Sax Diego: Charles McPherson and friends

The instrument is a reflection of the performer.

Charles McPherson meets me at the door of the home he shares with his wife and daughter in Talmadge Park and he invites me in. He’s wearing black slacks and a purple pullover and stocking feet. “We take our shoes off indoors.” I oblige and pull off my boots. He wears a saxophone strap around his neck; he’s been practicing. He leads me into a sitting room that is homey and light and filled with family pictures. An immaculate baby grand piano inhabits a corner. This is where Lynn, his wife, a classical musician, brings her students. We have a little time before her lessons begin.

Charles McPherson is now the ranking bebop alto sax player in modern mainstream jazz.

Charles McPherson is now the ranking bebop alto sax player in modern mainstream jazz.

For the better part of an hour, he entertains my questions about sax life in San Diego. I’d just read a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair survey that put saxophone second in popularity behind guitar. And I’m curious about the surge of sax players in San Diego — it seems there are more here now than ever before. McPherson, who played with Charles Mingus back in the 1960s and ’70s and is now possibly the ranking bebop alto sax player in modern mainstream jazz, seems like a good place to start.

“Couple of things. This is relating to why a lot of people are playing the instrument. This may sound silly, but I think it’s something about the shape of the saxophone.” McPherson holds his horn aloft. “It’s about as primordial as you can get. It’s as primitive as you can get, as to why people like this or like that. You get down to some Carl Jung. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether they’re European or American or Chinese, ’cause I’ve been all over. It’s something about the way a saxophone looks.” McPherson shuts his eyes and furrows his brow. “The other thing flat out is the sound.”

He loops back and revisits his thoughts as he goes along, which is not unlike the way a jazz musician might create a solo: statement, interpretation, new statement, and so on. “There could be more people playing sax now. Chinese people have had more exposure because they’re making them now. When you ask are there more players, there’s more people now. And there are more women playing jazz than ever. That’s contributing to more. And guess what they play?” He again lofts his own alto sax. “More women will play this than trumpet or trombone. Women like this horn.”

I’m curious about how McPherson earns a living in this jazz-venue-anemic town. The short answer is, he doesn’t. “I go to Europe and I go to Japan. I go to New York three or four times a year. I don’t play in San Diego that much, maybe a couple of times a year. I go to Chicago and I go to Los Angeles a couple of times a year.” Touring, more than record sales, is what pays his bills. He says Europe and Japan value jazz more than America. Why?

“Part of it is the old saying: the prophet is never appreciated in his home town. The other part of it is that jazz music doesn’t use any of the nuances the other musics use, like sex or sexuality. Sexuality has nothing to do with jazz. [Straight ahead] jazz is basically a kind of head music. People that like jazz are people that value music to the extent that a performer doesn’t have to be dancing. There’s nothing visual about it. It’s just a person playing music. They’re not gonna be playing in their underwear. There’s not gonna be any sexual or explicit nuance going on. There’s no hip-slinging. The women are gonna have a dress on and they’ll be presenting a song. If they happen to be pretty, fine. That always works. But it’s not an integral part of what the music is.”

McPherson also teaches privately and in clinics at schools. This year, he applied for an arts grant through the San Diego Foundation’s Creative Catalyst, and he got it. He used the money ($20,000) to write Sweet Synergy Suite, a bebop-Afro-Cuban flavored ballet that premiered May 8 at the Saville Theatre and was simulcast via KSDS Jazz 88.3 FM.

“I had to sell these people on what I was going to do, that I was going to write the music, and Javier Velasco was going to choreograph it and my daughter Camille — she’s a member of the San Diego Ballet — would dance.” He says the San Diego Ballet has put Sweet Synergy Suite on their 2015 calendar. “I am gonna take this on the road, maybe book it somewhere in Orange County or San Francisco. Lincoln Center.”

Charles McPherson and his Selmer Mark VI saxophone

Charles McPherson, San Diego resident and "ranking bebop alto sax player in modern mainstream jazz," talks saxophone and demonstrates technique with his 60s-era Selmer saxophone.

Charles McPherson, San Diego resident and "ranking bebop alto sax player in modern mainstream jazz," talks saxophone and demonstrates technique with his 60s-era Selmer saxophone.

