The Problem With Being Great

When Charles McPherson plays on Saturday night at Steamers, it'll be a rare south-of-LA appearance from the alto-sax god, even though he resides in a house nestled above the canyons of San Diego's North Park. It's a sad state of affairs when a city the size of San Diego has no viable jazz club within its environs. OC really only has Steamers, so local jazz fans are denied regular exposure to one of the undeniable greats who lives among us mere mortals.

Like virtually all other bop musicians who have remained true to themselves, McPherson suffers commercially for his brilliance and integrity. For a musician of his formidable gifts to sell out would be easy, but straight-up jazz has been his lifelong passion, and McPherson's not about to pander to artless plebes to cross his palm with coins of the realm.

"Maybe that's been to the detriment [of my career]," McPherson says. "But this is what I want to do, regardless of what is palatable to most people. For me, music is a quest, an ascension. It's being better than yourself the next time around. It's frustrating because you're not able to reach a wider audience, and you know the reasons why, but there's not a whole lot you can do about it. Why doesn't Shakespeare sell like Erle Stanley Gardner? Why doesn't so-and-so sell like Madonna? Regardless of that, I'm going to do what I enjoy doing. The game is to get the best out of oneself."

McPherson's playing evokes feelings of serenity and heated passion in the listener. At times, his compositions and improvisations display a spiritual quality (likely from the Mingus influence), but his jaw-dropping chops grab you by the collar and smack your face around, never letting you forget that this cat is seriously smoking on that bandstand.

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It has been a long, distinguished journey. McPherson, 59, grew up in Joplin, Missouri, enamored by the touring jazz bands he'd see at public park concerts and by the recordings of swing and bop architects Johnny Hodges and Charlie "Bird" Parker. As a teen, McPherson studied under guru-like Detroit pianist Barry Harris; at 21, he joined the band of mythical bassist/composer Charles Mingus, with whom he'd stay—on and off—for the next 12 years.

Naturally, Mingus helped shape McPherson (particularly as a composer, he says). Although the two got along relatively well, McPherson recalls his boss' legendary reputation as a difficult, confrontational figure to be well-earned. "He was very unpredictable," McPherson says of Mingus. "There were times when we'd have to get into fights with people, even people in the audience Mingus thought talked too loudly when we played. He was a brawler. He would insult people and physically fight them. He'd stand down gangsters—anyone—and get away with it because he was a frightening presence. But I was always worried about people coming back at us with guns.

"When I joined the band, I was 21, and he was in his 40s, 5-foot-11 and 300 pounds, and he had a reputation for beating up his musicians. And he wanted to kill Eric Dolphy, whom I was replacing. Dolphy had handed in his notice, so there were two weeks we worked together. Well, Mingus didn't want Dolphy to quit because his music is difficult and extremely hard to teach to people. So he wanted to kill Dolphy. Eric was a nice man, a very gentle man. And Mingus says to him: 'I oughta cut you. Get your knife out.' I mean, Mingus was like a thug—he had his knives and everything. And Eric looks at him like, 'Mingus, come on now; I don't have a knife.' So Mingus goes across the street to the five-and-dime and buys a knife for Eric so they can fight. Somehow, Eric got away from all that. And remember, this was all on my first night in the band! Mingus was crazy. People were in awe of him because he was so crazy. It was always a scene with him."

McPherson has worked as a freelancer and sometime teacher since leaving Mingus' employ, and he has released a number of fine albums as a leader, most recently a trio of CDs for New York's Arabesque label that showcases his growing skills as a writer. In 1988, he gained acclaim for playing Charlie Parker's sax lines in the Clint Eastwood-directed biopic Bird. It was a daunting task for McPherson to refrain from his own style and attempt to echo Parker instead.

"I knew enough about Bird. . . . There are certain things I would do that he wouldn't do back then, so I stayed away from certain types of harmonies, which was hard to do," he recalls. "I was happy with the way the soundtrack came out, but the movie was too dark. It was underlit and predictably focused on Bird's drug problems at the expense of the lighter side of who he was and the brilliance of his work as a musician."

Lately, McPherson has been concentrating more on performing. At least twice yearly, he holds residencies in New York clubs and regularly tours Europe, where he's rightly regarded as first-string jazz royalty.

"Jazz has endured in spite of America, not because of America," McPherson says, with a combination of sadness and irritation apparent in his voice. "America is more interested in money than art. America is basically like one big supermarket. The thing that is important to the collective machinery of America is capitalism. And America's good at that; that's what this country is based on. Now, those things are important in other countries, too, but they have a set of priorities, where art is still high on the list. I know economics are important; I'm not saying that everyone should sit in the forest and play pan flute. But art is also important; it's a high thing. In America, it's all about how can we market this, exploit it, capitalize off it, make a lot of money off it. Whatever appeals to the lowest common denominator—animal instincts—is what they'll be on. You write a book with a lot of people fucking: that's gonna sell more than Lady Chatterley's Lover. Now that was about fucking, too, I suppose. But in America, it has to be profane to get anywhere. Billie Holiday wasn't gonna come out onstage with her ass hanging halfway out like Madonna. For myself, I suppose I write from the navel up, and if there's elements of the navel down, I'm not reaching for that."

With some bemusement, I tell McPherson that just the other night, his Illusions In Blue album served as the soundtrack for a night of romance between me and my wife. "Well, that's fine," he says with a laugh. "But what I try to write for is to make people feel good, feel uplifted. When they leave my concert, I want them to feel like they've had an emotional rollercoaster ride. I want them to feel happy, instead of evil and violent. Those are emotions I don't speak to."

Charles McPherson performs at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-8800. Sat., 8:30 p.m. $5. All ages.

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