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Maceo Parker interview by Saxophone Journal
by David Todoroff - June 20, 1999
I caught up with Maceo Parker on the road in Buffalo, New York and we spoke on his tour bus, which was parked behind the stage. Maceo had just finished opening for Ani DiFranco, the new message mistress of folk funk...
Brief Portrait
Maceo Parker was born in Kinston, North Carolina in 1943 and still resides there when not on the road for nearly 250 dates a year. His all-the-way live, three-hour-plus marathon performances are best described as a must-see "experience." It is absolutely impossible to sit still at a Maceo Parker show, especially since the people in front of you will be up, dancing, blocking your view. His "2% jazz, 98% funky stuff" credo sums up the artist doing exactly what he loves most, with the rest of his "skin tight" band following suit. Maceo Parker plays the alto saxophone like no one else, combining a "hard to cop," percussive, hip-hop style with a huge sound, making him very much in demand by an amazing array of artists.

Maceo had legendary beginnings as a JB, with the Godfather himself, James Brown, from the 60's through the 80's. From there, mix in ground-breaking work with the Horny Horns, George Clinton, and Bootsy Collins. Maceo Parker has since performed or recorded with the likes of Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, 10,000 Maniacs, De La Soul, Ani DiFranco, and the Dave Matthews Band. When Maceo finally broke out on his own in the early 90's, he and his Mark VI alto soon became the funkiest act on the road, building a large international following. Three years ago Maceo brought family to his travels, adding his son, emerging rap artist Corey E.L.O.S. Parker to the group. Maceo's 1992 live CD Life on Planet Groove is a testament to how the energy of a great live show can be captured on a disc. His latest release, Funk Overload, on the What Are Records? label has been earning critical acclaim.

I caught up with Maceo Parker on the road in Buffalo, New York and we spoke on his tour bus, which was parked behind the stage. Maceo had just finished opening for Ani DiFranco, the new message mistress of folk funk. Much of the 5,000-plus DiFranco audience were teen or early twenty-somethings, many of them taken by surprise by the P-Funk Parker. I overheard groups of Maceo first-timers pledging allegiance to him, like he was a rising star, fresh off the cover of Rolling Stone. Ani DiFranco herself, a huge Parker fan, describes Maceo as a "Buddha with a saxophone". And what I initially thought to be an odd pairing (the DiFranco/Parker tour) turned out to be a symbiotic education of funk for a higher cause. Once on the bus with Maceo, I listened intently to what the Jedi Jam Master of the alto sax had to say. The sounds of Ani's grooves pulsed in the distance. At one point Parker lost his train of thought upon hearing a DiFranco bass-leaded beat; after a moment of silence, he looked me in the eye and simply said, seriously, "Funky."

The Interview
Tell us about your family's musical background.

Maceo: It's not like my parents were music instructors or anything like that. But they knew, and taught us, that music can camouflage what's really happening, as far as not having enough and money and the things that you want. You see we were poor, but we as kids never knew it. Along with religion and close family ties, music was one of the tools that my parents used to help create a happy setting. I mean we just sang all the time, and singing helped make everything OK. I learned at a very early age how music had the power to do that. Music made everything OK, all situations.

When you say we, how many brothers and sisters?

Maceo: Three brothers and one sister, and my mother and father. I was lucky, in that it seemed like there was always a piano around, and my uncle had a blues band, so they would often rehearse at our house, or we would go to wherever they were rehearsing. So we had a chance to hear that kind of music, and then there was church and Sunday school. Also, my mother and father sang in church, and sometimes we had the church quartets rehearsing at our home.

So you were singing in groups at a young age before you ever started playing the saxophone?

Maceo: Oh yeah, yeah man, and playing piano, and now that I reflect back on it, I guess it does sound like I came from a strong musical background. A lot of times when you say music background you think of your mother or father teaching elementary school band, but my background was nothing like that. Just a lot of music in the home.

Your brother Melvin is a drummer?

Maceo: Melvin is a drummer and my other brother Kellis is a trombone player. My other brother was a truck driver (laughs). I think he tried to play bass for about a month. Yeah, for some reason he just didn't like it. He was the youngest of all of us and could hear music, but just didn't want to perform it. He went into the dry cleaning business with my father for a while. And my father was the type of man where he didn't insist that we learn his particular trade, especially since me and my brothers were so into music at such an early age.

How old were you when you started playing saxophone?

Maceo: About eleven or twelve, and at that time, my brothers and I were all playing nightclubs and making money with a group called the Junior Blue Notes. We were playing gigs even while in grammar school.

Did you study sax with anyone back then?

Maceo: No, not until my high school band director, who also happened to be a saxophone player. He saw something in me when I was in eighth grade, and since elementary and high school were in the same yard, I had him for five years as a teacher. I remember, he came in and took over halfway through the school year. He just came in one day and said, "I'm Mr. Banks. I don't know anyone but let's get started." He said turn to so-and-so page of your book, he raised his baton, and some played and some didn't. But I liked him, and he took a special interest in me right from the start.

Was your high school teacher more classically influenced?

Maceo: No, Jazz. He was really into Sonny Stitt, and if I can remember right, Stanley Turrentine.

So he introduced you to the jazz artists?

Maceo: Well no, not really. I was at liberty to hear whatever records the adults had. I might be coming home from school and hear something playing two doors down from me, I'd just walk up, knock on the door and say, "Hey, what is that you're listening to?" Oh, cool, that's Count Basie, or Illinois Jacquet, or whoever.

What horn did you start on?

Maceo: I started on alto in elementary school, then switched to tenor in high school. But when I got to college, because they didn't write many recital pieces for tenor as opposed to alto, I remember my music director in college telling me I needed to get an alto.

What was one of the first aspects of playing you focused on in high school?

Maceo: Sound. What I noticed was that all students sounded like students, and my teacher sounded like a professional player. I wanted to sound like him as a student. I wasn't impressed by a lot of notes if it didn't sound good. I worked on one note, and then two notes, just focusing on sound, sound, sound. After five years of working with my teacher, by the time I graduated high school, if we both played and you were blindfolded, you couldn't tell us apart. That's how much I wanted to sound like him. I mean, I was lucky to have this man as a teacher. He would tell me, "Look, when you have recess, don't go standing around, or try and hold hands with the girls. You come here to the band room." I did whatever this man said. So at recess I would go see him, I would sit down, and he would play, I would listen. I'd try and ask him a question and he'd say, "Shush! Just listen," and so I just listened. Then the bell would ring and he'd say, "OK, see ya tomorrow." This would be almost everyday I'd be in that band room and he would play.

And you would just listen.

Maceo: Yeah, but he wouldn't let me ask any questions. He'd say, "Just listen, just listen," but he knew that I would go home and try to imitate what I heard him play. My mother told me that when I was six or seven, barely able to see the keys on the piano, someone would play something, and I could imitate it. She said it was amazing. What's really amazing is I didn't end up being a keyboard player, though I play a little.

So at that time, were you a disciplined saxophone student working on long tones and scales?

Maceo: No, I didn't really know what I was practicing, I just played. I didn't know about long tones or stuff like that. But back then, we had our group, me, my brothers, and my cousins, and we always played on weekends. So a lot of times, playing was also my practicing, and I would try different things, even in front of people. For example, I noticed great players that could really play sound like they're having a conversation, or singing a song, and I would ask myself, how did they do that? And I would try to get some kind of concept as to how that was done. I'm asking myself, how do you get from one note to the other note? What makes a player choose that particular pattern? This was very early on, and after a while, I'd put my own patterns together.

I've found that people who reach a high level of excellence in anything are always asking questions.

Maceo: I didn't really ask people questions verbally. I just kind of asked myself, then went about trying to figure it out.

I meant that you ask the question internally, and you take one step toward the solution, then the solution takes a step toward you.