I’m curious about what it costs to be an international sax road warrior. “When I get hired, they’re paying me a salary, transportation to and from, and a hotel. That comes with the deal. And if it doesn’t come with the deal, I ask for enough money to cover that. Sometimes I book shows myself. I’ve been around a long time, and I have connections. I have an agent. I’m not gonna use an agent to get a gig in San Diego, but in New York, Europe, and Japan — that usually costs about 15 percent of whatever I get. In terms of me and my horn, I spend hundreds of dollars on reeds.” He says a box of ten averages around $30. “And I have to get the horn fixed, and it has to be done by someone you can trust who is competent and good.” He alternates between three woodwind repairmen — Jay Sleigh, Jim Weiss, or the Windsmith repair shop in North Park. He says his horn’s in the shop two or three times a month at $25 to $50 per visit. He had a complete overhaul done last year to his alto sax to the tune of $850. “I end up spending hundreds of dollars a year.”

McPherson once told me that he still practices three hours a day. “Three hours is just a number that ends up being a target. With a million things to do, I might get three hours. But if I were a rich man, and I had the money and somebody else was going to pay the light bill and get the car fixed, I would spend probably five, six, seven, eight hours. You end up practicing whatever the physicalities are that allow you to be at least 99.99 percent of yourself all the time.” For McPherson, that means a round of what he calls “finger games.”

He sets a small digital metronome to a fairly quick 120 beats per minute. “My reason for the metronome is basically to establish a point of reference in time and space. Not that I actually need the metronome, but it’s kinda fun. Now, this game for me is to get the metronome established and then just have my fingers rapidly go any place on the horn to any other place on the horn, whether it makes sense or not. Doesn’t have to be melodic or harmonic, doesn’t have to have any structure, as long as I don’t train-wreck. For now,” he nods at the metronome, “this thing is god.”

By the Gig

Sax players above (left to right): Jim Weiss, Allison Bowles, Diego Armijo, Mikayla Winner.

Sax players above (left to right): Jim Weiss, Allison Bowles, Diego Armijo, Mikayla Winner.

Early on a Saturday evening, it’s standing room only at Humphreys Backstage Lounge. There’s a seven-piece on the bandstand working through the old Average White Band hit “Pick Up the Pieces.” The first solo goes to the alto sax. A hatted man in sunglasses, he spins the equivalent of saxophone cotton-candy: flashy, but with little substance. He nods when finished and the tenor sax player, a tall thin man in a dark sport shirt takes over. His name is Diego Armijo. He blows a thoughtful, crafty melodic series of ideas that build upon the melody.

“I remember doing double stands in clubs in Colorado, Texas, Utah, and L.A., clubs that opened after-hours. We’d play 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Then they’d clear everybody out, re-open, and we’d come back and play from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. in the morning. And then you’d spend Sunday and Monday trying to recover. I was making $250 a week then, back in the ’70s. I thought I was on top of the world.”

Armijo plays both alto and tenor sax. When he settled in San Diego back in the ’80s, he performed as part of the house band at the Belly Up in Solana Beach. He works in indoor plant-scaping now, says he no longer hustles gigs like he used to. “If I had to make a living at music, I don’t think I’d choose this town. There are very few musicians around here that make a good living. I’m not talking about getting by. I’m talking about owning a house and retirement. I don’t know of that.”

Channeling Maceo

Mikayla Winner has already gotten a head start when I arrive at Cow Records in Ocean Beach. It’s late in the morning. She’s eyeballing a vinyl copy of Bill Evans’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard. “My music-theory teacher was a jazz pianist. He used Bill Evans as an example. In jazz-theory class, Bill Evans, I thought, was a beast, a monster.”

Winner, from Florida, now lives in Mission Beach. She plays tenor sax professionally, and she sings. She keeps a day job as a nanny/personal assistant. She recently turned 26. “Blues, funk, and soul are my meat and potatoes. I was trained in jazz, but what I relate to is soul. I’m more of a vocalist than anything. I call my saxophone an extension of my voice.”

She’s been playing drums and sax since childhood — mostly sax, with the exception of a four-year break: “I played bassoon in college for the scholarship money. I didn’t even pick up my saxophone.” A funky alto sax pumps out over the shop’s sound system; earlier, Winner had pursuaded the Cow’s owner to track a Maceo Parker album.

