John McNeil, A Trumpeter Robbed Of His Breath, Blows Again

Dec 27, 2014
Originally published on December 31, 2014 10:41 am

John McNeil may be the most important trumpet player you've never heard of.

Many aspiring musicians know him as an educator, through his many instructional books like The Art of Jazz Trumpet. But getting to know McNeil as a performer or recording artist hasn't always been easy: his records could be tough to find.

The musician suffers from a neurological disorder — Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which, despite its name, has nothing to do with your teeth. At its worst, it robbed him of his ability to perform for years at a time.

Now at age 66, McNeil is back. He's in a band, Hush Point, with a group of much younger musicians; their latest album is Blues and Reds. He tells NPR's Arun Rath about the medical advances that enabled his recovery, and how the age difference does — or rather, doesn't — affect him and his bandmates.


Interview Highlights:

On playing with much younger bandmates

Jazz is one of those things where age has nothing to do with relevance. It's how you sound, that's the important thing. I mean, if you don't die, you get to be an elder statesman. That's one good thing. You don't really have to do anything. You just stay alive. And so far, so good on that.

But I'm given no more respect than I would be if I were their age. Which amounts to about zero respect — they don't respect me at all. Which is good. That's the way it's supposed to be.

On playing with competitive musicians

Man, is that ever a drag! I remember I was playing in [Greenwich] Village back in the '70s. ... [Trumpeter] Woody Shaw, a very competitive guy, he wasn't able to see very well, and I think he was just angry about that. I think because his older brother had been a professional football player, played for the Giants, and so he always felt inferior ... so he would carry that forward to the bandstand.

He wanted to sit in, so I said, "OK, great!" So right away, he starts to play fast and high and stuff like that, and he wants to trade phrases with me. And I just grabbed a flugelhorn and played in the low register, middle register. He got so frustrated, I thought he was going to throw his horn at me! Because he was just hitting an empty sack!

On starting to lose the battle with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease

Couldn't get enough air, couldn't get enough compression out of my face, diaphragm wouldn't work right. ... Sooner or later, it got to a point where I couldn't play anymore... I had tried to make several comebacks. I learned to play left-handed; I'd lost the use of my right hand. Learned to play left-handed, did an album left-handed — then it went away! ...

I was really circling the drain fast, man, I tell ya. I was on my way down. I wasn't ever going to play again.

On his comeback

I became part of a little study to see about the effects of Human Growth Hormone on neuromuscular disease. And damn, it just worked great! In three months, I threw away my cane.

And so the fact that I wasn't getting any worse allowed me to get stronger and get more coordination and undo some of the damage that had been done. I'm happy to say that all this stuff — whereas it's not behind me, I still have to deal with certain things every day — but as far as the playing goes, I've won.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

John McNeil may be the most important trumpet player you've never heard of. I discovered him, strangely enough, through a book - "The Art Of Jazz Trumpet." I was trying to learn, and McNeil's book was like a message in a bottle from a distant, very hip island. But I couldn't find his records anywhere. Part of the problem was that for 13 years, he didn't make any because John McNeil suffers from a rare neurological disorder that, at its worst, robbed him of his ability to perform.

Now at age 66, John McNeil is back with a group of young musicians in a band they call Hush Point. You're listening to a track from their latest album, "Blues And Reds." Mcneil says the band is highly collaborative. Everyone writes for the group, and no composition is sacred.

JOHN MCNEIL: I think it's a lot better. It's very different from what I would write - just myself - sometimes. I'll bring in a tune, and it'll gradually get changed by everybody. The bass player says, you know, why don't we change this chord here and put this, this and this instead? I said, well, OK, let's do that, so he goes out. Before you know it, you know, it's a completely different tune with my name on it, but it's different. It's really great that way 'cause everybody's into it. Everybody's smart.

(SOUNDBITE OF "BLUES AND REDS" SONG)

RATH: Most of the guys in Hush Point are a good deal younger than you, right?

MCNEIL: Oh, yeah.

RATH: Do you...

MCNEIL: They're like my sons, yeah.

RATH: Are you kind of like, you know, the grand old man there, telling them stories about Freddie Hubbard?

MCNEIL: (Laughter) Yeah, I make stuff up all the time, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

MCNEIL: No, pretty much they don't treat me any differently. It's just - and jazz is one of those things where age has no - nothing to do with relevance, you know? It really doesn't. It's how you sound. That's the important thing. I mean, you do - if you don't die, you get to be an elder statesman. That's one good thing. But I'm given no more respect than I would be if I were their age, which amounts to like zero respect. They don't respect me at all...