Maceo: Exactly. That's exactly what I did.

When did you decide to become a performer as a career?

Maceo: At one point I thought I would be a music education like my teacher. It was either high school or college, but you get your degree, you get a job, and you teach; that's it. I remember asking myself, maybe there's more to it than that, you know? Just maybe. Then before I finished college, my high school band director was trying to leave the teaching profession so he could go on the road with Lloyd Price. Now I'm really confused. I'm trying to get to where he is, and he's leaving to go on the road. That's when I first saw Ray Charles and some of the other great players at the Newport Jazz Festival, and I was like, man, I want to be like that.

Besides your high school teacher, who was your playing influenced by?

Maceo: I liked a lot of things that Hank Crawford did. I also liked David "Fathead" Newman, and I heard a lot of Stanley Turrentine, and I also liked the Ray Charles band. I liked all them cats, and had a chance to see most of them live, and remember being in total awe. I also heard and liked King Curtis and Junior Walker, though I wasn't really into the high altissimo stuff. But I was influenced a little by a combination of what a lot of players did, and not just saxophonists.

When did the funk direction begin?

Maceo: At about age sixteen, I was into the idea of Maceo Parker Plays Charlie Parker. Now THAT has a good ring to it. But I soon realized a million other cats were doing that and all of them were good. In fact, many of them were better than me. But I wondered why there weren't more people playing the funky thing. So I said to myself, maybe there's some room at the top for Maceo Parker Plays Maceo Parker, which was funky.

How did you develop this funky percussive style? Did you practice taking one note, and just bend it, gliss it, or funk it out?

Maceo: No, that was something I could just do day one, because I can hear rhythms. I think I could have been a drummer, and I know I could have played the vibes. I've always wanted to get a set of vibes and do that. But, when I got to the point where I knew I could hear that funky stuff, and not everybody could, I found my forte. That's one of the things you find out when you're hanging out with forty or fifty musicians all the time; you find out who can do what. I had the ability to make that one funky change kind of interesting. When that came to me, I said to myself, instead of trying to get real deep into the jazz thing, trying to play all those Charlie Parker lines or riffs, I should just stay with what I'm doing. And if I wanted to be extra special as a player, I thought, maybe I should hang in the funky thing for a while. Since not many other players were into funk, I just might get some recognition for that. I think that's how I realized that working with James Brown would be my thing. James recognized my style when he first heard me play, and that was just me, using my innate ability, talent, whatever, to hear it and play it funky.

Can you tell us how you got the gig playing with James Brown? I heard he was more interested in your brother Melvin at first.

Maceo: James Brown heard my brother, he hadn't heard me. I was playing a gig out of town in Virginia when James Brown came to this after-hours club Melvin was playing. James came in after his show looking to get something to eat. I think the name of the club was the El Morocco, or something like that. James really liked the band, and especially liked Melvin. James told my brother how much he dug his playing and said if in the future he ever needed a job, get in touch with him, refresh his memory, and he's got the gig.

Where did this take place?

Maceo: This was in Greensboro, North Carolina, my home state. I grew up in and still live in Kinston. So when I got back into town, I thought I'd check on little brother. You know we were both staying in the college dorm. So Melvin says, "You're not going to believe this; I met James Brown tonight!" Melvin went on about how impressed James was with his playing, which didn't surprise me because I knew my brother could play. We both worked at it and worked it for years, playing all those gigs. I mean, we played a million gigs by the time I graduated from high school. In fact, I even played my high school prom, which must have been real nice for my date. (laughs)

You think that's bad, I played with my working band at my own wedding.

Maceo: At your wedding? Oh man, (laughs) I love it, you played your wedding, man that's good.

I only played like four tunes, even brought my wife up to sing. Didn't matter, I took a ton of grief for that one. Anyway, sorry Maceo. Continue with the James Brown story.

Maceo: Well, about a year and a half later, my brother and I were looking to take a break from the local thing, and we started talking about what James Brown had said to my brother. We were like, "Cool, let's get a job with James." That was like our ace in the hole.

