Here’s the final part of this interview with John McLaughlin from June 2, 2012 at the Alfa Jazz Festival in Lviv, Ukraine. Pt. 1 of this interview can be found here.
You mention that you’ve had a number of musical gurus in your life: Ravi Shankar, Monk, Coltrane… who else?
Miles. Oh yeah.
Can you say what you’ve learned from Miles?
Got a couple of hours? [laughs] Very hard to articulate because Miles never tried to teach any way, any one. But everybody learned from him. In a way he was like a Picasso with young painters all around him. And we all learned from the way he acted, which spoke volumes. And one of the important things I learned from Miles was it’s as important to know what you don’t want as what you do want. Because those early recordings that really began with me with “In a Silent Way,” Miles was through with this wonderful quintet, beginning with Coltrane in the end of the 50’s, and the all the way through with Wayne – to ’68 and the point where I arrived. And he was ready to move on. Because he was a generation above me – he didn’t grow up with rock and R’n’B like I did, so… But he started to listen to people like James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone around that time. We all were. But you know I grew up with the Beatles and rock’n’roll – Elvis Presley. Obviously, Elvis had a big impact on me, I love Elvis. There’s a lot of pop music that is great, there’s a lot of rubbish. There’s a lot of rubbish in jazz, Larry! Let’s face it. Anyway. And I think it’s because I came in the very beginning of this process that Miles was going on then, he was looking for another way. But he didn’t know where’s this new way lay in any specific manner. And so we were experimenting in the studio in the way he would just stop us. He’d go over and give us very, very arcane instructions to us, individually.
There is a classic one with “In a Silent Way” when we played this Zawinul tune, which is a beautiful tune. Did you ever heard the version Joe and Wayne did on Black Market? That’s the way it was originally written. There is such sophisticated harmony. And that’s the way it was. But the thing that is Miles invited me the night before to the session. So there was no guitar part. I arrived to the session and Joe said, “Oh, you’ve got a guitar player.” Miles made a photocopy of the piano part, so I had the piano part. We played the tune and Miles wasn’t happy, he didn’t like it the way it was. He turned to me and said “Play it on the guitar”. I had the piano part so I asked: “Do you want the melody?” He said: “Yeah.” I said it’s going to take a minute for me to put the two parts together. And he said: [imitate Miles’ voice] “Is that a fact?” .. Means “now”. And I was already nervous. I didn’t expect it. I came to join Tony [Williams]. I didn’t come to join Miles. It was like: 48 hours after I arrived to New York I was in the studio with Miles. I was sweating, my clothes were wet, I was nervous.
But you were ready?
I didn’t know that. I was in a blue funk. Especially when he stopped everybody and said “Play it on the guitar”. I couldn’t do it with the piano part. And so here he’s waiting for me to do something. And all he says: “Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar.” I mean, what does that mean? That’s right out of Zen book, isn’t it? And the other guy said: “That’s a good one. We’ve never heard that one before.” Because he was already known to the other guys for these kind of bizarre requests.
Anyway, I knew I had to do something in 10 minutes. So I just threw all chords out. I didn’t play one chord. I put it in the E – because anybody knows how to play E on the guitar [shows imaginary guitar in his hands]. No tempo, no chords – and I just played the melody like that. The red light was on by the time I started. I had Wayne come in, and Miles and Wayne came in, and we got to the end. And Miles loved it. He loved it! And I was in shock because he was able to pull something out of me that I didn’t know I was capable of doing. You have to understand from that point of view, too, he didn’t know what I was capable of doing. I certainly didn’t know. I was moving in a Zen way, I was playing in an unconscious way. It’s crazy, Larry, but that’s the way it was. I didn’t even know what I was playing. I just said: screw everything, I’ll just put it in E. I love E. E’s a guitar chord. And he loved it so much he put it in the opening and closing of the Side One (of the LP).
But i’ve seen him on many occasions say many things to many players. You know about Wayne: [whispers] “You scramble that sax playing.” I remember Jack DeJohnette was on one session he came up and stopped everything. Jack was like: “Yeah, Miles” – you know, that was his way of talking, and he said: “Pum—–pumpum-pumpum, okay?” You figure it out, Larry! And so this was a kind of “request” that Miles would give us. And what that did was… He was a very intelligent man. I’m sure he knew we had no idea what to do, but he would put us in the state of mind that we would play something other than what we knew. We had to, by necessity, move out of the box, and do something we didn’t know we could do. And this was masterful, in my opinion–how he was able to do this with his musicians. And he loved us all, he loved his musicians, he took care of us. He took care of me. I mean, in ways almost like a Godfather. I’d be around his house, and he’d say: “Are you eating”? – and he wouldn’t wait for reply and stick a hundred dollar bill in my pocket to make sure that I ate. And all the time he stuffed money in my pocket just to make sure I could pay my rent. Of course, when I worked with him I got paid. But when I played with Tony we made $20 a night, max. Anyway, I’m digressing.
You still think about Miles?
