JOHN McLAUGHLIN'S JAZZ ODYSSEY

By Joachim Berendt

(Reprinted from Jazz Times magazine: May 1982)


The following interview is an excerpt taken from a chapter reprinted from The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond by Joachim Berendt,1982. Reprinted by permission of Lawrence Hill and Co., Inc. The book will be published this month.

Preliminary Remarks: No single musician could represent the jazz of the seventies. Jazz has become too wide. McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, and others are all of equal stature. And above all, Miles Davis (especially during the first half of the decade) and John Coltrane (since the late seventies) are still dominating figures. Beyond them, the jazz scene is split-into acoustic jazz on the one hand, and electric jazz on the other-and actually into many more subgroupings. And yet, there is one musician of that decade-and beyond if also into the early eighties-who belongs to all these groupings. He has played blues and bebop and free and fusion, and above all, he feels bound to electric as well as to acoustic music: John McLaughlin. The following interview took place in John McLaughlin's Paris home. McLaughlin is among those contemporary musicians who are so articulate that the interviewer merely has to give the cues, so my questions are only included if they are necessary for understanding the context.

John McLaughlin: I was born in 1942 in a little village in Yorkshire. My father was an engineer, my mother used to be an amateur violinist. There was always a very good atmosphere towards music in the house, which I am eternally grateful for. Classical music. The Three B's: Beethoven, Bach, Brahms. I think a lot of children are in the wrong environment; they may have a lot of talent, but their parents do not encourage them, they're not interested in music. When I was about nine, my mother sent me to have piano lessons. Later we moved up to Northumberland-close to the Scottish border. Every summer the Scottish bagpipe bands used to come. Sometimes they had six or seven bagpipes, with three or four drummers-they had great drummers. Swinging in their own way. They had a big effect on me. When I was about ten, there was the beginning of the blues revolution in England. The blues started underground among the students. One of my brothers had a guitar. He taught me three chords, and from that day on, everything was decided. I completely fell in love with the guitar. I started listening to musicians like Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly. [While John said this, I saw that he still had records by these musicians in his library; they were just above the record player, so he apparently still plays them.-J.E.B.] So I had all this music just thrown at me. It was fantastic. Incredible. When I was fifteen, I was able to take my guitar and a little amplifier and go to a pub on Sunday night where they had a jazz club, and I would say: "Please let me play a tune with you." And they said: "Ok, come in." And they would play some very fast tunes and they would burn me out completely, but it was a very good experience. I went home and I realized I still had much to learn. Around that time I started to listen a lot to Django Reinhardt and Tal Farlow. They were my heroes on guitar. They still are. Maybe that's why I like violinists so much-because I loved Django and Stephane Grappelli. When I was sixteen, I went on the road with a traditional jazz band called "Professors of Ragtime." This got me to London-which, of course, was the center of jazz in England. In those days there were two clubs: The Marquee and the Flamingo. They were great. Everybody met everybody there, and the attitude was that everybody could play with everybody. So this is what I did. I remember jam sessions with everybody and anybody. I remember the Rolling Stones coming in for an audition. I didn't care much for them. They were out of tune, and I didn't think they were swinging, but at least they were playing Muddy Waters' blues tunes. I started to play with the Graham Bond Organization and with Alexis Korner. Alexis had everybody in his band at some point. But Miles Davis' "Into the Cool" with the Gil Evans big band really did it for me. Miles crystallized a new school of music, and I immediately felt: That is my school. But I kept on playing rhythm & blues and it was great, because they were playing real jazz solos. It was blues, but at the same time it was much more than blues. I played with Eric Clapton and Dick Heckstall-Smith and Ginger Baker and everybody, but I now must talk about Graham Bond. He meant a lot to me. I had grown up in an ordinary school where the teacher taught religion in a very dry way. He did not understand what religion-and Christianity-really means. He was not a living Christian. I never went to church, but Graham Bond-God rest his soul-really was a seeker. He was interested in the invisible things in life. He introduced me to a book about ancient Egyptian culture, and I got very interested in this because, for the first time in my life, I realized that a human being is much more than meets the eye. Later, I discovered a book by Ramana Maharshi, and the first thing I saw was a photo of Ramana Maharshi, and this was the first picture of someone I could consider to be enlightened-an enlightened human being, and it meant very much to me. I began to realize that India as a culture and as a nation has treasures waiting to be discovered. At this time I was friends with a guitar player by the name of Jim Sullivan, a well-known pop musician. So we were hanging out together, and we both became members of the London Theosophical Society. One day he played a record of Ravi Shankar. I couldn't understand it, but there was something which grabbed me. In the notes on the jacket I read the same things I was reading in that book by Ramana Maharshi, so I realized there is a connection between the music and the wisdom. And I knew I had to listen more in order to understand this connection. I must confess I was taking some drugs at this time-acid and things like this-and it was quite significant for me. There are a lot of subconscious things coming out. Of course, today I am against drugs; my view is that of Aldous Huxley. I think that it is wrong that we have no drug education in our society-in spite of the fact that this society is completely drug oriented. If a kid has a headache, you give him a dose of aspirin. An upper wakes you up and a downer gets you back to sleep. This is a terrible education. At this time I was just scuffling along. Living from hand to mouth. Impossible to make any money. So I had to do sessions: pop sessions with people like Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and Petula ClarkŠMusically it was terrible, and after some time this session thing was driving me completely crazy. I had to do it in order to survive, and yet more things were happening musically that I wanted to do. Finally, one day I woke up and I said to myself: I cannot do this anymore. And I got into my car and I just drove, and I didn't stop until I got to Northern England and I stayed with my mother. It was a question of sanity for me. I didn't want to go back to London. So I decided to go to the Continent and just play the kind of music I wanted to play. The first offer I got was from Gunther Hampel in Germany, so I went there playing free music for about half a year or so. I am very glad I had the experience with Gunther. I know, idealistically, it's right to play free music but there is always a big "but." Because for the most part it is indulgent; this is my real opinion about free music. In order to really play it, first of all, harmonically and melodically you have to know everything, and then you have to be a real big person, a developed human being. Only a developed human being will not indulge himself. But as an ordinary human being-and that's what we mostly are-you indulge yourself. It's not making music, it's self-indulgence, it's not real. When I was playing with Gunther, I lived in Antwerp, so I could go back to England every now and then. We had a little band with bass player Dave Holland and drummer Tony Oxly, and it was fantastic. I did a record called "Extrapolation" with Tony Oxly and John Surman on baritone and soprano saxophone. And of course we all were proud when Dave was leaving for New York to play with Miles. Imagine, an Englishman to play with Miles-it was unheard of at that time. A real coup! A few months later, in November of 1968, I got a call from Dave. He was in Baltimore, and guess who he was with? I said, "Miles," "No," he said, "Tony-Tony Williams-and he wants to talk to you." Tony said he would like to form a band, and he would like to have me. Jack DeJohnette had played him a tape he had done with me a few months before while he was in London with Bill Evans. So I said: "When you are ready, just call me." In early 1969 he called again. So I left the first week of February for New York. Two days later I was in the studio with Miles. That was incredible. You must understand, New York was the ultimate for any European jazz player. And to be able to go there and to play in New York-it was just unbelievable for me! Tony Williams and Dave Holland were playing with Miles. So immediately I met everybody. Miles and Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette and Gil Evans! Imagine! Like a dream coming true! I'll never forget one night in that week. Miles was talking with Louis Armstrong and Dizzy. I wish I had a camera. The three of them together! Just to see those three guys together was so beautiful for me. On my second day in New York, Tony had to go to Miles' house to pick up some money. So I went along. Miles had a record date the day after. Miles knew that Tony would leave him in order to have a group with Larry Young on organ and me. But Miles didn't want him to leave. He loves Tony. Miles said to me, "Why don't you bring your guitar tomorrow?" Tony wasn't terribly happy about that because suddenly there was a little competition between Miles and Tony. For me, of course, it was the ultimate. It was the last thing I could expect. But now comes the next day. Larry Young was there. And Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock. That I was fortunate enough to be invited, to be there at the right moment, was really nothing I could have created. It was just like a blessing. We had a tune by Joe Zawinul-with lots of chords. Miles said, "Well, John, why don't you play it on the guitar?" I said: "Do you want all these chords? That's going to take me quite a while to work it out." And now I had my first experience with Miles' way of directing. He wanted me to play the tune with just one chord! And then suddenly everybody was waiting for me to start the tune and I didn't know what to do. I had no idea. Miles said: "Well, you know the chord." So I gave him the chord. That's all. Two chords, in fact. I started to play, and I realized the light is on; and I played the first solo. Wayne Shorter played the tune, Miles and Wayne played it together. I was confused, but I was playing on instinct. And then we played it back, and I was shocked how beautiful it was. And I realized: Joe Zawinul had brought the tune in, and Miles, in one minute, had brought the real essence, the beauty out of it. I was astonished to see how he could hear all that and just bring it out. That was one of the great things in Miles, how he brought the extraordinary out of his surroundings. Afterwards, Miles asked me to join his group. Again, it was unbelievable for me. Imagine-I had to turn down Miles! Because it was more important for me to go with Tony Williams. I had compositions. And I realized, with Tony I would have more of a chance to play them than with Miles. Eventually, "Lifetime," our band with Tony Williams and Larry Young, was working. There was very little money involved, but musically, it was fantastic, and we couldn't believe that Columbia was turning us down. We played an audition for a guy called Al Kooper who was with Blood, Sweat & Tears. And he said no. I lost all my respect for him immediately because we were burning.

