizzy, but it’s a branch off that tree.”
I’m trying to work the math and figure out if you were old enough to have seen Charlie Parker before he passed in 1955.
“Oh, yeah, I saw Charlie Parker. I saw him on TV. There used to be a guy called Soupy Sales. He had a daytime show for kids, but he also had a very hip show in the evening. This was in Detroit in the mid-1950s.”
Saxophone is a difficult instrument to learn. You’ve been performing for decades. Do you still have to practice?
“Yeah, I practice a lot. I was practicing just before you called. To this day I practice three to four hours a day. Not all at once. I’ll practice two hours and stop. But I’m having fun. It’s a labor of love. And jazz is a competitive world. There are more players than venues.”
I’m encouraged that young players still want to learn jazz, even in a field of diminishing returns.
“Jazz does not really have any value any longer, other than for the dedicated jazz fan. The hard cold reality is that it’s not a music that has any value for the average American listener. It’s like classical music or Shakespeare. Jazz has more value in Europe and Japan than here. If not for those two places, jazz wouldn’t make it at all.”
Why don’t you play more local gigs?
“Most of the time I’m in New York, Europe, or Japan. If you want to make a living as a jazz musician, you have to travel. There’s not enough local venues or activity to support a career here. I have to hit the road, Jack.” He laughs. “And I don’t mind. I’m not gone for very long, and it’s kind of fun to get away and see other countries.”
What’s on the horizon?
“I have been writing. I want to go to a studio here and record some tracks and maybe shop it around. See who’s interested.” ■