Charles McPherson. Credit: Antonio Porcar Cano

Playing in a modern jazz combo isn’t the usual launching pad for graduate studies in mathematics at UC Berkeley, but Charles McPherson is anything but a typical musician.

At 83, he shares a claim to the title of world’s greatest living alto saxophonist (along with Oakland-based Gary Bartz), with a trajectory that runs from Detroit’s roiling post-World War II jazz cauldron to New York City, where he spent a dozen years in the creative hothouse of Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop. Making a rare East Bay appearance, McPherson plays the California Jazz Conservatory Friday and Saturday as part of the school’s JAMBAR concert series. 

As a bandleader and composer in his own right, McPherson has recorded some two dozen albums and mentored several generations of brilliant young players, encouraging them to adopt the kind of open-source creativity that he absorbed on a 1950s Detroit scene still reverberating from the revelations of alto saxophone bebop progenitor Charlie “Bird” Parker. 

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He only encountered the inveterately curious Parker once, but McPherson came up under Bird’s most rigorous disciple, pianist Barry Harris (1929–2021), who made it clear that the saxophonist’s artistic ambition couldn’t be separated from intellectual discipline. Upon seeing a high school report card of McPherson’s with several Cs, Harris told him “if you really want to play this music well, you can’t be average, and that just hit home,” said McPherson, who settled in San Diego in 1978. 

“The little group I hung out with, in order to be hip, you also needed to know about Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche, Spinoza,” he continued. “Bird could sit down and talk about quantum mechanics. Our notion of hip was a broad thing, and Bird’s the guy who started to make it that way.” 

I’d reveled in McPherson’s scorching sound many times in Los Angeles clubs in the early 1990s before learning about the way his wide-ranging inquiries shaped younger musicians. Moving to Berkeley in 1996, I quickly discovered that one of my favorite pianists, Rob Schneiderman, was a few years into a math Ph.D. program at Cal, a pursuit sparked by his formative years with McPherson.  

Charles McPherson. Credit: Antonio Porcar Cano

The San Diego-raised pianist had spent the previous decade as a top New York accompanist, touring and recording with jazz giants like Chet Baker, Clifford Jordan, J.J. Johnson and James Moody. He credits his early conversations with McPherson about Einstein’s theory of spacetime with setting him on the path that led to his love of math (and his current position as a professor of mathematics at City University of New York’s Lehman College).  

“Charles McPherson loves talking about Einstein’s theories,” Schneiderman said. “You look at all these books for the lay person on Einstein and you realize you’ve got to learn calculus in order to understand physics and why time stands still at the speed of light.”

For this weekend’s concerts, McPherson is joined by a stellar rhythm section of CJC faculty, with pianist Matt Clark, bassist Jeff Denson, and drum maestro Gerald Cleaver, whose father was active on Detroit’s post-war jazz scene. Cleaver played with McPherson once before in Ann Arbor in the late 1990s, and was thrilled to make the Motown connection with him. 

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“He strikes me as being so sharp all the time,” Cleaver said. “He has that indefinable Detroit thing, being extremely studious like many of Barry Harris’s acolytes. Yusef Lateef was another one like that, a big hero of mine. This music is very technical, and they rose to the challenge of it.” 

While McPherson has enjoyed a late-career surge of recognition for his work as a leader and composer, he’s still inextricably linked to Charles Mingus, with whom he played and recorded intermittently from 1960-72. In celebrating the protean bassist, composer and bandleader’s centennial last year, Resonance Records released the three-disc album The Lost Album from Ronnie Scott’s, a 1972 project that was intended as an official release for Columbia. Featuring a short-lived incarnation of Mingus’s sextet, the album was buried when the label purged its entire jazz roster (except for Miles Davis). 

In the summer of ‘72 McPherson was nearing the end of his association with Mingus, essentially anchoring the band, particularly given the absence of drummer Dannie Richmond, the only musician who spent more time working with Mingus than McPherson. Mingus had an ear for Motor City talent, and he hired Roy Brooks, an undersung Detroit drummer who also played musical saw. Along with tenor saxophonist Bobby Jones and an obscure pianist named John Foster, McPherson’s other musical foil was 19-year-old Oakland trumpet phenomenon Jon Faddis.

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The bassist had mellowed quite a bit by the early 1970s, but in the late 1950s he was notoriously volatile, known for berating or even sucker punching musicians in his employ. Not surprisingly, McPherson was “quite nervous about being with him when I first joined,” he said. 

“Then I learned more about the motivation of his behavior. I lost my apprehension and fear and became pretty secure with my own ability and where I stood with Mingus musically and as a person. From the early 1960s to the late ’60s to the Ronnie Scott’s sessions, I can hear the difference in my own playing.” 

As a bassist, composer and bandleader, Jeff Denson has studied Mingus intensely. The CJC’s dean of instruction, he met McPherson in the mid-aughts when he came out to see Denson playing in San Diego with another alto sax legend, Lee Konitz. He ended up taking a lesson from McPherson, “and of course one of the first questions was ‘What it was like playing with Mingus?’ Aside from the mastery of the bass, he’s a huge role model in all those ways, his leadership, composing and entrepreneurship.”

For the CJC gigs, the quartet is focusing on McPherson’s music, including several pieces commissioned by the San Diego Ballet, where he’s something of an in-house composer and his daughter Camille McPherson is a soloist. He’s also teaching a workshop for CJC students, an ideal forum for an artist with a gift for analyzing elements of music. 

“He’s not only an amazing player but a great teacher,” said Denson, who tries to impress upon students that spending time with an artist like McPherson is an invaluable opportunity. “As each generation comes out we’re all further and further away from the source. The whole JAMBAR series I try to drive it home that I’m bringing in masters to perform in our intimate space. See both concerts, go to the master class, ask questions and soak up every bit that you can.” 

Correction: The headline of a previous version of this story implied that McPherson, not Schneiderman, had a background as a mathematician.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....