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John McLaughlin: Become Who You Are

Jazzed Magazine • September 2012Spotlight • September 21, 2012

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By Christian Wissmuller

One of the truly iconic guitarists (of any genre) in the past century, an (unintentional) pioneer of what came to be known as “fusion,” and an enduring innovator and musical ambassador, John McLaughlin is… well, John McLaughlin.

No less than Jeff Beck has described McLaughlin as “the best guitarist alive,” and throughout the course of his five-decade-spanning career John’s services have been enlisted by the likes of Miles Davis, Alexis Corner, Georgie Fame, Brian Auger, Wayne Shorter, Carla Bley, the Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana (you’re getting the point, right?)…

McLaughlin’s own work as a solo artist and as a band leader – most notably with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti – has continually broken and redefined stylistic boundaries, seamlessly blending Indian, Flamenco, rock, traditional jazz, funk, R&B, (and many other) influences.  As his ambitious upcoming album, Now Here This (Abstract Logix, October 16, 2012) amply demonstrates, at the age of 70 the man isn’t yet content to sit on his considerable laurels.

JAZZed recently had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. McLaughlin about his own scholarship of music, how he approaches “teaching” (though he doesn’t consider himself to be much of a formal educator), as well his thoughts on life, jazz, “fusion” and music, in general.

JAZZed: Let’s start with your own early years as a musician.  Growing up in a musical family no doubt had significant early influence – can you discuss?

John McLaughlin: Without doubt, a profound influence. My mother being an amateur violinist had the radio tuned to mainly classical music, and our recordings were primarily of the same [genre]. I would say that my earliest experience in music was due to her and her affection for Beethoven. It was on hearing the final [movement] of his 9th Symphony that I experienced what music could do to me. I must have been five or six years old. I would say that this was a determining factor in me becoming a musician.

JAZZed: You initially studied violin and piano.  What prompted your shift to the guitar?  Was there a particular artist or individual – or more than one – who served as the primary catalyst to take up the instrument?

JM: Having three elder brothers who were at university around the time the “Blues Boom” hit the UK, the guitar was part of their life, particularly the eldest. However, he became sidetracked by his academic studies, and the guitar began its descent through the younger [siblings] till it arrived to me. Until then, the guitar was just another instrument, but upon taking it into my arms, I fell in love with the guitar, which endures to this day. Who knows why we love a particular instrument? It’s a mystery to me. You could also say that the guitar found me!

JAZZed: Who were your teachers in your childhood years? 

JM: As I mentioned, I was fortunate to have a mother who was a musician, and her influence was fundamental to me. Later, when I began piano lessons, my piano teacher was definitely “old school,” [and] used to rap my fingers with a ruler when I missed the notes or fingering. But I stuck to it for about three years until the guitar arrived and I dropped playing piano immediately.

From that point I didn’t have a teacher. What I did have were the Mississippi blues players on the record player thanks to my elder brothers. This music blew my young mind: Muddy Waters, Bill Broonzy, Huddy Leadbetter, Robert Johnson. It was a revelation to me, and it happened at the same time I began playing guitar. I would say that for the next few years the record player was my teacher.

I should mention that at 13 years old I was exposed to Flamenco music. This was another revelation to me since, for some reason, I was less interested in classical guitar music than classical piano music, and the Flamenco guitar players have done wonders in the evolution of guitar playing.

JAZZed: Did you take any actual lessons at any point?

JM: I was 15 when I began taking guitar lessons from a teacher, but actually he was more interested in listening to me play my imitations of Muddy Waters and Bill Broonzy than teaching me! However, he did instill in me a certain discipline which has continued to this day. In high school, I kind of lost interest in my academic studies, and this was accentuated by the majority of the teachers who were somewhat cynical. Fortunately, our music teacher was of the enlightened kind, and convinced me to play in front of the class with whatever formation I could round up among my fellow students. This was a great experience for me and I thank him to this day.

JAZZed: Early in your professional career you collaborated with some pretty iconic figures: Korner, Georgie Fame, Auger, Davis, et cetera.  Can you talk about how you managed to connect with these folks and, also, the differences between “formal” learning as opposed to gaining an education through actually playing out?

JM: In those days there were no jazz schools, particularly where I lived, which was a small town in North East England, not far from the Scottish border. Fortunately, by the time I was 15, I’d found friends who were as crazy about jazz as I’d become, so we basically listened to records of the greats, and tried to imitate what they were playing.

