September 22, 2011
Joe McPhee visited Luzern on September 22 and 23 for both a workshop with the Institut Jazz und Volksmusik, Hochschule Luzern Musik and as well a special performance at the Zentral and Hochcshulbibliothek Luzern honoring Niklaus Troxler's many years of dedicated work as producer and promoter of the Willisau Festival. Joe McPhee performed on some of the earliest editions of this now renowned international festival, and some of those performances are also documented on the first releases from HatHut records based here in Switzerland. Regrettably due to an error, our recording of this interview evaporated and so we can not offer a Podcast as we normally do with Music Talks. .
Die Gespräche werden geführt von Gerry Hemingway, Dozent für Schlagzeug, Ensemble und Kompostion
Joe McPhee offered our audience at the Music Talk on September 22 a very rare first hand insight into the significant developments of jazz and improvised music from the 1960's up to the present innovations of our time over which his music has maintained a significant role. Joe is cognizant of his many influences and inspirations, often honoring them in his recorded works, and echoing their voices in his masterful improvisations.
His beginnings are untypical in the African-American continuum, coming from a heritage originating in the Bahamas where both his parents originally lived and met. What is significant about this is that as a child Joe's cultural base was more related to the English Episcopal his parents were a part of (rather than Baptist), even after they moved to Miami, Florida, where Joe was born in November 3, 1939. His father was influential in how Joe eventually developed a passion for music. As he put it, “he gave me the gift of music.” It happened when he was eight years old and his dad had him come into the house from playing stickball with his friends to present him with a silver Horton trumpet, declaring, “Now it is time for you to begin to learn music.”
The musical experience he gained from his dad's tutelage and influence would serve him well at other significant moments in his early years including a school music program where Joe's capacity to play brass instruments put him well ahead of his classmates in gaining his first chances to play organized music with others. More significantly his trumpet playing would keep him out of army combat when he enlisted in 1962. At that point he had not thought of music as a career, he had studied electronics and engineering and thought that when he entered the army that this would be the direction he would pursue, but there were no openings. However, fortunately for all of us, they did need a trumpet player!
Also significant in 1962 was an encounter with the music of John Coltrane at the Village Gate. For Joe this “was the most extraordinary experience I've ever had listening to anything. I thought I was going to die the music was so intense. I didn't think I would ever get out of there alive.” Joe was frequenting the NY scene more and more as a young man as his parents had relocated to upstate NY seeking better employment than what they could find in Miami.
The early sixties was also a significant time in the civil rights movement and with it awareness of race and racism were also having an effect on Joe's life. Up until high school he circulated in a social world where race had not played such a prominent role; that was until it was time for dating. Then it became clearer that there were rules which had been previously inconsequential. In our discussion Joe shared his own direct experience of racism by relating a very abusive encounter with police who assumed his guilt because of his race. Such incidents were all too typical in these times of growing and heated consciousness that there was no equality to speak of in the North or the South when it came to race as well as gender.
Though jazz music was generally discouraged in the army band, he was not alone in his interest in seeking out opportunities to listen and play jazz during his three years in the service. Not long after his return to the States models of trumpet playing such as Miles Davis and Lee Morgan fell way to the growing revolution in sound taking place in New York with artists such as Don Cherry whose pocket trumpet snared Joe's attention. His encounters with musicians who were paving new ground in music in New York were many and sometimes unexpected. On one occasion he found himself in a record store admiring the unusual transparent one-sided vinyl edition of Albert Ayler's “Bells” on ESP records when someone in the store asked him if he knew about the music on the recording. Absorbed in the uniqueness of the object he remarked that he didn't, to which the onlooker replied, that the record he was holding was of his brother's music. This was Joe's first direct encounter with trumpeter Donald Ayler soon followed by numerous encounters with the music of Albert Ayler. Another significant moment was the beginning of his relationship with Ornette Coleman who heard Joe practicing in a building where he also worked. It was Ornette who invited him to join him at John Coltrane's funeral where Ayler performed among others. The day after Coltrane's funeral Joe's first commercial recording session occurred with valve trombonist Clifford Thornton, a recording which included his composition O.C.T.. Ornette was significant in encouraging Joe's taking up the saxophone, which began in 1968. And as well, Ornette's colleague, Dewey Redman, was significant to his development of his technique for combining voice and saxophone that would become an integral part of his sonic palette.