You and your brother got along well?

Maceo: Oh yeah, real well. So when James Brown came to town next, we decided to go to where he was playing, maybe about 90 miles away from our hometown. Our plan was to drive around the coliseum until we see his limo or bus. So after a while we see James Brown's limo, and James gets out of the car, and Melvin walks up and starts talking to him. After a few minutes he remembers my brother. James was like a kid at Christmas with a new toy, he was so excited. They start making arrangements then and there for Melvin to join him on the road. Then Melvin says, "Oh, by the way, Mr. Brown, this is my brother Maceo, he plays saxophone, and he needs a job too." James turns to me and says, "Sax player huh? Well, Maceo, do you play baritone saxophone?" I really played tenor, but I said "Ahhhhh, yes, Mr. Brown." James then says to me, "Maceo, do you own a baritone saxophone?" I knew there was only one answer if I wanted the gig so I said, "Ahhhhh, yes, Mr. Brown." James then says, "OK, I'll give you two weeks to take care of things and get your baritone sax." He said I could meet him in, I think it was Baltimore. We went home all excited, told our parents we both got jobs playing with James Brown. Around then, my high school band director was killed when a car he was working on fell off the jacks and crushed him. Man that was horrible. His wife gave me his brand new Mark VI tenor because she knew we were so close. Everyone in the band was envious of that horn. I didn't even really know what it was. I worked out a deal with a local store, got a baritone sax, and took the VI tenor with me. Melvin and I thought we'd hang with James six months, maybe a year, make a little money, then go back to school. (laughs) We stayed a lot longer than that.

I know soon after joining James Brown you played both baritone and tenor on your first recorded solo, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag". You had a very funky style even then.

Maceo: By the time I graduated from high school, I was well into what you heard on the early James Brown stuff. By then I had realized that I could do more in the funky idiom than in the jazz idiom.

What year did you first record with James Brown?

Maceo: I was hired in 1964 and recorded "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" in1965. I played baritone sax for three months, then switched to tenor when James's tenor man got sick and had to leave. James was going to hire another tenor player to play solos until I let him know I could do it.

What made you switch to alto as your main voice?

Maceo: I always liked both tenor and alto, especially alto for ballads because of Hank Crawford. James Brown was the one who suggested I play alto as a major instrument after I was away from him for a while and came back. One day he just said to me, "Maceo, know what? Maybe you should play alto," and I said, "OK, cool," and that was it.

I always wondered about that, because for most players, choosing a horn to focus on is a major decision.

Maceo: Yeah, James Brown did it. He suggested I play alto, so that's what I did.

Do you still play tenor at all?

Maceo: No, but that's because I don't like the sound that I get. I have the Mark VI, but I think I need to try a different mouthpiece, or just work on it more, I don't know. If I ever get the time to work on it, and to the point where I'm satisfied with the sound, I'll come out with something. A funky something. (laughs)

How did you get started on flute?

Maceo: I was made to play flute in college because we had too many saxophone players. The band director came in one day and said, "We have too many saxophones and we need flutes for the upcoming concert season, so you, you, and you are going to play flute." I was one of them. I just sat there, I said man, I don't want to play no flute, come on. I'd never even held a flute in my hand, and I'd made my choice - saxophone. So I sat there with this flute, and I'd blow, and blow; nothing, that thing didn't budge. The music was sounding so good, and I wasn't contributing, and I really do love concert stuff. (Maceo begins passionately improvising a classical piece.) The next thing I knew, I got a little sound, then another sound, then the scales, so I'm like, "Cool, I got it." Now, I love the flute.

Who repairs your horns for you?

Maceo: I've got a guy out of Raleigh, North Carolina. His name is Rodney Marrsh, at Marrsh Woodwinds. What I do is, after each tour, either myself or my son Corey take both horns in, and sometimes the flute, to have them looked at. They do a great job and are very proud of their work. I sent both my altos back to Paris once to get overhauled, but that was years ago.

