We need your help – please

13 March 2020 ListenRead

Steve Noble in Conversation with Joe McPhee

Steve Noble: You ready, Joe?

Joe McPhee: Yeah. I think I should say before anyone asks "am I a big fan of AC DC?" Not particularly. The first night I wore that AC DC sweater shirt was because when I left home - I live in Poughkeepsie, New York, which was a bit cold - I thought "I'm going to Oslo, it's going to be cold there." So that was effectively to cover my ass. I got this shirt because I went to see Iron Man 2 and actually the theme I think was from Black Sabbath if I'm not mistaken, that Iron Man thing, and I liked it, and I always liked Iron Man, and I liked the colour. So that's all there is to that. AC DC. Okay. Thanks.

Steve: I don't think I need to be here do I? Just let Joe talk. All the questions I've written down, just throw them out... No, I was thinking about this: Most people know you as a saxophone player but you started on trumpet at 8, 9 years old.

Joe: Yes. My dad was a trumpet player.

Steve: Okay, so that's classical music or band music?

Joe: It was mostly band music and light classical music.

Steve: You're not stepping into jazz as you progress?

Joe: Not at that point. I was listening to jazz, but I wasn't playing it.

Steve: And did you go to gigs? Jazz gigs?

Joe: Yes, I did. I was a big fan of John Coltrane and also of Joe Harriott. I'd heard the music of Joe Harriott, which was I thought was extraordinary.

Steve: When were you listening to that?

Joe: This was in the 60s. Only on recordings. After I was in Germany with the Army band.

Steve: So you join the army, you play in the Army band -

Joe: The Army joined me. Right? I didn't do it on purpose. I was drafted. They asked, "do you play a musical instrument?" I said, "yeah, I play trumpet." And they said, "well, we need trumpet players for the Army band." And I thought, well, I played in school and played for football games and I didn't want to do that anymore. So they said, "Well, you might end up marching behind the tank." So that was a no brainer. "Yes, I'll do it!" And the very best thing that happened to me and I have to say this - I wasn't in any kind of war situation, although they made me like the ultimate weapon and taught me how to kill people by poking their eyes out and stuff like that, I didn't have to do any of that - but they sent me to an army band training school which was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me. Introduced me to composition and music theory and so forth. It turned out quite well.

Steve: So then after that period in the army you go to New York -

Joe: Yeah, I went back to New York. A few days after I arrived I was looking for Albert Ayler. I had read about him in Downbeat and in various magazines but I had never heard his music. I went to Copenhagen with this Army band that I was with in Germany. We went to the Montmartre and Booker Ervin was the the saxophonist there at the time. And we asked about about Albert Ayler and he said, yes, he and Don Cherry were here just a few days ago, but they went to Paris. And so I never I never met Albert Ayler. But about five days after I returned home, I went to New York City to a record shop and I found a copy of one of Albert Ayler's recordings called 'Bells'. If any of you have seen that recording it's only on one side - the second side is a silk screen work - you can see right through it. So I was looking at it curiously and over my right shoulder a voice said, "what do you think about that music?" And I said, "I don't know. I can't wait to hear it. This looks great." And he said, "well, that's my brother." And it was Donald Ayler. And he said, "yeah, I'm a trumpet player." And I said, "Oh, I'm a trumpet player, too." He said, "listen, we're having a rehearsal tonight." So he wrote down the address and he said, "why don't you come on over?" And I thought, I don't have my trumpet and I don't live in New York. I've got to catch a train because I live two hours away. So I never met Albert Ayler. Too bad for me.

"The most incredible visual image I can imagine was standing there with Ornette Coleman standing over the grave of John Coltrane. There were no other people. There were no photographs."

Steve: So then - Clifford Thornton, you started working with Clifford Thornton.

Joe: Yes. 1967. This is very interesting as well. In 1967, I think it was probably the 17th of July and if I remember correctly, it might have been a Wednesday.

Steve: And and what time of day?

