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Joe McPhee : CACP 10 Questions

Joe McPhee, Fred Lonberg-Holm, and Michael Zerang stopped by Luna in DePere for a Center for Artistic Collaboration and Performance (CACP) concert on May 4, 2005, two days before starting a tour with the Peter Brötzmann Tentet. Minutes before the show, the lights went out on our side of town. Undeterred, McPhee played nearly an hour in the dark, beginning in duo with Zerang and finishing in trio with Lonberg-Holm before the power came back on. Although the entire concert was dynamite, hardly a revelation to anyone remotely aware of the talent assembled in the room, I and most of the listeners kind of hoped the lights would have stayed off—it was something else. McPhee had also just completed a European tour with Brötzmann, which explains the first answer and its brevity.

Interview conducted and edited by Mark Patel and Nick Utrie of CACP.

1) What have you been listening to lately?

Well, I did listen to Peter Brötzmann. Peter Brötzmann live, which is another story.

2) What is your most memorable live performance?

[Pause] Maybe one with Steve Lacy in 1977 in Basil, Switzerland. It was Lacy’s first time in Basil, and it was a very special experience for him, and he asked me, just before he came on he said, “Would you mind playing something together?” and I said, “Sure.” As he was playing, I thought about what I should play since I had my soprano, my trumpet, and my tenor. “I can’t play my trumpet, that doesn’t work. The tenor won’t work. I’ll play the soprano.”  And then we started to play, and I thought, “Oh my god, are you completely stupid?  Here’s one of the greatest soprano players in the world, and you’re gonna do what?” We played, and it was recorded and I’ve got a copy of it. He was very kind, and it took me, well, when he died, I finally had the courage to listen to it, and I thought, “Oh man, I embarrassed my family and everything.” I listened to it, and it’s not bad. You know, it’s not the greatest thing in the world, but it’s not bad, and it was very interesting for me. What I came to understand was that there was something else going on, and Steve was such a great man and so warm and so welcoming and it wasn’t about, “Look, I’m a star and you’re this guy attempting to play the soprano.”  I mean, God almighty, how stupid could I be? No, it was great.

3) What is your most memorable concert-going experience?

Probably 1962 at the Village Gate, the John Coltrane Quartet 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.

4) Who is the one musician with which you would most like to play?

That’s a very hard question. Somebody that comes to mind right now, I don’t know if it’s the person I would most like to play with, is Bill Dixon. Bill Dixon is a kind of hero to me. I find him a fascinating person and an extraordinary trumpet player. To say that he plays the trumpet doesn’t do him justice.

5) Who is your biggest non-musical influence?

A painter. A very dear friend by the name of Alton Pinkens, who really encouraged me early on. He died in 1991, and that’s all I can say.

6) What is your first musical memory?

My father—and I was eight years old—saying to me, “OK, come into the house.”  I was out in the street playing stickball with some friends. I came into the house and there was a music stand and his silver Holton trumpet, and he said, “Now it is time for you to begin to learn music.” He gave me the gift of music.

7) When did you know that you wanted to be an improvising musician?

I don’t know when exactly I knew that. I just know I wanted to play music. Probably sometime after I was in the Army, 22, 23 years old, and I saw some guys I went to high school with playing in a band, and I said, “The next time I see them I am going to be playing just like they are, playing jazz.”

8) What is your ultimate goal as an artist?

It is to be as honest as I can be and to stay as healthy as I can to do the work that I am here to do, whatever that means.

9) If music was banned tomorrow, what would you do?

I’d be the worst terrorist the world has ever known. It wouldn’t be pleasant; it wouldn’t be nice, let me tell you that.

10) Can music save people, and if so, how?

Yes, I believe so. I do believe that music is the healing force of the universe, and I think that it’s a marvelous gift, and we mustn’t misuse it. I think that it’s been totally misused. It’s become a reason to sell soap or toothpaste or cars or something else.