“In Florida, I went to Gibbs High School. It was pretty much in the ghetto, like, 85 percent black. I got a lot of my soul from that experience, from just growing up in that culture. It’s funny. I relate to it, and when I moved here I noticed that everyone’s so white.” She laughs.

Winner calls Stan Getz and Maceo Parker her sax inspirations. Does she follow any female sax players?

“I’m not a huge fan of Mindi Abair or Candy Dulfer. I see a lot of women playing smooth jazz alto sax. Smooth jazz women players are selling sex,” a lesson Winner says has not been lost on San Diego’s Saxations, an all-woman sax quartet. “I’ve subbed for them. I had to wear a tight skirt, yes.” She smiles when she says they color-coordinate.

“But people say I remind them of Candy Dulfer because I’m blonde and I’m a woman and I play sax.... Well, I do not listen to her at all. I base off of singers like Janice Joplin, Ella, Billie, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott. There aren’t any women smooth jazz sax players, at least that I know of, that play the style I like. They’re all selling it out with tight skirts.”

When I ask how much she earns playing sax in San Diego, her answer is two words: gas money. “But back in Florida, I was in a band full time for four years. We traveled all over the South. I was making three grand a month just playing music. I lost my passion for doing that after playing four straight years. I was singing, like, Katy Perry covers. I got tired of playing in bars. I’m tired of drunk people. If anything, I’d like to play my originals. I write a lot of funk stuff and blues.”

Her costs to play music? “Well, gas. My goodness! Otherwise, I keep it pretty easy. I stocked up on reeds before I left Florida. My tenor sax was my biggest investment — 1200 dollars. When I was working in the full-time band back home, I spent about 100 dollars a month on sax upkeep.”

Otherwise, she says there’s been no shortage of gig offers here. “I went to an open jam and got 15 business cards handed to me right away. I followed up on a few, but it’s very white-sounding out here. I’m looking for something with soul and meaning to it. People that are playing with emotion.” That, and she says her dad encouraged her to be selective.

“I’m re-inventing myself. Driving, what, 3000 miles to get away from everything I’ve ever known? Yeah. Like, back home I’d walk into a store and someone would be, like, ‘I loved how you covered Lady Gaga last night.’ Well, I don’t want to be that girl anymore. Out here, I want to be this chick that looks like me [Winner could pass for a surfer girl] but sings like a black chick. That’s who I want to be out here, so I’m choosing my battles.”

Multitasking

“I play flute, piccolo, alto flute, all the clarinets in the clarinet family from sporanino all the way down to bass; all the saxophones, oboe, English horn, bassoon, penny whistle, recorder, and EWI” (a wind-activated electronic instrument).

David Burnett stops for a minute to see if he’s left anything out. He is quiet, articulate, and bright. He lives in Mission Valley. He says he owns one of each of the 18 or so instruments he’s mentioned; I’m thinking his apartment must look like a music store.

We’re at a Starbucks near the Sports Arena drinking coffee and listening to whatever hipster thing is playing over their house system. We ponder the higher math of launching a career in music. By the time Burnett’s finished with his music degree at San Diego State University, how much will he have invested, including the cost of his instruments? “Maybe 200,000 dollars.” Will it be worth it? “Probably not, but if you keep chugging away at it, you might earn your money back. But then,” he pauses, “where’s the retirement coming from?”

Along with the money, Burnett has invested a hefty amount of his life in mastering all those woodwinds. Rock or jazz? “I play everything.” Burnett lived in Los Angeles for five years and toured with an Irish rock band. Gigging with anyone at present? “Not really.” He explains that school takes up most of his time. “I do get hired for some gigs here and there, though. It’s really word-of-mouth. And my website has a lot to do with it as well, and a lot of it has to do with what I’m doing during the week.”

Which is?

“Rehearsal bands. A lot of gigs come from those. You normally get a regular spot, but there are a few I show up at and sit in with. I was a regular in Marty Conley’s Big Band Express, and I’m also a regular in the JazzKatz.” How much time does that leave for practicing? “Am I supposed to be honest?”

Yes.

