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Charles McPherson: In Control of His 'Illusions' : Jazz: The saxman has little faith in the U.S. music industry, so would rather produce and release his albums himself.

June 02, 1993|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — The music of alto-saxman Charles McPherson brings forth images of teeming, rain-slicked city streets, buzzing neon lights, groaning buses and flickering street lights. It's blue, crackling, metropolitan post-bop at its best.

His home lies just a few blocks from a depressed-looking main drag of San Diego that's dotted with decaying apartment houses and a myriad of graffiti-defiled liquor stores. But what a difference a few short city blocks can make.

Nestled back above a canyon overlooking California 94, the McPherson residence is surrounded by a lush overgrowth of tropical fauna, secluded like an oasis from the urban squalor that grips most of the neighborhood.

Fresh off a weeklong stint at the Village Vanguard in New York City, McPherson relaxed in an easy chair by a picturesque bay window, a brilliantly polished grand piano nestling into a plush, white carpet nearby.

"I started out playing with little local doo-wop groups in Detroit in the '50s, and then I discovered jazz," he said. "From that point on, I was hooked. There was no turning back."

McPherson's strapping, sinewy frame and unlined face make him appear a decade younger than his 50-plus years, but he refuses to reveal his exact age, only acknowledging that he's "well beyond Jack Benny's classic 39."

He was born in Joplin, Mo., which he describes as "an interesting town, full of great storytellers and unique blues musicians."

He moved to Detroit while still a teen-ager, hooking up with the guru-like bop pianist, Barry Harris. The two maintain a personal and professional relationship to this day.

In 1960, McPherson left Detroit and moved to New York City. In short order, he met the late bassist-composer Charles Mingus. McPherson would spend most of the next 12 years in the Mingus band.

McPherson played on a number of Mingus releases in the '60s, including "Mingus in Monterey" and "My Favorite Quintet."

"Composition would be the strongest thing I learned from Mingus," McPherson said. "He was a man of many moods, and he knew how to write music to express every one of those moods. . . . I learned from that."

But McPherson also affirms Mingus' reputation as a strong and sometimes difficult personality.

"Mingus didn't like anyone to talk while he was playing, which is understandable. So we were in Canada once, and a table full of guys were talking, and he just stopped right in the middle of a tune, stopped the band, and went into the john.

"He came back out with a toilet plunger and walked right over to the table full of four or five guys. We're still on the bandstand, and he's over here swinging a toilet plunger at them! One guy gets up, about as tall as a wall, and he takes a swing at Charles, barely missing him. With the momentum of the punch, Charles threw the guy damn near over to the other side of the room. It was hilarious! We looked in the paper the next day and it turned out that these guys were from the Canadian Football League!"

McPherson began recording as a front man with "Bebop Revisited" on Prestige Records in 1964, and now counts 16 solo releases in his personal discography.

One career highlight was recording the soundtrack for the Clint Eastwood-directed film "Bird" in 1988. The movie was, of course, a biography of saxophone legend Charlie (Bird) Parker, who is something of a personal hero and inspiration to McPherson. But, he said, the film turned out to be a bit of a disappointment to him.

"It's a downer, in terms of its mood. Bird was a complex man. Certainly, there's a sense of tragedy about him, but he also had a hell of a sense of humor. I think that when people make a movie, they're going to focus on some things more than others."

But McPherson was still honored to be asked to fill Parker's musical shoes in the film, and received much acclaim for his uncanny ability to approximate Bird's sound so closely.

"He's been my major influence, without a doubt," said McPherson. "But Bird has been a major influence in jazz and popular music, directly or indirectly, since 1940. The way he phrased changed the music world."

Today, McPherson has been spending less time in the United States, where hard jazz gets almost no push from record labels or radio stations.

"Art is just not that important a thing to Americans, and to me, that's the downfall of this country. But in Europe, it's nothing for a man, a real man, to take his family out to a museum on a Sunday afternoon. It's not looked upon as effete or effeminate."

McPherson puts a large part of the blame for domestic indifference to jazz squarely on the shoulders of record-company greed.

"Jazz is a slow but steady seller," he said. "It's not going to go gold in two weeks, or even a year. But it's long-range money that trickles in. It will sell forever. But the powers-that-be aren't interested in that. They want quick money."

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