Joe: It was early afternoon. I was there for a rehearsal for a recording session to be on that following Saturday. It was the first recording I was ever involved with - my friend Clifford Thornton and invited me. So I was playing trumpet - I didn't play the saxophone at that time - and a knock came on the door and I opened the door and there was Ornette Coleman standing there with a trumpet. And I thought, "oh, my God, this can't be true, Ornette." And he said, "I've got to visit my family in Fort Worth. We have a rehearsal hall just across the just across the hall here. When you're finished with it, just put it back in the room." So I waited until I heard the door close and I wiggled the vowels a little bit and I said, "I can't do this." And I went and I put it back in the room. And in that room was the bass of David Izenson and the vibes and drums of Charles Moffet and of course, Ornette's equipment was in there and a very carefully put it back and closed the door. And then I drove home. On the drive home I heard on the radio that John Coltrane had died. This was devastating. Shocking. How could that happen? Well, as I said, I believe it was a Wednesday, on Friday, which was the 21st of July, was the funeral of John Coltrane. The recording session was scheduled for the 22nd of July, so I was back in that studio again. And another knock on the door and I opened the door and there's Ornette Coleman standing there again. He said, "are you gonna go to the funeral?" And I thought, no, because I don't have the right clothes. I wouldn't be dressed properly to go to a funeral. And he said, "you don't need clothes, you just go." So I went and I saw John Coltrane in his coffin. He was wearing a dashiki. And up above in - it was a church on Lexington Avenue - and up above in the balcony was Ornette Coleman's Quartet and Albert Aylers Quartet playing and it was a rather joyous experience. After the service I was standing outside the door of the church and Ornette came out with Billy Higgins and another drummer named Harold Ayvent, and to this day, I don't know why he did it, but he said to me, he said, "we're gonna go to the cemetery out on Long Island. Do you want to come?" And I thought, you kidding me? Yeah! So a limousine pulled up and we got in that limousine and went out to Long Island. We got stuck in traffic and by the time we got there the service was over and all of the people were gone. The most incredible visual image I can imagine was standing there with Ornette Coleman standing over the grave of John Coltrane. There were no other people. There were no photographs. I'm telling you this because I've told it also to journalists. If you ever hear about it, it's because I told them.

"The first recording with the saxophone was called 'Underground Railroad', and was thanks to a very good friend, Craig Johnson, who started a record label called C.J.R. Records."

Steve: That's why it's great to have you here, Joe. And then the saxophone. When did this enter into your -

Joe: Well, for 18 years, I worked in an automotive ball bearing factory that made precision bearings, also for helicopters and all kinds of stuff like that. Well, it was a job. Poughkeepsie, New York, where I live, where I grew up, was a very blue collar town and so the factories were very important in that particular period. So after high school, I got a job there like most kids did, and then they moved on and the factory went on strike. It was a very bad strike, it was kinda stupid. It went on for actually for almost two years, and during that period the only money I had was money from the union or unemployment or something like that. I always thought I wanted to play a saxophone. I found out that I had a neighbor who had a tenor saxophone in his closet and I thought, well, I heard the music of Albert Ayler and that was it for me. So after two days of wiggling my fingers on that saxophone, I went to a club that used to have jam sessions and they allowed me to play my trumpet there. But I went with the saxophone, thinking of Albert Ayler and I walked in. I really didn't know how to play it, and after a few moments of absolute probably total agony for those people, they told me to leave and never come back with that. And I thought, OK. So every Sunday when they had the jam sessions, I would go there and I'd wear workman's coveralls, a white shirt, bow tie and big sunglasses. And I would sit like this. And they thought, where is it? What is he going to do now? So for six months I did that and I went and I didn't play the saxophone. But six months later, I had my first concert. I was the leader and I played my saxophone. And one year after I had my first recording, thanks to a very good friend, Craig Johnson, who started a record label called C.J.R. Records. The first recording was called 'Underground Railroad' and I played my saxophone.

Steve: Thank God for that. Yeah, great. So you did 'Underground Railroad' and 'Nation Time', 'Pieces of Light' and then you moved on. And then you have a relationship with Hat Hut.

Joe: Yes. The producer of Hat Hut Records had bought the first two recordings on C.J.R. - a man by the name of Vernon Erlanger from Switzerland. He was just a jazz fan and he came and he wanted to just meet with Craig Johnson and me. We had dinner and he asked if we had any more recordings. Well, I had made a recording that became Nation Time because I was teaching at Vassar College at that time - it was a course in, kind of weird why they do such a thing, called Black History and my course was called 'A Revolution in Sound' about music after the be-bop period. And so he came. We had dinner and he heard some tapes that we had and from those first tapes he produced a recording. He didn't have a label at that time and the recording that he released was the beginning of Hat Hut Records, which has gone on to be quite an extensive independent record label.

Steve: So you released all your records on Hat Hat for a period?

Joe: No, I think there were maybe about four. The final one on C.J.R. was called 'Pieces of Light'. And it was probably closer to the music that we played last night with Aine [O'Dwyer] and also with Brian Eubanks. It was more electronic with synthesizers and it was very much more experimental, not so much in the jazz area.

