Charles McPherson on the blues, at the Savannah Music Festival, 3/27/2013

3 May

I was recently fortunate enough to interview Charles McPherson, who told me about the blues, and what it means to him. 

Charles McPherson: The reason why I think the blues are important is because they should be, to me, the essence of what jazz is. It should be always a part of the fabric of jazz, I think. Everybody does not think that. But I do.

(….) The blues [is] a musical form, (….) harmonically and technically, that set a miles for pretty much the full range of human emotions. At least the really important emotions, I think…can be expressed by way of the blues.

To me music is just a metaphor for human emotionality. The human emotions are the real thing. So when you use art, whether in music, writing, or whatever it is! the particular mode of art – whatever the art is – …to me it’s supposed to be able to express the human condition. And so if you play music, then music is supposed to express that. And I think to be multidimentional – and that’s what people are: human beings are multidimentional: they are complex – so I think that the music should be multidimentional in that it can portray all the emotions: sadness, happiness, extreme depression, extreme gaity, and everything in the middle.

And the blues as a form covers a lot of emotionality because there are different kinds of blues: some blues are very dark and almost sad. But some are happy; some are glad to be unhappy – that’s a strange one there, ‘glad to be unhappy’ that’s a dichotomy – but it is a strange emotion that people can feel – and then just happy and/or hopeful, humorous, sexy – not even sexy but also …what’s the word….agape (as opposed to eros). So the blues, besides it being sexy (you know, it can be that), it can be not sexy, but almost reverent.

Because when the blues was first concocted by people, essentially… there was no sexual….because it’s an outbirst of spirituals. It’s like spirituals. And then maybe the blues comes from that. The evolution. But you know the spirituals are really saying “help, help me; ah…you’re all I got.” Meaning the big soul of the universe. So it’s a plaintive. This is you know….And then the blues comes from that. So there’s a part of the blues that deals with not just eros, or sex, or I lost my girlfriend, my love is gone….it’s that too, but it’s also ‘help’. You know. So those things are very interesting. When you have that to use, you have that kind of vehicle, there’s a lot of emotions…if you know as an artist how to do it; so to me the blues….that’s another reason why the blues is important. Because it’s a wonderful vehicle for a lot of different kinds of emotionality that humans feel.

And I will say this too: I travel a lot. I have been all around the world. I play for a lot of different cultures, a lot of different people, languages and the whole bit; and we can play certain tunes and I can tell they can’t truly relate to that. I can sense it; even if they are polite. [Charles is clapping]

But I have never been to any place where we played the blues and they didn’t understand it. I played in places where maybe they didn’t like anything else we did; but when we played that, they got it.

So I think it has a universal appeal. That’s another reason why I think the blues are almost special in a way because they appeal almost universally cross culture, cross race, cross gender, cross tribal, whatever… because in some kind of way, it speaks to a broad mass of humanity. That maybe other kind of jazz/music doesn’t. That one does.

So that’s another reason why I think it’s special and that I play it. It saved us a lot of times. When we weren’t really connecting with the audience, and it’s like ‘okay, let’s play one of these blues…’ and we can be in Ireland, you know, and it works. And definitely it is very American.


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