“It’s not very much. These days, school is taking up my time.” He also teaches woodwinds privately at the rate of $35 for 45 minutes. “But you really have to put in an hour on each horn every day. I play so many horns it’s hard to do that. I focus on alto, tenor, and flute.”

A toothbrush and a horn

At the ready in Robert Dove’s North Park apartment are the tools of a sax player’s trade: a soprano sax and a tenor sax balance on instrument stands; an electronic keyboard rests against a chest of drawers. There’s a music stand with sheet music, and a computer screen shows transposing software running. Against the far wall rests a cluster of instrument cases, one of which is form-fitted to the alto sax it houses.

Dove, 23, came here seven months ago, partly because of a woman and partly because of what he heard at a North Park jazz jam. He represents part of the recent migration to San Diego of “young lions” (a term for emerging jazz artists linked to the 1960s) including John Coltrane–acolyte Ben Schachter and Grammy-winning trumpet player Curtis Taylor.

“My now ex-girlfriend took me to Seven Grand on a Wednesday night,” Dove says. She told him to dress nice. “I also brought along my toothbrush and a horn. I take a toothbrush and a horn wherever I go,” he says, “because you never know what you’re gonna get into.”

He remembers the group onstage that night was working out on a straight-ahead jazz standard called “Appointment in Ghana.” That convinced Dove he needed to go back home to Ohio, get his stuff, and settle in San Diego. “I’ve been to jams in New York you have to pay to get into and the quality wasn’t as good as what was going on at Seven Grand.”

Dove’s a graduate of the Miles Davis Jazz Studies program offered at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He thinks he’s spent in the low six figures to get his degree. He thinks he has another $30,000 invested in his horns, half of which is in the vintage tenor he plays. He hands it to a visitor for closer inspection: “Don’t drop it.” He drives a Honda with over 180,000 miles.

If all goes as planned, Dove will one day leave the selling of bicycles — his day-job — and work full-time in music as a jazz sax player. His sound and approach on the horn remind a visitor of Wayne Shorter. “He is a noted influence. In fact, on February first, I did a Shorter tribute at 98 Bottles.”

Dove then launches into an impromptu jazz lesson by saying that the melody of any song is the most important element. “It’s the thing that’s copyrightable. The other important thing is the song’s harmonics.”

The harmonics?

“The chord changes. That’s my own verbiage — harmonics, chord changes. You learn the melody first.” He demonstrates with a standard called “Beatrice” on his costly tenor. The melody expands and fills the room with a sweet, buzzy tone. “But to actually learn something, you have to know the chord changes inside and out. And to learn that, what I usually do is take on the part of the bass player. I imitate that on the horn.” He runs through imaginary bass lines on his tenor.

“That’s the presence. The music isn’t moving without the bass player.” He explains that jazz soloing, while in a sense formulaic, requires split-second thinking on the bandstand. “And, most important, how are you gonna make your solo sound like the song was written that way?”

Good question.

“Listen,” is the fast answer. “Listen to anything and everything,” he says, “learn the scales and transcribe the masters. Then, learn to sing an idea first and then play it on the horn.” He demonstrates by making up a riff, singing it, then playing the exact same riff on his soprano sax. “That was a real challenge for me to do at first,” he says. “I’m starting to get faster at it, which tells me I’m getting better.”

Living the dream

“I’m a King Curtis guy. Plaz Johnson, Lee Allen, Stanley Turrentine. I can play jazz,” he says, but I’m more R&B. The only difference between jazz and R&B? A lot less chords.” Archie Thompson laughs. “But by the end of the day, it’s about your sound and your tone. If it doesn’t sound good, it doesn’t matter what you play.” We talk about the personality that those sax players of old injected into their playing.

“I think they got it from playing in nightclubs. Back in the day, you had to be an entertainer. And if you are playing at an establishment, your job is to sell booze. And if you’re not, well, bands are the first to get cut when business slows down.”

Thompson, 52, of San Carlos, works solo gigs, fronts a jazzy trio called the Archtones, and he also fronts a sax-driven surf rock band called Archie and the Tidesmen. He splits his gig time between sax and piano. He also produces and records.