Berendt: So this was your first experience with business in America? What do you think about the jazz business? McLaughlin: I don't think they understand jazz in America. They are so far from reality. Even after eleven years in the U.S.A., I know they don't understand their own music. They don't know how to market it. In Europe and in Japan it's so much better, because people really love the music. It has always been recognized as an art form over there. In Europe, whoever does business with you deals with you on the psychology that you are an artist. But in America they don't look at it that way. Of course, there are a lot of people who love and enjoy jazz in America. But as far as the business is concerned, it's terrible. There are no festivals as you have them in Europe. So when I first encountered these problems, I was quite surprised, because I thought they would have it much more together. In fact, it was one of the shocks of my life when we made that first record with Tony Williams and when they mixed it and the sound was just terrible, and I realized they had no respect for the music and the musicians. Really, I was shocked.

Berendt: And of course, later it turned out that everybody was blaming Tony and the musicians for the bad sound. It did a lot of harm to "Lifetime"ŠHowever, John, I always felt you have been relatively lucky in your career-business wise. When I look at what happened to Tony Williams, to Ornette, to Cecil Taylor, to so many others who had bad managers and agents during most parts of their careers, I really think you have been lucky. McLaughlin: And yet I have been betrayed, people have taken money from me, and often enough I have been in very difficult positions. I'll never forgetŠmy first experience with Douglas Records. I met the man and I thought he's a real nice guy. But the first record I made for him-"Devotion," with Buddy Miles on drums and Larry Young on organ-was a terrible experience. After I recorded it, I went on tour with Tony Williams, and when I came back, he had finished the album, mixed it, cut this out and that, and there were parts in it which I didn't recognize any more as part of our music. I was in total shockŠ Anyway, let's go back to 1971. Miles suggested I should have my own band. I had met Billy Cobham on one of Miles' dates and I looked around for a violin player. I had spoken to Jean-Luc Ponty while I was in Paris. He said no. He wouldn't want to come to America. (Two years later he did!) A few weeks later, I found Jerry Goodman. And Miroslav Vitous, the bass player, called me and said: "Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter are founding a group together, called 'Weather Report.' We want you to come with us." And I said: "Well, that's really nice, but I got something to do myself." And Miroslav said: "If you need a piano player, call Jan Hammer. He is also from Czechoslovakia, and he is playing with Sarah Vaughan." So this was the Mahavishnu Orchestra: Jan Hammer, Billy Cobham, Jerry Goodman, and, of course, I had Rick Laird on bass, because I knew him from way back in England and we used to play a lot together. Right from the beginning we had a beautiful rapport. One evening I was telling Sri Chinmoy that I got a band together and I wanted to give it a name, and he said: "Well, call it the Mahavishnu Orchestra." I said, "Mahavishnu Orchestra? This is going to take everybody out!" "Just try it anyway," he said. So we tried it, and it was great for a year. We really identified with it-with the sound and the energy. And the music was amazing. Of course, I had expected it would work, but I didn't expect a big success like that. We just worked and played and things went great. Part of the fun was that I kept living my own life the way I wanted to. People were very interested in it. They asked me lots of questions about Sri Chinmoy and all the spiritual things-meditation and India and religion. But of course none of the other musicians went into that. Gradually, they resented it. I felt we would have worked it out, but the real problem was with Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman. They were really heavily against it. Finally, it became a big psychosis. So we went to Japan and it didn't get better. It got worse. So when we came to Osaka, I said: "Look, why doesn't anyone say one word to me? If you have something on your mind, just say you hate me, just tell me. It's okay. Tell me and things will get better." But neither of them would say a word, and Rick Laird told them: "Why don't you tell him? You are always talking to me when he is not around." So I felt they were determined to go out, and I realized this is the end of the band. It also had to do with success. You know, success is hard to take.

Berendt: To me, the Mahavishnu Orchestra-the first one-was the greatest of all the jazz-rock bands. Both its records were just terrific-"Birds of Fire" and "Inner Mounting Flame." Sometime later, you had a second Mahavishnu Orchestra, but I always felt you no longer reached that type of height and intensity and inspiration and density. McLaughlin: We reached it more rarely. It did happen, I think about two nights in a year. For me, this record "Visions of the Emerald Beyond" (with the second Mahavishnu Orchestra and a string quartet) was one of the greatest I ever made. And then I did "Apocalypse" with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

Berendt: But meanwhile Shakti had happened. I still remember the sensation-after all that electric high energy; you playing with those Indian guys-all acoustic music, you being the only Westerner in the group. McLaughlin: In fact, we had played together before the first Mahavishnu Orchestra had finished. I had some friends and they had a music shop and I told them, I am looking for somebody who can teach me about Indian music. So I took some vocal lessons-Indian singing-and the mrindangam player there (South Indian percussion) was L. Shankar's uncle. So I met L. Shankar, the violin player. I'll never forget when Jean-Luc Ponty arrived from California to join the second Mahavishnu Orchestra. Shankar and I had been hanging out that day, so they met-the two violinists, Shankar from India and Jean-Luc from France. And then L. Shankar started to play and I saw that look of amazement on Jean-Luc's face-I've never seen anything like this in my life. I was so lucky to have some lessons from Ravi Shankar and other masters of Indian music. I love India, its music and its spirituality, its religions. The spirituality is the music. You can't separate the two-like you can in the West. I had met Zakir Hussain, the tabla player, at Ali Akbar Khan's school for Indian music near San Francisco. Khan-sahib, the great master sarod player, was just sitting there in his chair listening to both of us playing, and after we finished I said, I never played with anybody like that. I did three records with Shakti. But Columbia just didn't go along with it. There was no enthusiasm there. And you have to have enthusiasm, otherwise you can't sell it. Of course, it didn't sell bad, but it didn't sell those enormous quantities-like rock. So, gradually, I realized I was wasting my time with Columbia.

Berendt: So you went back to electric music because Columbia told you to? McLaughlin: You can't say this. You know, jazz music and Western harmonies are part of me. I cannot suppress it. Not that I have suppressed it in Shakti, but I was preoccupied with Indian music, which has its own kind of discipline. Shakti really stayed together for quite some time. So I wanted to go back to Western music. It's a part of me I can't deny. So I really had a desire to play chords and to play with a drummer and a bass player, and that's why I made this record "Johnny McLaughlin-Electric Guitarist." In a way, it was like going back to my beginnings-and, of course, it also was a reunion with almost all the Mahavishnu players. It was like forgetting all those old problems just playing music.

Berendt: For many people there is almost a schism between electric and acoustic music. McLaughlin: Both are part of me. There is a style of music and a style of playing I can only do on an electric guitar, and there is another style I like to do on acoustic guitar.

Berendt: Couldn't it be that when you have played electric for some time, you want to go back to acoustic again? And vice-versa? It was like this a couple of times in your career. McLaughlin: Yeah, maybe that's true. It looks like it. Anyway, at the moment I like to play acoustic guitar. There are such endless possibilities to play acoustic. There is so much to do. It's almost like a cult of simplicity. For me it's just this guitar and nothing else. And it always pushes me to work harder and harder, and that's the only thing I am interested in.

Berendt: How do you feel about fusion? McLaughlin: I think a lot of fusion music is not true fusion. If a musician is being pushed to play a certain kind of music or if he feels he has to do something with a different beat in order to become popular, then this is basically against the spirit of music and against the spirit of jazz-that's all. The fusion has to happen inside you, otherwise it's not going to happen at all. It becomes only pseudo-fusion. There is so much pseudo-music around. You can't say: Let's put it with a disco beat. Or let's do it with a rock beat. It won't have any weight. It won't carry any conviction. That's why I don't listen too much to that kind of music anymore. I'm not deeply touched by it. And I have to be deeply touched, otherwise it's not worth it. I want something to really grab my insides. That's the music I take along when I go on tour.

Berendt: What do you take along? McLaughlin: I take Coltrane, Miles; I take some gypsy music. I have a cassette of a great Indian nagaswaram player. And a beautiful Indian tabla player. And I take some Chopin on the road. And some Schumann.