Oh yeah!.. I dream about him: he comes to me in dreams, and he talks to me.
What does he tell you?
I had a wonderful dream. [reflects] It must have been a year ago… It was a Saturday night when I had this dream. And in the dream I was walking by some cafe, and there were musicians sitting outside at the table – a kind of Parisian bistro. And as I walked by they said: “Hey John, Miles is inside, he wants to talk to you.” – Miles? so I walked into the cafe and it was quite dark, and he was sitting in a low chair (like the one you’re sitting in). And I remember he had this beautiful kind of royal blue shirt and black trousers, and his hair was black and thick, too. And I was so shocked to see him, and I got down on my haunches and I grabbed his hand and he was looking at me like this… like he was happy to see me. And I said “Miles, Miles”, I was like speechless. And then he held my hand and he said: “John, we’re gonna record Thursday”. We’re gonna record Thusday? You know I actually got excited and my heart started to beat, and I woke up from the dream. And I’d forgotten actually, that Thursday was his birthday. But I didn’t know – I’d forgotten this birthday, Woe is me. What to do?.. Somebody told me two days after. And that really hit me. Thursday had been his birthday, that’s when we were supposed to “record”. I mean, that’s just one dream, but I’ve had quite a few over the years.
If he were here with us today, what would you like to talk with him about?
Talk to him?… I’d love to play with him! I don’t wanna talk to him. [laughs] We would tell a joke of whatever. The last time he called me – this was after the last Paris concert he made – he was down in Rome and he called me, and I knew he was already not well in Paris, I think it would be late July – and he called me at home, and he just talking about his Ferrari car, he just wanted to chat. He didn’t want to say anything, he just wanted to hear a friendly voice, and you know, we just shot the breeze basically. We didn’t talk about anything specifically – definitely not music. Miles would never speak about music on the telephone. I don’t remember him ever speaking about music. He was old-school. Beautiful school.
In a sense, aren’t you old school?
I am now. [laughs] Definitely, for the younger generation.
I want you to talk about some recordings that changed your life.
Well, that was one – the one I told you about… That was the most outstanding one. Subsequent ones were really variations on “In a Silent Way.” It was my baptism of fire. By the time we moved into studios to do “Bitches Brew,” Miles had a little more that idea. He definitely wanted a little more of a rock beat, he wanted a little more raunchy, wanted a little more like guitar – whether it’s R’n’B or blues but he wanted that thing. But he was just not sure. And what I said before about experimenting – we’d just put a few chords, not even on music paper: sometimes it was just written on a piece of brown paper like what you brought your coffee in. we’d start playing and he’d stop us and he’d say to a bass player: “Pum-pum, pum-pum, and take it from there”. So it would start from more space. And this is really wonderful for people like me, how he would get people to play and get music that would make THEM happy, ’cause he never wanted to impose his will, his musical will on his musicians. I’ve never ever seen that. He wanted them to be themselves. He told Herbie: “I pay you to experiment onstage”. And he wanted the new, spontaneous thing, but something that was not clichéd or… well worn. He wanted something that we didn’t know about, he wanted to bring the unknown in us out. But somehow he would conform to what he wanted, in the direction HE wanted to go. And especially on those sessions when we all learned a great deal about this directions that he was looking for, and it was a question of really pruning, and he would say “don’t play this”. I remember we’d play the blues in F and he said: “don’t play the F”.
Because it’s too obvious?
That’s the tonic of the tune, the fundamental key. And you can play any note but not the one it belongs to. And the way he would speak to the drummers and percussion players–I introduced him to Badal Roy, the tabla player we bought in because he had another color, and sitar player Khalil Balakrishna – these different elements. I mean, talking about fusion music, Miles was way ahead of everyone else. He was way ahead in the late 50’s. These records he made with Gil – Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain are masterpieces of fusion. But… what isn’t fusion? What isn’t fusion?! Look at the harmony that he and someone like Bill Evans, in one respect the whole French school of harmony that came from Ravel, Debussy, Satie – this is what jazz is based on. And then you have people like Coltrane and McCoy [Tyner] bringing this wonderful quartal harmony from Bartok who himself stole from the Hungarian folk songs – he brought it up to date and integrated into modern classical music, that itself became integrated into modern jazz music. So, what’s not fusion is my question? We steal from everybody. We ALL steal from everybody. This is the way we learn. We hear something, we appropriate it, don’t we? And not just music. I mean philosophy, it’s ideas – we appropriate things constantly as we grow older. But the great thing about Miles – just to come back to this recording session – was, I think, the way he took stuff out, and left its essentials. This was marvelous to see the maestro work. I didn’t realize… I saw what he was doing and I understood what he was doing, but I didn’t realize the significance of it until later.
It’s a great lesson.
Oh yes. What NOT to play. I’m still learning, Larry.
This interview originally appeared in the Ukrainian magazine, Counterpoint. Thanks to its editor, Viachek Kryshtofovych, Jr.
Here’s video I shot of John making these last points: