McPherson Talks Mingus
Posted 6/11/2012

During his lifetime, Charles Mingus was underrated as a composer. In the 12 years you worked with Mingus, what were some of the memorable experiences and lessons you took away?

With Mingus, I learned mostly just from being around him, playing with him and the way he wrote compositions. So compositionally, I think I gained the most from being with him. I thought Mingus’ writing, especially his ballad writing, was interesting, and there was something different about it. It was a combination of haunting and dark. Just melodically, it was interesting. I can tell sometimes the way I write, I’ll hear something that sort of reminds me of him. I am not deliberately trying to do it, but by osmosis it might happen. He had his own crowd. He wasn’t as popular as Miles and some people like that in those days. But he was like Ron Paul in the music world; he had his people who absolutely loved him and are going to come out and support him in numbers no matter what. There was a certain crowd that Mingus attracted amongst the jazz people and they loved him. So he got his just due and he was an interesting figure because he was painfully honest, confrontational, didn’t edit anything—whatever he thought he said—so he wasn’t concerned about being politically correct, which can be quite troublesome. He was always in and out of trouble with people. But that was interesting to watch.

I used to be very nervous and kind of afraid because he would insult people in the audience who talked during a ballad. He would go out and threaten them and tell them to get out or say, “Here’s your money…some people are here to listen to the music…you’re not respectful!” He would demand that. Well, some people would have an issue with that, like, “Who are you to tell me…?” Some people would be intimidated and just be quiet. So working with Mingus was never a dull moment [laughs]. Interesting musically, but you never knew what was going to happen. And he loved that. I think he welcomed that as being part of his assumed persona in terms of how the world looked at him, how the music world looked at him—a mad genius that’s volatile and might go off at any moment. That worked well because people would come to see him and just wait for something bizarre to happen. And it would. And the next day, somebody would write about it and the next night, you couldn’t get into the place! Some of that he was being himself. He was not unaware that it’s better to get some press than to get no press [laughs].

How did Mingus treat the musicians he worked with?

He was honest with them, too. He was confrontational. But the interesting thing about Mingus was once you got to know him, you realized that as volatile as he was, there was a core of decency about him. And that comes through when you know him. There are instances when you’re around him and have worked with him long enough that things present themselves and you see how he behaved in a particular instance. And you realize that he’s got a sense of ethics, he’s got a sense of what’s fair and what’s not fair. He was not what you call sociopathic in a way. A lot of times, he might be right, but maybe I wouldn’t have handled it that way. But it wasn’t like he was really wrong all the time. Like people talking and being disrespectful, you know really he’s right. Now I might not go out and threaten a guy physically, but I might say something; but I might not be as verbose as he was. It wasn’t that he was necessarily wrong and he was pretty fair in how he did things. So he was just kind of a dark figure, but he also had his moments of being a very happy man. He was bright and a pretty interesting figure.

So I was with him for about 12 years and saw a lot of people come in and out—the only other person that was with Mingus as long as I was drummer Dannie Richmond. And at one point, I stopped because it was just getting so intense, just everything about the whole experience. I stopped and worked for the Internal Revenue [Service] for almost a year and that was crazier than he was! [laughs] I actually went back to working with him again. Mingus’ last record was done in 1978 and it was a big band, an orchestral group involving a lot of people including myself, Lee Konitz, Michael Brecker, even Joni Mitchell had written some of the music. That was his last record date. He had what they called Lou Gehrig’s Disease and at that point, he was in a wheelchair. He couldn’t move or say much. Right after that record date, the next morning of that night, I moved from New York to San Diego just to visit my mom supposedly and I ended up staying. So I’ve been in San Diego since 1978. And that was the end of working with Mingus. He and his wife went to Mexico to try this alternative, you know, way of dealing with things, but of course that didn’t work and he [soon] passed on in Mexico.

How did you come to work with Clint Eastwood on Bird, the biopic about the great Charlie Parker?

Clint Eastwood’s musical director is a guy named Lennie Niehaus; he writes the scores and he’s a wonderful saxophone player. Lennie knew me, or knew of me, and he’s also an alto player. So when they were looking for people to help out with this film, there were only two or three people maybe to approach to do something like that. I think he called me and then I just sent in a tape of me, and he called back and said, “OK, you got it.” That started the involvement with Bird. Technically they were able to do certain things and still use Charlie Parker; they were able to pull him off of records and then put today’s people on the record date. Pretty much like what they can do with Natalie Cole and have her singing with her father [Nat “King” Cole], so that technology was the beginning of all of that. But sometimes, they couldn’t do it. So in those instances, I was used. And then there were parts in the movie where they would want Bird playing, and of course he couldn’t play. In those situations, I would be the one who would do that. So there were some scenes where it is me playing and not Charlie Parker. But some of the scenes are certainly Charlie Parker. I’ve never been involved with a film in that matter before.

Clint Eastwood was at the recording date and he’s an interesting person, a real jazz fan. This was a project he wanted to do, with his money, so he was sort of interesting to talk to. Clint said he saw Bird at one of the Jazz at the Philharmonic things they used to have in the late 1940s. Norman Granz used to do those things and it would be like the Newport Jazz Festival, but it was at a philharmonic hall in Los Angeles. So he went and Charlie Parker was on that bill. He had never seen Bird before, but he had heard of him. And he said when he saw Charlie Parker, it changed his life. It was just his presence and the authority that he had musically on the instrument. And he said from that point on, it gave him [a lesson of] how to be when it comes to doing the thing he wants to do, which was to get into film, how he was going to think about his career and bring all of this about. There was just something about the confidence of Bird, just this ambiance around him that was intriguing for a guy like Clint. And if you think about actors, if they’re anywhere near OK, they are students of human behavior: They’re portraying different people and personality types. So they are watching people in a different way than some other people are. So he was able to pick up on this with Charlie Parker. I thought it was interesting that a guy like Clint Eastwood, who really has nothing to do with music, would be impressed by a jazz musician.

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