It was later on in London that I got to play with Georgie Fame, Alexis Korner, and the “London scene” which was very active in those days. Even though I wanted to be a jazz musician, the groups I played with were primarily R & B bands. This was just fine for me since on any Miles or Coltrane recording, the blues is always there. In addition, at that time I was listening to Mingus, who for me had a strong rhythm and blues aspect to his music. I would not recommend a jazz player to take the R & B influence out of jazz…

JAZZed: As one of the primary architects of what came to be called “fusion,” can you discuss your motivations behind combining elements of jazz and rock and other styles?

JM: I should clarify that I never ever had an intention of making or creating “fusion” jazz. My heroes were Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and all the musicians who were around them. My goal was to get to the point where I could actually play with them – even though I never imagined that I ever would.

That said, I grew up in the 1960s, and a lot of social upheaval was going on at that time, particularly in the USA. As an avid jazz fan, I became acutely aware of the racial situation in the US with the Panthers, the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and many other events. In the UK, it was the time of LSD, and its implications. By the mid-’60s, I was listening to the Beatles, from the time they also became under the same influences, as well as Indian music, Flamenco music (incidentally, I would remind you that Miles had already introduced elements of Flamenco into his recordings with arranger Gil Evans in the late 1950s. Just listen to Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain). In my opinion, my music “fused” itself through my love and affection for the particular styles you’ll find in my music. There was no conscious intention on my part.

When I arrived in New York in early January 1969 to play with Tony Williams and Larry Young (Khalid Yassin) to form Lifetime, most musicians were undergoing a certain evolution. Lifetime was more radical, but the fact that Miles invited me to play on In a Silent Way, and even had me determine the musical direction that particular piece took on the recording, was, and is, indicative of the mood at that time. The decade of the 1960s was in many ways revolutionary. The music coming from Coltrane, (and his true integration of the spiritual dimension of the human being into jazz), Miles, Monk, Mingus, Rollins, Evans, “Cannonball,” the group of great Hammond Organists, like Jimmie Smith, Richard Holmes, Jack McDuff. And, from the funk/pop side, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, B.B King, and the Beatles, of course. They all played a significant role in the general music scene. Already around eight months after In a Silent Way, being in the studio with Miles recording Bitches Brew is another indication of the upheaval in music that was really an upheaval in society as well, and the coming together of various influences in jazz music, mainly funk and rock.

JAZZed: What types of “formal” teaching have you done, yourself?

JM: Since the mid 1970s, I’ve done occasional master classes. Basically I felt that I was not really qualified to teach. It was only from 2004 that I had the idea to formulate what I’d learned over the years into a kind of coherent system that might be useful for today’s guitarist. This was a big work for me, and the result of 18 months of videotaping arrived in the form of a 3 DVD box set (This is the Way I Do It) that shows how I see music and how I work at it.

JAZZed: What’s your favorite aspect of teaching?

JM: That’s the strange part, I still don’t see myself as a “teacher.” However, the fact that many people have written thanking me for the box set is, itself, very satisfying in a global sense. What I really want is for people to become who they really are. It is my conviction that to improvise, you need to know to a certain degree who you are. When we improvise, what are we saying without words? We are singing about our inner life, which is not separate from our outer life, and our relationships with the people we play with, and ultimately, our relationship with the Universe or God, if you will. Of course, this implies asking the great questions in life, and searching for answers, but to me, this is why we are here: To discover who we are.

JAZZed: Part two of the same question: What’s the most frustrating part of teaching? What do you like least?

JM: Probably running into musicians who know a bit, but believe they know much…

JAZZed: What challenges do you feel that “jazz” – in the broadest possible definition – presents to scholars or teachers, which other styles of music perhaps do not.

JM: I mentioned that jazz integrates in the most dynamic manner, improvisation. Improvisation is the art of spontaneity, and being spontaneous is the way of being our true selves. I would say, further, that improvisation in jazz is a way of liberation and even emancipation. These are ideals, but they are real. It took notoriously many years (for me) to realize that I know very little about almost nothing, but this is the real beginning of discovery about yourself, about playing and about improvising. That said, to be spontaneous in music is not that easy. First we need to learn and master as much as possible, the many aspects of music. Then we go to the stage and we need to forget everything we’ve learned, and be ourselves individually, and collectively with the other musicians. This is a pretty tall order…

JAZZed: Any words of advice or observations to pass along to our readers?

JM: I think we’ve covered most things, but the young musician will need to discover how much he or she loves and cares about music, and the necessity of perseverance and patience. I think it could be summed up in a sentence once told to me by Alice Coltrane, which goes: “How much are you ready to suffer for love?”

I could say that this is one of the most fundamental questions of life that we all have to address sooner or later.

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