“I’ve been playing sax for about 42 years — since I was 10. I’m the youngest of three. We all learned piano, but I always wanted to be a sax player. I studied for a while with [local sax performer] Joe Marillo. That was the last time I took lessons. I think I was 13 or 14. I started playing nightclubs while I was in high school — Patrick Henry in San Carlos. When I graduated, I went to L.A. with my brother [Mike Thompson, who would eventually land permanent employment with the Eagles] and I played in clubs up there. He left to go on the road with some band, and I came back here.

“By 1998, I was burned out with being a sideman, so I started a solo act that lasted for 12 years’ worth of Humphreys happy hours.” He did the same gig at Croce’s. “I’ve been doing pretty much the same thing for 40 years. I found a niche, and I developed it.” He says he plays six nights a week in town, regularly. “I don’t have an ego about this. I play rooms where I get paid well, but my music is sometimes just background to enhance the experience. I’ve figured out how to make a living playing music in San Diego. I’m chasing the dream,” he says, “but I’m living it while I’m chasing it.”

Saxophone triage

“Yes. I think there has been an increase.” This is Jim Weiss’s answer to my question about sax players growing in number in San Diego. Weiss, a compact, thin man with a ready smile, meets me at a Starbucks near his Santee home. We trade names of musicians we know: I tell him I just came from Daniel Jackson’s place in Southeast, that the elder saxman’s illness is finally closing in. Weiss tells me about James Moody (the sax icon lived out his final years in San Diego) and by so doing, he illustrates the ongoing self-improvement complex inherent in pro players.

“You know what he said to me once? In another couple of years, I should be able to play the way I want to. And he was, I think, 80 when he said that.” Weiss knew Moody because he repaired Moody’s horn. Weiss, a first-call saxist himself, is also a woodwind repair specialist. “Repairing instruments is the same thing as playing them. It’s like striving to become a better musician. You’re always making improvements to refine your skills, and that’s what makes repair so interesting.”

He explains that his income derives from multiple streams that include saxophone reed manufacture, private instruction, gigging, and repair. He now works out of a meticulous home shop.

“I think I started in the early ’90s. I started at Music Craft on Ronson Road. They are no longer there. After about a year, Big Time Operator [Weiss was a member] started getting busy. We started going on the road, and I knew I couldn’t be at the repair bench while playing and traveling. I had to take some time off.”

Weiss performs with the Montalban Quintet, with other bands as a sideman for hire, and as a solo artist. “I play along to a background track.” He names some restaurants that book him. “First, I thought it would be corny, but it has turned out to be fairly lucrative. I had a gig on the U.S.S. Midway on the top deck. They had the full stage setup, and it was just me.” He laughs. “I think it was funny, me trying to fill that whole stage.”

Weiss emerged as a gifted player while he was still in high school. “I had a Dixieland band — the Dixie Six. We got to play the International Dixieland Festival. We worked quite a bit. We played the Chargers’ blood drives. I auditioned for the Grossmont College jazz band, and I was accepted. It taught me a lot. I got to be around musicians that were better than me. There are some really, really great players in San Diego.”

When I ask if, as a repairman, he’s ever contemplated how it is that the saxophone — which is essentially a metal cone that is regulated by levers and flaps with a reed buzzing like a hornet at one end of it — can sound so human, he has a ready answer. “It sounds like a human voice,” he says, “because that’s your breath coming out of it.”

It was personal need that drove Weiss to wrenching on woodwinds; he was his own first customer. “What’s nice about being a pro musician and being able to repair horns is that you know as a player whether the repair is right or not.” But there’s a delicate aura that surrounds such a transaction: “When somebody hands you their instrument, they’re handing you something from their heart. It’s not just an instrument. And the payback is when a customer plays the instrument after it’s been repaired, and seeing how much of a difference you’ve made. The instrument is a reflection of the performer. That’s a big payback, seeing that.”

Chops are chops

“The Saxations is an all-girl sax quartet. We play pop and instrumental music.” Allison Boles is one-fourth of the Poway-based band. “We usually play with our rhythm section, which is made up of killer players. It’s about having fun.” Fun, meaning no pay? “No.” She corrects me. “We get paid for some of our gigs.”