You play Selmer Mark VI's?

Maceo: Yeah, I've got two of them. One is gold-plated, the other is lacquered.

Have you had the same ones for a long time?

Maceo: Yeah.

Can you tell us what the serial numbers are?

Maceo: No, I don't even get into any of that stuff.

How about your mouthpiece and set up? What is that comprised of?

Maceo: I'm using the same type of mouthpiece that I started with, although it's not the same one. My pet pet, baby baby, pet pet, got broken when it fell off an organ, but I have one that's similar. It's a Brilhart Ebonite #3 with just a stock ligature. Again, that's just because I started with that, and it's what my high school band director was playing. He didn't use a Berg Larson, or anything fancy. That was it; I was just trying to pattern after him. I mean, whatever came with the horn was cool. (laughs)

You have such a big sound, it's just amazing.

Maceo: Thanks man.

What type of reeds are you using?

Maceo: I'm using Vandorn Java's 3 1/2. Way back when, I was using Rico.

Regarding your solo career, when James Brown was unable to tour, is that when you first broke out on your own with the other JB horn players? (Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis.)

Maceo: When James went to prison, that's when, coupled with my age, I said to myself, "Hey man, if you're going to get this solo thing on, now's the time." All the George Clinton and Bootsy Collins stuff was fun, and they made it really sweet for me, but that was their thing, which was fine. If I was ever going to do a Maceo thing, I had to do it now, because it's getting into autumn, and now the day is almost over, do you hear what I'm saying? As well as playing the saxophone, you've become such an excellent front man, singing, dancing, doing call and response with the audience.

Is this something you always knew you could do?

Maceo: Yeah, I knew I could always do that, which goes way back to elementary school, when I lead the band. I had been in so many groups, and I had a thing called Maceo and All the King's Men. You just get to a point where you know what you can do.

So it must be liberating to take charge of the show and work the audience instead of someone else always saying, "Maceo, blow your horn."

Maceo: Yeah, but it's like what I was saying before, it goes hand in hand with your age. I didn't want to be the oldest guy in someone else's band, unless it is James Brown's, because he's a little bit older than me, (laughs) then I'm not the oldest cat. But to be the oldest cat in someone's band, ten to fifteen years your junior, telling you what to do, I mean, it doesn't always sit well.

Your shows are a hypnotic mix of music and dance, sometimes lasting well over three hours and attracting a very young audience. Most of these kids are unaware of your work with James Brown. Did you purposely look to appeal to the youth?

Maceo: I tell you what happened; you know how a bunch of kids are friends at high school and then when they graduate, they go in separate directions? They stay in touch by phone or e-mail, especially the first year they're away from home, they call each other and talk. They'll tell each other about who's the funky groups to check out. The person at Florida State is talking to the person at Penn State, and because we haven't played Florida State yet, they feel left out, so they do whatever they can to get us there. These kids just network each other and the word travels. Funky music has the ability to really, really get kids involved. It allows them to "throw their arms in the air, and wave them like they just don't care." It gives them an out. I think a lot of kids even appreciate that funky saxophone that I play. And it's true like you said, they don't even know about my relationship with James Brown. We recognize their being into funky music, and I'm just trying to keep it going, and ride the wave as long as we can. We are very, very thankful for this, and I feel very lucky.

I've heard that your 1992 live CD "Life on Planet Groove" sells more copies than each previous year. Do you plan on recording another live CD?

Maceo: Probably. I mean, more likely, we don't plan it, we just say now's the time and we do it. Album sales wise, I do really, really well in Europe, almost four to one compared to here. Playing gigs, I play about the same amount, but my CD's sell much better overseas.

On the Planet Groove CD, you play that amazing ascending chromatic solo. People that I talk to who own that disc always allude to that solo, and how incredible it is.

Maceo: Which solo is that?

On the first track, you play a solo with just the drummer, where you start it by saying, "Me and the drummer, check it out."

