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Jackie McLean

John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Saturday, February 10, 2007



URGE: As an artist, have you always felt that revealing emotions we all share was one of the thrills of music-making?

SR: I never was presumptuous enough to assume that what I was doing would ever reach the heights of bringing good emotions to people. I was just sort of involved in learning how to play musical things. I'm still pretty amazed when people tell me how this music has hit them, or describe something they've gotten from my playing.

URGE: But you do know what they're talking about, right? If I came up to you and effused about how the tail end of "Someday I'll Find You" on the new disc really catches the spirit, you'd know what I mean.

SR: Well, I wouldn't know what “you” are talking about. I would know what “/” was trying to convey. But I wouldn't know it affects other people.

URGE: Your new label Doxy is named after one of your classic tunes. Do you remember where you were when you wrote "Doxy."

SR: Actually I think I was institutionalized when I wrote "Doxy." The gory details.well it was back at a time when I was hooked on drugs, and while I was institutionalized my mind turned to music, and I had an opportunity to play with a band, a sort of Protestant Chapel Band - we played hymns and such. It's not a pleasant memory. But it's fruitful in that I was able to overcome those problems.

URGE: Tell me what came into your mind when you watched the classic clips that were recently placed on your Web site. What kind of memories did it conjure?

SR: Hold on to your hat. I've never seen them. I don't have a computer. But I understand we got a lot of hits on the site. A lot people like 'em and wanted more.

URGE: Jazz fans love that kind of footage. I just got a Monk DVD where Ben Riley looks 22 years old.

SR: When I look back at old pictures of me, I know it's me, but it feels like another guy. Like, "who's that guy?"

URGE: Do you look back at pictures of you with your famed Mohawk haircut and say "what the hell was I doing," or are you proud of it?

SR: Ha, ha, ha. I loved it. At the time I did it, it was sort of a statement - outside of the box behavior. I got different reactions from different people. But I thought it was a very individualistic thing and I'm happy I did it.

URGE: When writing, do you know when you have a strong new piece, something a cut above the rest?

SR: When I'm playing at my best I usually know that I have something good, when it's better than usual. But in composing you never really know how it's going to strike people. I had some tunes that I thought were good, but didn't make a lot of noise with the public. Some of my songs did resonate with some people, so I shouldn't really imply that they weren't accepted. "Doxy," that's a song that needed exposition. It needed Miles and the people that were playing on it to truly make it happen. I was fortunate in that I had the right group of musicians around to bring it to life.

URGE: I was listening to “The Bridge” the other night and hearing you trade lines with Jim Hall. From Clifford Brown to Clifton Anderson, you've often had simpatico mates in the front line. What does the job of sharing the front line with Sonny Rollins entail? Is it jousting, is it kissing each other on the cheek, what.

SR: It's all of those things. It's kicking each other in the behind, too. When you're playing with someone on the front line, it's a lot of “give”. I might have to substitute what I might do “alone” for the sake of the other person and what we're trying to make “together”. So we can reach another level. It's a little different than when you're soloing. Some different elements come out when playing in the front line.

URGE: Describe some of your key partners from throughout the years. Jim Hall?

SR: Jim was great, a wonderful accompanist. He had a great sense of space and time and - for sure - harmonic structure. It gave me what I needed at the time. He's an exceptional musician. I learned from him.

URGE: Don Cherry?

SR: Don and I would practice together, just he and I. Great fun. He had a fantastic musical imagination, musical mind. He always kept things on a creative, unplanned level. Spontaneous.

URGE: Fans and critics love to play a parlor game with you. They want to be the producer. "Gee, he needs different band, a trio maybe." Or "He should make a duets disc, just Sonny and a bassist." Do people bring that up to you? Are they steadily pitching you contextual ideas?

SR: My wife used to say that to me all the time. "You know Sonny, all these critics want to tell you who you should play with, or what tunes you should play." There's something about me where people have their own ideas about how I should be presented. I don't know if I should be flattered or concerned or what. It's a form of flattery, though. I'm happy they even consider me.

URGE: Back in the day, when you guys were hanging out, would that kind of conversation come up? "Oh, Miles needs drummer X, not drummer Y." Did you guys speculate how a band could be improved?

SR: Sure, sure. And there would be some musicians. I don't want to mention names - I'm thinking of a specific case - but I remember a piano player who burst on the scene at a certain time and everybody was saying, "well, no, we still like Bud Powell. Bud's the best guy to be involved with Charlie Parker's group, not this other guy. So, yeah, we had our preferences. With Miles, for instance. I always liked Miles with Charlie Parker - outside of the original Dizzy and Parker collaboration, I mean. I always thought that nobody else connected with Bird like Miles did. They really had a perfect symbiosis, if that's the word.

URGE: That a good example of what we're talking about. Because in the large, everyone might not agree with that. Miles is known as many things, but not the ultimate trumpet player.

SR: Right. But Dizzy and Bird were closer in style - they sounded alike. Miles brought a different approach to what Bird was doing, and I thought that was great. I think Miles is a top-notch player. Now Fats Navarro was a guy who everyone agreed was a whiz, technically. But I heard Miles and Fats Navarro play with each other at Birdland one night, and they were right on the same technical level. I can understand why people might say that about Miles, because he doesn't always play with that kind of skill. But he definitely had it, and if the occasion presented itself, he'd let it loose.

URGE: They're finally a movie of Miles' life. Was he as hot-blooded as history has it?

SR: In what sense? How do you mean that?

URGE: As quick to rile or as ornery as we hear.

SR: You know that got overblown, and he played on it. In part, Miles used to turn his back on stage from shyness. People looked at that and said, "Look, this guy's really arrogant -- he's turning away from us." I don't want to blow his image, but from our association in the late '40s and early '50s, I always though he was shy.

URGE: I was chatting with a horn player who's been trying to physically change his personal sound. Did you ever go through a period where you overtly tried to not only improve, but indeed create a different sound?

SR: Oh yeah. I've done it a great deal in my career, so I understand what this guy's doing. That's why we used to change mouthpieces, horns, reeds. We're always looking for something that's not there, a sound we're not getting. I'm still searching. I'm glad I hit it every now and then, but it's a constant. That's why I practice every day - I'm still trying to get my stuff together. That “sound”. You're looking for a place that will allow you to play easily, freely. Coltrane, and me and all the older cats used to call each other. "Oh yeah, try this mouthpiece, try this approach." See if they could make you the best you can be.

URGE: Do you feel more in touch with sentiment or wistfulness now, as an older man. Do you think you bring different emotions to a song now than you did when you were, say, 30?

SR: An insightful question. I've never said this before, but I think I have gained a certain amount of experience, so I can get some thoughts over better than I once did. Not in a technical sense, but in an emotional sense, just knowing certain things from life - experiences, you know? It's very gratifying when those things happen through music. I've never been put in the position of saying that. I hope it doesn't sound to self-aggrandizing. You asked the question, so you made me answer. But yes, I feel I can sometimes get deeper inside an emotion of late. I never thought about it quite that way. But I'm a person who's always searching and trying to improve myself.

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