Mingus Hometown Festival to Feature Saxophonist Charles McPherson

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Charles McPherson, world renown jazz saxophonist, will appear April 20-21, at this year's Charles Mingus Hometown Music Festival In Nogales, Arizona, Mingus's birthplace. McPherson played with Mingus over a twelve year period.  The festival, an annual event to honor the legendary bassist and composer, is sponsored by The Mingus Project and coincides with his birthday.  Mingus was born in Nogales on April 22, 1922, and died of Lou Gehrig's Disease on January 5, 1979, in Cuernevaca, Mexico. Because he was my mother Vivian Mingus's baby brother and my only uncle, my sister Carol Bowie, an accomplished artist, and I compiled a book in 2006, The Art and Soul of Jazz: a tribute to Charles Mingus, Jr., honoring him. During the research phase of the book, I contacted Charles McPherson, who graciously consented to provide a snapshot of his Mingus experience.  Here, from the book, is McPherson's take on Mingus:

Charles McPherson: In His Own Words--Reflections on Mingus

October 18, 2005

"I spent twelve years off and on with Mingus.  In all that time there was a year that I didn't play. Dannie Richmond was with him longer. We were just two of the musicians who played with him. There were hordes of people that worked with him.

     I watched how he was with Buddy Collette. He was different. Buddy was a gentle spirit, yet a man. Do you know what I mean? I saw Mingus and Buddy together a lot. He had a certain kind of respect for Buddy. Just like Red Callender. Maybe it was because Red was older. Buddy was older too by just a year, but a year is a long time when you're a kid. And they'd known each other since childhood.

     I was nineteen or twenty when I joined Mingus in 1959 or 1960. Ted Curson, trumpet player, and Eric Dolphy, saxophone, were both going to quit and he needed players. I knew Yusef Luteef and Yusef knew we were in town--me, an alto saxophone player and Lonnie Hillyer, a young trumpet player--at a coffee house in the Village where there were jam sessions. Mingus came by and sat in with us and said 'Okay you guys come on tonight."

     We knew from the first night it was a gangster place, straight out of Hollywood. There was a problem with Mingus not being paid. We were in there and he was a huge imposing figure, must have weighed close to 300 pounds then. At the end of the gig he tore the piano up--began ripping the chords from it. I am thinking we are probably gonna get killed. But they were so awestruck they just watched. Mingus was fearless. He said 'They owe me about two thousand dollars, so I did two thousand dollars worth of damage.' We just thought 'should we be happy that we actually got this job?' I got a feeling this was gonna be some weird job. He was brutally candid and confrontational. He would do strange things like if there were some white men in the audience--in town for a convention or something--from a small town like Des Moines, Iowa, and they started talking during our performance, he would stop in the middle of the tune and tell them to shut up. Or take the mike and put it to one of their mouths and they wouldn't know they were being heard all over the place. He might go into the bathroom and get a plunger and shake it in their faces.

     Mingus really liked me. There was only one reason. When he was assessing you personally once he puts you in whatever slot he thinks you are then that is you forever. We were in San Francisco and we played a club. One afternoon we did a benefit for Kenny Pachen, a Beat poet in a wheel chair. Mingus knew him. After he did the benefit, Mingus started doling out five dollar bills to his band members. I looked at him and said 'give it to Kenny.' When I did this his eyes teared up and he looked me square in the face and said 'Thanks Charlie.' He saw in me something that the rest of the guys did not have. From that point on, I could do no wrong. We would be goofing off--like youngsters do, just having fun, laughing at things--but he never called me out. If he felt you were a good person, he treated you differently.

     Later when I was 32 or so, I could tell the difference in his attitude toward me as I grew older. He related to me as a man. There is a gradation in feelings, a change. He seemed to enjoy working in an atmosphere of stress. Maybe subconsciously enjoying and setting up train wrecks--seemed to jump start something in him. On certain evenings everything was perfect--room-wise, audience-wise--I would look at him and he would have the most bored look on his face and sure enough something would happen. He would do a slight oratory and his music would become more inspired.

     The Town Hall Concert was a good example of that. There was no written music. We were waiting for the parts to come so we could play. Mingus walks to the mike and says to the audience: 'This is a Jazz Workshop. Consider yourselves lucky that you are actually privy to this.' Bill Cosby was in the audience--I know him and his laugh--sometimes laughing his head off at Mingus's antics.

     About my being selected to play saxophone in "Bird." I sent a tape and worked with Lennie Niehaus, who was in the Army with Clint Eastwood and scores all of Eastwood's movies. I met Clint and talked with him.

     My overall assessment of Mingus is that his music, especially his composition, is great. I took on a lot of his style through osmosis, I guess. I notice that in some of my original tunes I will say to myself 'this reminds me of a Mingus tune.' I was influenced by his composition.

     There was something inside of him, a decency, in spite of his being volatile. If he felt you had that decency he actually knew that and responded to it as well. That made anything else he did his redeeming quality.

     Buddy Collette is like that. There was a tolerance that Buddy had, a real gentleman, a diplomat. Here is a guy like Mingus with a 'core decency' and he tolerated him because he loved Mingus."

For more information go to: www.mingusproject.com