“It’s fun to be able to cause that ‘Voilà!’ moment, let’s put it that way,” says Charles McPherson.
Having just come off stage in Webster Hall’s Cornell Auditorium, where he held a master class and then performed with members of the two student jazz combos on Feb. 18, the highly accomplished jazz musician takes a moment to consider what it is he loves about teaching his craft.
“When you’re teaching people who know a little less than you about a certain thing, if you can come to a point where you can help (students) understand what could be abstract concepts or ideas, and cause those ‘Voilà!’ moments, then you’ve done your job,” he says.
“And that’s the soul of what teaching is.”
The master class at Missouri Southern was just one part of a weekend homecoming celebration for the 82-year-old alto saxophonist, who was born in Joplin in 1939 before moving to Detroit at the age of 9. He performed for a fundraising concert that evening at Joplin’s Empire Market, and then gave a free performance Saturday, Feb. 19, at Central Christian Center.
According to the biography on his website, McPherson studied with renowned pianist Barry Harris before taking up the saxophone. Immersing himself in the local jazz culture, he began playing professionally at 19 years old.
He had a professional performing and recording relationship with jazz great Charles Mingus for 12 years, and was featured on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film “Bird,” as the “saxophone voice” of Charlie Parker.
He has toured throughout the U.S., Europe, Africa, South America and Japan and has performed and recorded with a lengthy list of jazz greats. Currently living in San Diego, Calif., he remains an active composer and an in-demand educator.
Musician and composer Wynton Marsalis has called McPherson “the definitive master on his instrument.”
McPherson’s visit to Joplin is presented by Connect2Culture, the Langston Hughes Cultural Society, the Minnie Hackney Community Center, the Post Art Library, Pro Musica, Spiva Center for the Arts, and Visit Joplin.
“This is the first time I’ve been back to Joplin since I was a kid,” McPherson says. “I’ve been through here going from Point A to Point B, but I’ve never played here as a professional. The last time I was here was in 1948, so it’s a very interesting feeling to come back.”
During his master class at Missouri Southern, he sat on the front row of the auditorium, listening to the student jazz combos before offering some critiques.
“There’s metronomic time, but how do you feel about 150 (beats per minute)?” he asks. “That’s art. Not craft … art.
“There’s a lot of different ways to think about it, but it’s just my way – it’s not written in blood. It’s really about relaxing, not trying to prove anything. No ego, just pure consciousness. Be aware, relax and just play.”
Pulling up a chair at the end of the stage, McPherson picks up his saxophone and sits in with the combined jazz combos as they riff on Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time.” Each student has an opportunity to take a solo and shine – the song wrapping up after McPherson, his toe tapping to the beat, takes a quick solo of his own.
“I can tell these students are very dedicated. They play well,” McPherson says afterward. “It’s promising to see young people engaged in art, and be so enamored of music. It’s very rewarding (to work with them).”
Dr. Keith Talley, professor of music, thanked McPherson for sharing his time and music, telling the jazz musician that he’s “now part of Missouri Southern history.”
“(Our students) will remember this for the rest of their lives,” Talley says.