Charles McPherson will receive the Don Redman Heritage Award on Saturday, June 25, during a concert in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Albert “Tootie” Heath will be presented the Don Redman Heritage Award on Saturday in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — Charles McPherson can thank music in the schools for the reason he is one of the most sought-after jazz saxophonists of the day.
McPherson, 76, was 9 years old when he moved with his family from Joplin, Mo., to Detroit. When he got to junior high school, he already was taking piano lessons and played some on the saxophone. But when he signed up for the school’s band, there was a glitch.
“I didn’t actually have an instrument of my own at that time, so the band of the school had instruments, believe it or not,” he said during a telephone interview from his home in San Diego. “I wanted to play saxophone, but trumpets were available, fluegelhorns and drums. So I chose trumpet. At that time, trumpets weren’t really available, but fluegelhorns were. I was about 12. Then at 13, I got a saxophone, an alto saxophone. And that was it.”
With a career that spans more than 45 years, McPherson is known for his sax-playing and jazz-improvising skills.
On Saturday, June 25, McPherson, along with famous jazz drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, will be presented with the Don Redman Heritage Award. The award is named after Redman, a black jazz musician, arranger, bandleader and composer. Redman was nicknamed “The Little Giant of Jazz.”
Each year, the Don Redman Heritage Award is given to musicians for their contributions “in jazz education and music, as well as the individual musicianship, humanity and dignity that illuminate the spirit of Don Redman.” The event is sponsored by Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Harpers Ferry Historical Association and the Jefferson County NAACP.
The concert will feature McPherson and Heath, as well as the Howard Burns Quartet. New to this year’s concert will be the Don Redman Next Generation Jazz Scholars, a juried group of 11th- and 12th-grade jazz-band students from the Tri-State area. The scholars will perform a set prior to the awards ceremony and performance by the honorees.
Larry Ridley, a 2011 Don Redman Heritage Award winner, will conduct the student group.
“It’s certainly an honor to be recognized at all,” McPherson said. “And to get this particular award, it really is an honor. And I believe Tootie certainly feels the same way about this. It feels good from your peers. It feels good for people to appreciate your work and to be recognized. It’s a good feeling.”
Early musical lessons
McPherson’s love affair with the saxophone dates back to when he was still living in Missouri.
“There were big bands that would come to Joplin and play at a particular park every summer in August,” he said. “So when I was 5, 6, 7 years old, I would go to the park with everyone else during this particular period. I was enamored by the instruments. Shiny, gold instruments. And particularly the saxophone. At that time, it was the sound I definitely liked. And I liked the way it looked, the shape of it.”
But it wasn’t until he moved to Detroit that he started to be shaped into the musician he is today.
“Detroit, at that time, was very fertile, musically. A lot of good musicians lived there. And there were many venues to play in,” he said. “When the automobile industry was booming, the middle-classes and working-classes people were economically healthy. People had money, and they were able to come out and hear music. They were able to get their kids instruments. The puzzles got many parts, and for the puzzle to work right, everything has to be in place. That made a difference — that people could educate their kids. So this was the scene in Detroit during the ’50s. It was a good music town. A lot of musicians lived there and were good musicians. For a young person like myself, it was definitely an advantage living in Detroit at that time.”
Recognizing that her son had talent on the wind instrument, McPherson said his mom bought him a saxophone. He said although he has played tenor sax, the alto is the one to which he has always been drawn, even if it started out of necessity.
“I started on the alto because it was a little bit more affordable,” he said. “It was a smaller horn. … It’s a little smaller for a kid to play and a little bit more easy to handle. That was the real reason I played alto. And after that, I was locked into it.”
He described the sound of the alto sax as “more like a low female voice.”
The notion that not all children today are being given the same opportunity as McPherson had in the 1950s is unfathomable to him.
“It was more accessible to kids in my day than it is now. Here we are in the 21st century, a lot of schools, junior high schools, do not have instruments,” he said. “They don’t have a band department. So that’s one of the things that’s not good for the society. When children do not have the chance to play music at a very early age, they miss something. We actually had better chances of that in the ’50s than kids today in 2016. All schools, didn’t have to be rich schools in these upper-end neighborhoods. They could just be a regular public school. They had a choir, they had a band and they also had an orchestra with strings with violins and violas and such. This was a given. This was a birthright for kids. Now that’s not even possible, but schools have a football team. It’s kind of interesting of the priorities. And it’s not a good thing not to have art important enough.”
McPherson, who teaches master classes and lessons around the world, believes in the importance of music.
“It’s part of your education as a human being in a civilized society to actually be exposed and to have a chance to play (music),” he said.
Music and Tootie
McPherson still makes time to practice his saxophone.
