Charles McPherson meets me at the door of the home he shares with his wife and daughter in Talmadge Park and he invites me in. He’s wearing black slacks and a purple pullover and stocking feet. “We take our shoes off indoors.” I oblige and pull off my boots. He wears a saxophone strap around his neck; he’s been practicing. He leads me into a sitting room that is homey and light and filled with family pictures. An immaculate baby grand piano inhabits a corner. This is where Lynn, his wife, a classical musician, brings her students. We have a little time before her lessons begin.
For the better part of an hour, he entertains my questions about sax life in San Diego. I’d just read a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair survey that put saxophone second in popularity behind guitar. And I’m curious about the surge of sax players in San Diego — it seems there are more here now than ever before. McPherson, who played with Charles Mingus back in the 1960s and ’70s and is now possibly the ranking bebop alto sax player in modern mainstream jazz, seems like a good place to start.
“Couple of things. This is relating to why a lot of people are playing the instrument. This may sound silly, but I think it’s something about the shape of the saxophone.” McPherson holds his horn aloft. “It’s about as primordial as you can get. It’s as primitive as you can get, as to why people like this or like that. You get down to some Carl Jung. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether they’re European or American or Chinese, ’cause I’ve been all over. It’s something about the way a saxophone looks.” McPherson shuts his eyes and furrows his brow. “The other thing flat out is the sound.”
He loops back and revisits his thoughts as he goes along, which is not unlike the way a jazz musician might create a solo: statement, interpretation, new statement, and so on. “There could be more people playing sax now. Chinese people have had more exposure because they’re making them now. When you ask are there more players, there’s more people now. And there are more women playing jazz than ever. That’s contributing to more. And guess what they play?” He again lofts his own alto sax. “More women will play this than trumpet or trombone. Women like this horn.”
I’m curious about how McPherson earns a living in this jazz-venue-anemic town. The short answer is, he doesn’t. “I go to Europe and I go to Japan. I go to New York three or four times a year. I don’t play in San Diego that much, maybe a couple of times a year. I go to Chicago and I go to Los Angeles a couple of times a year.” Touring, more than record sales, is what pays his bills. He says Europe and Japan value jazz more than America. Why?
“Part of it is the old saying: the prophet is never appreciated in his home town. The other part of it is that jazz music doesn’t use any of the nuances the other musics use, like sex or sexuality. Sexuality has nothing to do with jazz. [Straight ahead] jazz is basically a kind of head music. People that like jazz are people that value music to the extent that a performer doesn’t have to be dancing. There’s nothing visual about it. It’s just a person playing music. They’re not gonna be playing in their underwear. There’s not gonna be any sexual or explicit nuance going on. There’s no hip-slinging. The women are gonna have a dress on and they’ll be presenting a song. If they happen to be pretty, fine. That always works. But it’s not an integral part of what the music is.”
McPherson also teaches privately and in clinics at schools. This year, he applied for an arts grant through the San Diego Foundation’s Creative Catalyst, and he got it. He used the money ($20,000) to write Sweet Synergy Suite, a bebop-Afro-Cuban flavored ballet that premiered May 8 at the Saville Theatre and was simulcast via KSDS Jazz 88.3 FM.
“I had to sell these people on what I was going to do, that I was going to write the music, and Javier Velasco was going to choreograph it and my daughter Camille — she’s a member of the San Diego Ballet — would dance.” He says the San Diego Ballet has put Sweet Synergy Suite on their 2015 calendar. “I am gonna take this on the road, maybe book it somewhere in Orange County or San Francisco. Lincoln Center.”
Charles McPherson and his Selmer Mark VI saxophone
Charles McPherson, San Diego resident and "ranking bebop alto sax player in modern mainstream jazz," talks saxophone and demonstrates technique with his 60s-era Selmer saxophone.
I’m curious about what it costs to be an international sax road warrior. “When I get hired, they’re paying me a salary, transportation to and from, and a hotel. That comes with the deal. And if it doesn’t come with the deal, I ask for enough money to cover that. Sometimes I book shows myself. I’ve been around a long time, and I have connections. I have an agent. I’m not gonna use an agent to get a gig in San Diego, but in New York, Europe, and Japan — that usually costs about 15 percent of whatever I get. In terms of me and my horn, I spend hundreds of dollars on reeds.” He says a box of ten averages around $30. “And I have to get the horn fixed, and it has to be done by someone you can trust who is competent and good.” He alternates between three woodwind repairmen — Jay Sleigh, Jim Weiss, or the Windsmith repair shop in North Park. He says his horn’s in the shop two or three times a month at $25 to $50 per visit. He had a complete overhaul done last year to his alto sax to the tune of $850. “I end up spending hundreds of dollars a year.”
McPherson once told me that he still practices three hours a day. “Three hours is just a number that ends up being a target. With a million things to do, I might get three hours. But if I were a rich man, and I had the money and somebody else was going to pay the light bill and get the car fixed, I would spend probably five, six, seven, eight hours. You end up practicing whatever the physicalities are that allow you to be at least 99.99 percent of yourself all the time.” For McPherson, that means a round of what he calls “finger games.”