(LAUGHTER)

MCNEIL: ...You know, which is good. I mean, that's the way it's supposed to be. You know, I don't respect them either. I hate them. I hate the ground they walk on. I hate their families.

RATH: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF "BLUES AND REDS" SONG)

RATH: It sounds amazing, but I have to think that you played with musicians who were more competitive than supportive on stage, right? I mean, this is jazz. You had the tradition of cutting contests and people wanting to be the best.

MCNEIL: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, I have played with competitive guys and, man, is that a real drag. You know, I tell you - you know, on edge all the time. You know, I remember one time I was playing in the Village back in the '70s and - I don't know - you know the jazz trumpet player Woody Shaw?

RATH: Yeah, amazing.

MCNEIL: Well, he's a very competitive guy, and he wasn't able to see very well. I think he was just angry about that. I think 'cause his older brother had been a professional football player - played for the Giants - and so he always felt inferior to that or something. He was the little guy that played trumpet, and nobody else thought of him that way. We thought he was great, you know, he was fabulous. But in his own mind, he was always competing, you know?

And so he would carry that forward to the bandstand. So he wanted to sit in, so I said OK, great, come on. You know, let's do that. And so right away, he starts to play fast and high and stuff like that. And we're going to be - he wants to trade with me, you know, trade phrases with me. He was like (imitating jazz music). I'd be going (imitating jazz music). You know, and he got so frustrated, I thought he was going to throw his horn at me because he was just hitting an empty sack, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

MCNEIL: I felt sorry for the guy, but...

RATH: It's like punching air.

MCNEIL: Yeah, but damn, it's my gig. You don't come show me up on my own gig. Come on, you know.

RATH: You've written about this thing with trumpet - and jazz trumpet, in particular - this thing about playing high and fast. Like, nobody ever says about the saxophone player, oh, did you hear how high he played? There's this...

MCNEIL: Yeah.

RATH: ...This thing put on jazz trumpet players, which you kind of - you don't go for as much.

MCNEIL: Well, yeah. In a way, it's kind of like me saying I've decided not to play pro basketball either, you know. I mean, I guess if I could play high and loud, I'd be a real idiot just like - I'd be worse than everybody. I'd take everything up an octave or two. Yeah, but, you know, I've had various issues that have contributed to that.

RATH: I've recently learned - and correct me if I'm pronouncing this name wrong - I recently learned that you have Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease?

MCNEIL: That's right - CMT.

RATH: And what is that, and how does it affect you?

MCNEIL: Well - and regardless of the name Charcot-Marie-Tooth, it's nothing to do with your teeth. It's a neuromuscular disease, and it's pretty common as those things go. What makes it uncommon is that it's completely unpredictable. With me, I had it early, and it was pretty bad, but I hit a plateau when I was about 17 - 16, 17. It stayed put. It didn't get any worse then for a long time. And then in my mid-30s, I started having these bad days, you know, and...

RATH: And would bad days mean that you wouldn't be able to play the trumpet?

MCNEIL: Well, I couldn't hardly play it, yeah. I couldn't get enough air. I couldn't get enough compression out of my face, you know, and diaphragm wouldn't work right. But then I'd be fine. I'd say, Jesus, what the hell happened? Like I took drugs or something - I don't know. I stopped recording sooner or later. It got to the point I couldn't play anymore.

RATH: How did you come back to where you are now where you're playing and doing everything again?

MCNEIL: I had tried to make several comebacks, you know. I learned play to play left-handed. I lost the use of my right hand.

RATH: Wow.

MCNEIL: I learned to play left-handed. I did an album left-handed, then it went away. (Laughter) And it was sort of - you know, I was...

RATH: So you're back on the right hand again?

MCNEIL: Yeah - well, now I am. I became part of a little study to see about the effects of human growth hormone on neuromuscular disease. And damn, it just worked great. Three months - I threw away my cane. I was really circling the drain fast, man, I tell you. I was on my way down. I wasn't ever going to play again. And so the fact that it wasn't getting any worse allowed me to get stronger and get more coordination and undo some of the damage that had been done. I'm happy to say that all the stuff - well, it's not behind me. I still have to deal with certain things every day, but as far as the playing goes, that's - I've won.

(SOUNDBITE OF "BLUES AND REDS" SONG)

RATH: That's trumpeter John McNeil. His new album with the band Hush Point is called "Blues And Reds." It's out now. John, it's been really fun speaking with you. Thank you.

MCNEIL: Oh, man, thank you, Arun.

RATH: Can I get a lesson the next time I'm in New York?

MCNEIL: Absolutely. Give me a buzz.

RATH: Awesome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.