There are many interesting footnotes to this early period which are now coming to light Joe has more recently unearthed a wealth of recordings he made in performance and in his home studio, using a sound on sound system (a consumer multi-track recorder). One collection of solo saxophone recordings dates from 1968, the year that Anthony Braxton's “For Alto” release broke new ground in presenting a seminal double LP for solo saxophone music. Playing solo remains an important and prolific part for Joe McPhee's creative output to this day.
It is not surprising that my first encounter with Joe McPhee's music was a 1976 solo LP entitled “Tenor” on HatHut records that was in its infancy as a recording company at the time. Joe recounted his first meeting with the now renowned producer and owner of Hat Art records. Mr. Uehlinger, then a chemist for Spitzer Pharmaceutical, sought Joe out and arranged to meet him in Poughkeepsie, NY. He was in essence at that point a serious fan of what few documents existed of McPhee's music at that time. Joe gave him some other recordings to listen to, and the story went that Werner lost his way to his business meeting with the Jersey office of Spitzer as he was so entranced with listening to the recordings in his car. Werner Uehlinger decided at that point to begin a recording company to showcase Joe's music that he felt was extremely significant and deserved wider attention. “Tenor” was the third release of HatHut (the previous two were also McPhee recordings) and we listened together to his work “Knox” which was a piece he dedicated to another significant Swiss associate, Willisau festival producer, Niklaus Troxler (Joe also performed this same piece the following evening at the tribute to Niklaus Troxler in Luzern.
One other vestige of Joe's roots that might have been his career if it were not for that fateful change of direction caused at the army's need for a trumpeter was his fascination with electronics and technology. Threaded through these early recordings and continuing to this day are appearances of various gadgetry and electronic oddities some of which have become quite rare. My sense of sitting with the many recordings Joe generously gave me to review was that this aspect of his work played an important role in his exploration of sound.
It also should be mentioned that an aspect of his creative thinking was likely fostered by his interest in the world of visual art, in part through his close association and friendship with painter's Craig Johnson (the producer of Joe's first recording “Underground Railroad”) and Alton Pickens whom Joe looked after for 8-9 years following a debilitating accident, and whom he honored in a recent performance at the Merkin Hall in NYC.
Joe McPhee was for a period of time in the sixties also responsible for a course in music history at Vassar College, entitled “A Revolution in Sound” which for jazz pedagogy, was significantly ahead of its time as very few universities had any interest in this subject. His relationship to radicalism would resurface in his engagement with the work of Edward de Bono's book Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity, which presents concepts for solving problems by “disrupting an apparent sequence and arriving at the solution from another angle.” de Bono's theories inspired McPhee to apply this “sideways thinking” to his own work in creative improvisation, resulting in the concept of “Po Music.” McPhee describes “Po Music” as a “process of provocation” that can be used to “move from one fixed set of ideas in an attempt to discover new ones.”
Since the 60's and 70's Joe has remained a prolific recording and performance artist (for his discography click here). The Minneapolis based Roaratorio Records has released numerous LPs in recent years of his earlier and more recent works. Joe has been an integral member of Peter Brotzmann's Chicago Tentet, that combines many luminaries and musical colleagues from the Chicago and European improvised music world, including Fred Lonberg-Holm, Ken Vandermark, Kent Kessler, Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love, Michael Zerang, Johannes Bauer among others. Trio X with drummer Jay Rosen and bassist Dominic Duval has been an ongoing cooperative platform since the end of the 90's.
At 72 years on the planet Joe shows no signs of letting up his uncompromising creative output for all of us to hear and enjoy. The arc of his life in music already offers us many valuable insights into the continuum of creative music, always in touch and celebrating the masters who touched him.
Gerry Hemingway (October 2011)