John McLaughlin Explains Why He Gave Up on Session Work in the ’60s, Remembers Meeting Miles Davis for the First Time

Now aged 80, John McLaughlin is as active and as prolific as any other of his younger musician colleagues. If we were to go in-depth into his works, there wouldn’t be enough words to praise his musicianship and the impact he made on not only jazz music, but other genres as well.

In a recent interview with The Irish Times, McLaughlin got the chance to look back on his career, going all the way to his beginnings. And, of course, as it goes with any career, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. In particular, the jazz guitar legend recalled the 1960s and countless studio hours that he did as a session player. But at one point, he got sick of being just a gun for hire. As he said:

The thing is, most of it was rubbish. And I saw what it was doing to musicians. They had this look in their eyes that really disturbed me, and if I was going to continue that way, I was going to die.

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As McLaughlin further explained, he abruptly pulled a plug on the whole thing right before he was going to go into another session. He parked in front of a studio in London and his next action was something that he feels guilty about even over 5 decades later:

“I did a very bad thing. I just hit the gas and left everybody in the shit. It’s bad. So I became more poor again.

Eventually, it all turned out for the best. After a while, he was back in the studio, recording his debut solo album “Extrapolation.”

Further down the interview, McLaughlin remembered how he ended up meeting the almighty Miles Davis. This happened back in 1969 in New York and John met Miles through drummer Tony Williams who played with the jazz trumpet master. John recalls:

“They were playing at this club in Harlem called Club Baron, and I was standing at the bar the first night. The door opens and Miles walks in, and he had on this big black cape, and he was so handsome and just – what an aura he had. And he saw me and, as he walked past me, he brushed me with his cape, and he said ‘Johhhhhn,’ and he walked on. That blew my mind because he knew my name.”

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During the chat, McLaughlin also remembered his early studio sessions with Miles and some of the most nerve-wracking sessions. Not long after meeting Miles, they were in a studio, working on the 1969 album “In a Silent Way.” Remembering the title track, he said:

“We ran the tune a couple of times and Miles was not happy. So he stopped everything, and he looks at me and he says to me, ‘You play it’, and I said, ‘You want the melody, the chords, what?’ and he looks at me and he says ‘Everything!’

“So I am sweating big time, and I don’t really know what to do, so after maybe 30 seconds, which felt like an hour to me, he comes out with ‘Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar.’

He adds:

“That was the thing about Miles, because when he had his musicians get like that, they would play from a place they don’t know, instead of playing what they know or what they think Miles wants, or what they want to show Miles.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Dr Jean Fortunet (Miles Davis Strasbourg face 2)