Maceo: Oh, yeah, right, we were crazy. That drummer was Kenwood Dennard. (laughs) It was cool.

That was some incredible stuff.

Maceo: I didn't know that solo was going to go as long as it did. But you know how sometimes you can sort of be on the outside listening, at the same time you're playing? I could feel it build and build. I mean, we started small, and I was like, wow! Then I listened to the recording, and I was like, man, that's all right. (Maceo shakes his head, then starts to sing the solo note for note.) That was crazy.

I was just getting into your music when I bought that CD used, at a music store. I took it home, listened to that solo, and went back and purchased a new copy. I remember thinking, I have to make sure I pay the man for this, because I was aware artists don't see any money on used CD sales. I knew right away "Life on Planet Groove" was going to be a mainstay in my library.

Maceo: (laughs) We recorded that live in Hamburg, Germany.

Do you have other recording projects in mind?

Maceo: My next concept - and I'm trying to get people like Ani DiFranco and other artists that I've met or talked to such as the Artist Formerly Known As, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt and others - I'd love to have them each do their own stuff, and at some point they would say, "Maceo, come blow your horn." So like a compilation record of different artists, with me playing on their tunes.

Your son Corey is an excellent rapper, and he conveys a very positive message. How did recording and touring with him come about?

Maceo: Corey was an engineering major at North Carolina State for about six years and got to the point where he wasn't sure if he wanted to become an engineer. Some of his friends who graduated ahead of him were working in the field and were not all that happy, and at the same time he was doing some writing. What I would do is, in the early stages of making a recording I would go into the studio, put it down, and then just let my kids hear it. They would give some pretty good feedback, and Corey started writing some rap stuff to the cut "Maceo's Groove", which is on the Funk Overload CD. But at the time I said to him, "That's pretty good, but you know, Corey, you're going to have to come out and perform this yourself, cause I don't believe in someone else performing somebody else's stuff. If it's your work, you're going to perform it, because no one is going to interpret it like you." That's my concept, anyway. So I said to him, "Come on out and do it," and he did.

How long ago was that?

Maceo: That was about three years ago. He came out on stage, started doing it, and now he loves it so much, I can't even think about getting him to stop.

Now that Corey is rapping and your music appeals to such a young audience, have you thought of collaborating with any other rap artists?

Maceo: Only to work on that concept I was talking about earlier, with other artists on a compilation. But then again, I might like to do a Puff Daddy thing. Oh, I'll tell you somebody that I would love to work with is that little Janet Jackson. She'd be over there on one side of the stage, doing her Rhythm Nation thing, and I'd be on the other side doing mine. (Maceo breaks into singing Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation.) Man, I love her, she is so sweet, so talented. I would love to perform or record with her.

What is your biggest priority musically?

Maceo: The only thing that I really deem necessary is to perform. That's the bread and butter. It pays these guys, and supports their families, keeps those bills paid, and we do a lot of gigs, man. Now, if we do an album or a video and it does well, fine, that's OK. But this is really it - performing live! That's where it's at.

At that point, Maceo's manager came on the bus to let him know his son Corey was about to go on and perform a number with Ani DiFranco. Maceo, proud father that he is, got up and began to politely excuse himself so he could go backstage and watch his son's performance.

Last quick question Maceo; what are your goals musically?

Maceo: Nah! I don't have any goals. That way I don't have to look back and say I didn't do it. (laughs)

Well, where do you see Maceo Parker a year from now? Do you just want to keep touring?

Maceo: Yeah, that's it.

I thanked Maceo for the lengthy time he spent with me and told him he was my favorite saxophonist and performer. I also told him how I was looking forward to catching his show in a couple weeks in Los Angeles. As we were exiting the tour bus, Maceo turned abruptly and said, "Oh Dave, one thing: make sure you tell the people that we really do love everybody, and that's why we do this. That's our main message: peace and love. All right?"

I'll make sure I tell them.

Maceo: Thanks, Dave. See you in L.A.

 

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