How it all started, the composition of a ballet by a career jazz musician: “I have a daughter,” Charles McPherson tells the Reader by phone from his Talmadge home, “who’s a dancer with the San Diego Ballet. And ever since [Camille] was three or four years old, I’ve been driving back-and-forth to the ballet school. That’s the beginning of me having ballet on my radar.”
Last year, McPherson, considered by many to be the reigning master of bebop alto saxophone, wrote the music for a ballet he titled Sweet Synergy Suite. It’s not the first time. “‘Marionette’ — I actually wrote a tune for [Camille] when she was four or five. I wrote a couple of things for her,” he explains, “but they were never performed.” He likewise admits he showed up with his alto sax and played in a couple of her school recitals, “because it’s my kid.”
McPherson, born in Joplin, MO, in 1939, was raised in Detroit within walking distance of the Bluebird Inn Jazz Club. He started on trumpet at age 12, switched to alto sax at age 13, and by the age of 14, he’d heard some Charlie Parker records. He immediately set out to study jazz. At 19, McPherson was a working musician. In 1959, he moved to New York and spent the next dozen years employed by Charles Mingus. He moved to San Diego in 1978.
Sweet Synergy Suite, a collaboration between McPherson and San Diego Ballet artistic director Javier Velasco (from whom McPherson also took creative inspiration) was previewed last year on the stage of the Saville Theatre at City College. At the Lyceum performances in February, Gilbert Castellanos, Rob Thorsen, Fernando Gomez, Charlie Chavez, and Randy Porter will accompany McPherson.
He says one of the conditions of winning the $20,000 grant to underwrite the production was, “They wanted us to do something out of our comfort zones. My comfort zone is jazz.” Therefore, McPherson twisted Afro-Cuban, Latin, and straight-ahead jazz into a score. “No, there’s no story line. Each individual dance represents a vibe.”
Because he owns the music, McPherson says he is otherwise free to take the ballet wherever he wants. To that end, he says there has been interest from Lincoln Center in New York. And Camille? “She’s very happy. She’s got a nice feature in it, as you might expect.”