“I’m kind of a student of ancient history,” alto saxophonist Charles McPherson says. “I’m talking about Sumerian stuff, Mesopotamia, the Middle East: I go way, way back. Our whole notion of divinity, Western or Eastern, is all around that Fertile Crescent. Then it morphed into Egypt, the Indus Valley, the Hebrews, ancient Greece. All of that is connected, and from that same wellspring came Pythagoras and the music of the spheres. When I play music, I’m very much aware that music has a cosmological basis. It matters.”
McPherson, who turned 81 in July, is musing about how Middle Eastern culture and affairs never cease to be relevant. It’s in the news and media virtually every day; we speak in August, the same month that an explosion devastates Beirut and an accord is reached between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. But that geography and culture resonates within the saxophonist and composer’s art too.
His new recording, Jazz Dance Suites, collects two jazz suites that McPherson wrote for the San Diego Ballet, for whom he is a composer in residence. (McPherson’s daughter Camille is a ballerina and one of the company’s principal soloists.) The first of these suites, Song of Songs, is inspired by the biblical book of the same name—an erotic love poem purportedly written by the Hebrew King Solomon.
“I just kind of did my homework,” he says. “I went online to listen to some ancient Hebrew music, and they were using certain instruments and certain modes. I decided my approach to this would be not to just clone ancient Hebrew music, but to take just enough nuance from the rhythms and the tonalities and mix it with jazz sensibilities and nuances. So you’ll hear some of those nuances here and there in the suite, and that’s quite deliberate.”
It’s rather a surprise from someone who’s often regarded as a dyed-in-the-wool bebop purist. (Even the very notion of a ballet is pushing those boundaries.) Though born in Joplin, Missouri, McPherson grew up in the jazz hotbed of Detroit, where he first heard and emulated fellow altoist Charlie Parker and honed his chops in the early ’50s by jamming with many of the greatest figures in the bop idiom. Among them were the brothers Jones, trumpeter Thad and drummer Elvin; baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams; bassist Paul Chambers; and—especially—pianist Barry Harris, McPherson’s first and greatest mentor.
Yet second on the list of his role models is Charles Mingus. He joined the legendary bassist’s band in 1960, shortly after arriving in New York, and remained with him for a dozen years. Though Mingus loved bebop (McPherson believes he was hired in part because he had absorbed Parker’s language), he was more than open to other influences, including world music and classical elements, including ballet. Indeed, Mingus wrote the prototypical jazz ballet, 1963’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.
“I wasn’t consciously thinking of Mingus when I wrote this,” the saxophonist says, “but I think I’ve been influenced by Mingus without being conscious of it, because I worked with him for a long time. I can hear it myself: ‘That sounds like Mingus, there.’ But I’m just writing what I hear—just all of the information that’s in the mind.
“But you have to understand that all this stuff converges,” he adds. “The bebop guys are just the younger guard of the swing guys, and the people they listened to were the swing guys. So they spun off of that, and of course those of us who were younger and listened to the bebop guys, we did our own spinoffs. But it’s all connected.”
McPherson, of course, is precisely the right age for the beboppers to have been his formative influences. He was born in 1939, and his original hometown was on the old Route 66, situated so that the so-called “territory bands” from both the Southwest and Midwest stopped through on their circuits each year.
Still, he didn’t start to play until he was 12, by which time he’d been in Detroit for three years. It was two years after that, in high school, when he really got interested in jazz. “One of the students turned me on to Charlie Parker, and from that point on, it was like, ‘I want to do this. Whoever this Charlie Parker is, this guy has got it.’”
Five minutes’ walk from McPherson’s childhood home was the Blue Bird Inn, a jazz club at which Harris, Adams, and Elvin Jones were in the house band. He was too young to get in, but in the summertime the club would leave its doors open and he would stand outside and listen. He met Harris when the pianist would come outside for breaks between sets.
“He knew I was a musician, and he said, ‘Come over to the house, and I’ll show you some things about scales and harmonies. Because if you’re going to be an improviser, there are some things that you’ve got to know.’” The young saxophonist began religiously showing up to practice at Harris’ house.
“He became very good, because he would do what I would say,” recalls Harris, now 90. “I used to lay it on him a little bit. He would call me and say, ‘Can I go to the jam session?’ And I would say, ‘Well, did you finish your homework I gave you?’ He was like my son, really. About the closest thing I had to a son.”
By 19, McPherson was playing professionally; at 21 he moved to New York. Within a few months, Mingus had hired him. Over the next dozen years, he worked regularly with Harris (by now established in New York as well), was a busy freelancer, and began building a career under his own name. He also married and divorced, and had two children: Karen, a nurse, and Charles Jr., a drummer.
“I did one last record date with Mingus in 1978, his last record date, which was also my last day of being in New York City,” McPherson recalls. The next morning he flew out to San Diego to visit his elderly mother, and ended up staying there. He taught for a while at San Diego State and toured frequently with his New York connections, though California remained his home. He started a new family there; his wife Lynn is a classical pianist, whom he credits as a co-composer on one track each from Song of Solomon and its companion suite on the new album, Sweet Synergy Suite. (The latter has a strong through-line of Afro-Latin elements, but no coherent theme like the former.)
For his 80th birthday last year, McPherson was suitably fêted. He was the subject of a tribute at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he played his own music with the JALC Orchestra, and also did a pair of NEA tours. He had planned to continue the celebration, followed by more gigs to promote Jazz Dance Suites, when the coronavirus struck. Obviously, McPherson never let his advancing age deter him from performing, and he has no plan to let a pandemic do it either.
“Everything’s grounded for now; a lot of things won’t happen until next year,” he says. “But I am practicing a lot instead. I’m gonna be on my game when all this stuff opens up again.”