Steve: Does that lead into Pauline Oliveros? You're looking -

Joe: Yeah, Pauline Oliveros, those of you who don't know who Pauline Oliveros was, she was or is, probably one of the leading people in experimental music, tape music and electronic music ever. I was invited to a festival which she curated in San Francisco in 1981. It was called New Music America 1981 and I was invited there to play as a soloist. I arrived in San Francisco and I had my saxophone over my shoulder and the strap broke so the saxophone fell to the floor. It was in a hard case so I thought it was well protected. I went to a soundcheck and the technician said, "you have twenty five minutes for the soundcheck and we don't have time to fool with you, blah, blah, blah." So I went to play the saxophone. Of course, it didn't work because one of the rods was bent and I couldn't see what it was. I was in a big panic and Pauline saw me. Immediately she came over and she said, "don't worry." She took me to a repair shop. Since I was playing solo in this festival which was being broadcast on radio live across the whole United States, if that didn't work, my God, what would I have done? Anyway, she got my saxophone repaired and I was able to perform that concert. It just so happened that my friend Craig Johnson, who was in New York State three thousand miles away, was listening to that broadcast and he recorded it. So eventually it was released with interviews.

Steve: What was it called?

Joe: The piece was called Wind Cycles and it was an interesting festival. Conlon Nancarrow - I don't know if you know - yeah, well, he was an expatriate. He had just come back to the United States for the first time in many, many years. He was there. It was quite an amazing festival.

Steve: So would this lead on -

Joe: - to my relationship with Pauline?

Steve: Well yes, but after you've studied with her, I mean to this theory about Po music.

Joe: Oh, the Po Music. Yeah.

Steve: You wanna explain what Po stands for, for you?

Joe: Well it was the same year. The Po Music concept. First of all I have to say that I was in a library and I found a book by Dr. Edward de Bono who had a concept of lateral thinking which I found quite interesting. A way of looking from outside the box if you pardon that expression, I don't really like it, but, another way of looking at things. Po, the word Po, comes from an ancient Minoan language and it's a language indicator to show that provocation is being used to move from a fixed sense set of ideas to discovering new ones. For example, he would precede a statement with this Po and there was a language indicator. It looked like a question mark or a backward horse's head or something like that. You proceed your statement with that and he would say, "Po: Cars should have square wheels. Well, if a car had square wheels, what could you do with it? It probably wouldn't run, it wouldn't roll. Well out of that idea you might eventually find a way to discover better brakes or something. You'd look at it another way or he'd say, okay, you're driving down a road and suddenly you come to a hole in that road. You know you can't proceed and you're heading North. Suddenly now you have to head West or East or South. That's not the direction you want to go, but you keep in mind where it is that you want to end up and in this detour along the way, you make discoveries. I have to say that a little bit earlier in 1972 I had a very fortunate opportunity to meet and play with Don Cherry in New York City at NYU for a recording which eventually came out called 'Relativity Suite'. I was able to to to play with Don Cherry with this ensemble for a week and we were not given any written music. Don, saying all of the parts to us. Each part was informed and we were instructed by these banners, I suppose the best way I could describe it by his wife. We had to remember what the banners meant and what the music was about. So that was 1972. By 1981 and with this Po music, this Po concept, this lateral thinking concept, I realized that I had just been informed about how I was going to proceed with large ensemble writing or composing based on what I had learned from Don Cherry.

Steve: Great. And then?

Joe: And then, and then I continue to make a big mess like we're gonna make tonight! It's a wonderful opportunity. I'm so grateful to have had these days here at Cafe OTO four wonderful days. Meeting new people, discovering new possibilities each time. I'm looking forward to carrying on with that.

"I'm not trying to do things right. I'm just trying to be right with what I do."

Steve: There's one question I want to ask you. You would say your heroes would be, say, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler.

Joe: Oh, there are many.

Steve: There's one question. Who's Guitar Shorty?

Joe: Guitar Shorty? He's a guy who never plays anything right. He was a guitarist, I saw his name on a on a recording somewhere. And also on this inscription that said 'Guitar Shorty. He don't play nothin' right!' And I thought, I want to be like him. I'm not trying to do things right. I'm just trying to be right with what I do.

Steve: Great. Joe McPhee, thank you, Joe McPhee! We'll, take a 10 minute break and then we'll come on and do the first set. Thank you very much.