“At least four hours a day. It’s hard to do that. There’s a lot to do during the course of a day, nothing (that) has to do with music,” he said. “I try to do at least four hours or so. Not only four hours at one time, but during the course of day at least four hours. I feel pretty good.”
At age 15, McPherson took lessons with famed pianist Barry Harris, who also lived in his neighborhood. He honed his chops by playing with other jazz musicians in his neighborhood. By the time he was 19, he was a familiar sight in local clubs.
In the late 1950s, McPherson moved to New York City. Soon after, he landed a regular gig with Charles Mingus Jr., an American jazz double bassist, composer and bandleader, that lasted 12 years.
During the early 1960s, McPherson met Heath.
“Through the years, we played together,” McPherson said. “So I know him. He’s not like what you’d call a bosom buddy. He’s not a guy I talk to on the phone once a week or something. But I’ve always liked him personality wise. He’s a very funny, humorous person. He’s not dark. He’s a very bright spirit. He’s always in a good happy mood. … He’s pretty horizontal. He’s very warm and very humorous.”
“He’s a wonderful drummer,” McPherson said of Heath. “He’s a marvelous drummer.”
By the time they met, McPherson was already on his way to becoming a bebop musician. McPherson invited Heath, as well as his mentor Harris, to perform with him on his 1964 album “Bebop Revisited.” The album marked McPherson’s first time as a leader.
Since then, McPherson has released a steady stream of albums, sometimes even twice a year, including 1968’s “From This Moment”; 1973’s “Today’s Man”; 1983’s “The Prophet”; 1990’s “Illusion in Blue”; 1995’s “Come Play with Me”; 1997’s “Manhattan Nocturne”; 2011’s “A Tribute to Charlie Parker”; and 2015’s “The Journey.”
He also became a high-demand sideman for artists such as Don Patterson, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Dave Pike.
Director Clint Eastwood tapped McPherson as the featured alto saxophonist in the 1988 movie “Bird,” based on Charlie Parker’s life.
Secret of improv
One of McPherson’s gifts is his ability to improvise, which he said is a bit more complicated than it seems.
“In order to do that (improv), for the most part, you have to know about theory and harmony,” he said. “You have to know what chords are and scales and the chords. Basically when you are improvising, you are creating a new melody. “
McPherson, who also is a composer, said it’s like writing in the air.
“When one is improvising, it’s basically like composing in real time, on the spot. That’s what improvising means. Basically, it’s coming from the same part of the brain that when you sit down, that you as a composer are going to write a piece of music, whether it’s an exercise or a song,” he said. “The same part of the brain, and the brain action going on when you’re creating or writing a song, is going on when you improvise. The only difference is that when you write the song, you write it down. When you improvise, it’s liquid. You’re improvising in real time, right at the moment. And the only difference is you didn’t write it down.”
That means on a certain level, jazz musicians have a better understanding of music than most pop musicians.
“In the jazz world, jazz musicians know how to read and they’re experts in theory,” he said. “So when you improvise, you’re putting all the knowledge into play and creating compositions, basically. But to do that, you really do have to know the academics of the harmonies.”
No looking back
Once McPherson finishes an album, he listens to it a few times, then puts it away and moves on.
“When I listen to a CD of mine, for instance, I’m not only listening to me, I’m listening to the total, including the sound of the CD itself,” he said. “With that said, there are some things I like better than others. I don’t listen to them. I’m not narcissistic. When I record something, I listen to it when it first comes out for a while to see what I could have done better or what sounds good or not so good. After that, I’m through with it. That’s kind of the way I approach it. Now through the years, I’ve made quite a few. … Most of the times, I’m not unhappy with the things I’ve done.”
He said listening to oneself over and over is pure vanity and doesn’t accomplish anything.
“What we do as musicians, what we do as people — whether you’re writing music, whether you’re performing — it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. Once you’ve seen a replication of your work … then that’s it.”
McPherson said listening is like looking in a mirror.
“Once you comb your hair, that’s it. Are you going to look at yourself in the mirror every 10 minutes? So what’s next?,” he said. “When you create something, once you do it, it’s done. It’s out there in the universe. For better or worse, there it is. Now, what’s next?”
McPherson believes jazz will always exist.
“I think it will always be because it’s part of the global fabric of music. There’s always somebody in China. There’s always somebody in Lithuania. There’s always somebody in Holland that’s going to hear jazz music and like it, be enamored and want to do and play it and all of this,” he said. “I don’t think in today’s society anyplace on the planet Earth it will ever be a mass media. I think it will always be considered alternative. It will always be considered esoteric. It’s like classical music. People love classical music, but it’s not the popular form. Jazz is like classical music. There will be people who like it and want to play it.”