Depending on their gig load, the Saxations may rehearse up to three times a week. Boles doesn’t much care about the expense (mostly gear, travel, and wardrobe) of being a pro sax player. “If you’re passionate about something, you make it work.” She’s not fazed by the sex appeal aspect of the Saxations, either. “Look at Richard Elliott,” she says about the ex–Tower of Power sax man who became a smooth jazz sensation. “He played that zebra-striped horn and he wore flashy shirts.”

Boles, 28, from Rocklin, CA, has an easy laugh. She earned a BA in music from UCSD. She works a day-job with a local music publisher. Her sax influences include Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Sonny Stitt. “I’ve also been listening to a lot of piano players — McCoy Tyner, Thelonius Monk.” When not gigging as a Saxation, she performs on alto sax with the American Flyboys big band. I wonder at the growing number of women emerging at the pro level of sax-playing. I wonder if it’s a man’s club.“Not really. In college, I had a teacher who was a woman and a sax player and she was inspiring. And there were a lot of girls that played sax in high school.” Granted, but away from the safe harbor of education and out in the professional world, is sax more of a man thing? “A little, but it’s not something I think about or deal with on a daily basis. If you’ve got chops, you’ve got chops. I’ve never felt like, ‘Oh, I don’t belong here.’”

She performs on a new Dakota tenor (the Saxations, she says, are Dakota-endorsing artists), and she has an old Selmer Mark VI tenor sax. The Mark VI has been the holy grail of tenor saxophones ever since John Coltrane played one when he emerged in the 1950s and left his indelible stamp on jazz. Boles found her Mark VI in a newspaper ad. “Whenever it gets warm from being in the sun or from being played, it smells like cigarette smoke,” she says, “so I know it’s got a lot of history.”

Circular Breathing

“At corporate gigs, everybody gets pretty drunk, right? Well, I took a break and I walked away and when I came back, there was some pretty girl, drunk, and she was playing my sax.”

Tonight at Felix’s barbecue in Southeast San Diego, Reggie Smith is readying to perform a few sets to backing tracks with soul singer Francois Sims. They hump a serious amount of equipment into the mustard-and-ketchup-colored eatery: PA speakers on poles with a sub-woofer the size of a recliner, computer and deejay gear, microphones, wireless gear, and around $9000 worth of saxophones.

Smith, 49, lives in Carlsbad. He’s been playing sax for 31 years. He is affable and dressed for the gig in a pressed sport shirt and dark slacks. Is it possible to have a career as a musician in San Diego? “I’m doing it. This is all I do. This is not a hobby. This is my job.” He says he’s performed every third Sunday at Humphreys for the past 18 years. He plays corporate gigs that sometimes take him around the world. He has an agent and a manager. “My band is called Pressed for Time. It’s a jazz/R&B group.”

Smooth or straight-ahead jazz?

“Smooth jazz.”

Smith used to live in Los Angeles — in Culver City, to be exact. “The money wasn’t as good there as it is here.”

Why?

“You have a lot of famous sax players up there, and when they’re off the road and in between gigs, they’re willing to take the cheap gigs.” At his own club dates, does Smith have to wait around until management has done the final count in order to get paid? “No. Usually we have a contract situation going, and then they have my check there.” The going rate? “$650 to $1250. Four hours. But a four-hour gig,” he says, “turns out to be an eight-hour day.”

Francoise Sims dials up a track on the iPad and launches into something familiar. Smith grabs his soprano sax. The silky tone warms up the room. The wireless microphone allows him to walk around the restaurant, a situation he takes advantage of. At some point during the first set, he goes full Kenny G. and plays a note that lasts non-stop for long minutes with the aid of circular breathing, a technique that allows a woodwind player to both breathe and blow at the same time. Kenny G. has a lock on the world record for circular breathing. The barbecue-eaters love it.

“David Sanborn has been my idol ever since I was 10. Michael Brecker too,” Smith says. “People say to me, ‘You’re black and you have two white idols?’ Whatever. So, I got tickets to David Sanborn at Humphreys. But the opener, Poncho Sanchez, was running late, so the manager asked me to open. I thought he was joking.” Was Smith nervous? “Man, that was the longest walk from the stage to my car. I always have a horn with me. But once I played that first note, I was okay. I actually said these words to the audience: I’m Reggie Smith, and I’m happy to be here.”

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