Beboppin’ Right Along

Charles McPherson sticks to the tried and true.

By Shaun Brady
Photos by Nick Reuchel

In 1972, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson ended a 12-year run with legendary bassist Charles Mingus to find the jazz landscape greatly transformed. Bebop, the musical language to which McPherson had dedicated himself since hearing Charlie Parker on a candy store jukebox in his early teens, was looked on as passé. Bird and Bud Powell were dead, and Monk was all but retired. Fusion was the buzzword of the day, with elements from rock and world music reshaping the jazz vocabulary; even bop pioneers like Miles Davis were following an electrified muse. Meanwhile, other forebears like John Coltrane had embraced a newfound freedom, abandoning the sleek, agile melodic lines of bop for unfettered exploration.

McPherson couldn’t help but be tempted by the prospect of reinvention. If “career suicide” was a slight exaggeration for the notion of sticking to his bebop guns, there were certainly greener pastures to be found elsewhere. But Charles McPherson was and remains a true believer.

“There’s no way in hell that an intelligent person can help but look at his profession and see that one is apt to make a couple more dollars if you go in this direction as opposed to that direction,” McPherson admits over the phone from his San Diego home. “This is a capitalist society — you need to educate your children, your creature needs have to be addressed, you need to have a nest or shelter, you need clothes. But it’s a judgment call. I always did what I wanted and was willing to pay the price for it.”

More than 40 years later, McPherson remains a steadfast defender and practitioner of the bebop tradition, one of the few remaining torchbearers from the music’s golden age. But don’t think of him as some kind of museum piece. McPherson’s love of bebop stems not from its past glories but from its endless versatility and fertile expressiveness.

“Music is melody, harmony and rhythm,” McPherson explains. “With bebop, you have a genre of music that is very strong melodically, extremely strong rhythmically and very sophisticated harmonically. So you have a style of music that is extremely proficient in all three aspects of what makes music, at least Western music, music. You’re not supposed to keep playing ‘Confirmation’ for the next 10,000 years. But it’s such a classic music that from there you can go anywhere.”

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