October 1, 2015
Laroy Wallace McMillan
By Ken Waxman
On the back cover of Henry’s Threadgill’s influential X-75 Vol. 1 LP from 1979, the lanky flutist is surrounded by an all-star assemblage including vocalist/pianist Amina Claudine Myers, flautists Douglas Ewart and Joseph Jarman and bassists Rufus Reid, Brian Smith, Leonard Jones and Fred Hopkins. Squatting in the foreground, almost dwarfed by Hopkins’ bass, is flautist Laroy Wallace McMillan, probably the least known early AACM member. The photo is an apt metaphor for McMillan’s low-profile. New Yorkers however will get to him play in his first Gotham gig in almost two decades this month, as part of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams ensemble also featuring Myers and Jones.
Although McMillan, 74, is on landmark releases by Abrams, Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell and Steve Colson & the Unity Troupe, his near-obscurity results from a variety of factors. He has never recorded commercially as a leader; has remained based in Chicago; and for many years has had a flourishing parallel career in Salsa bands. “We’re the tailgate of the Experimental Band,” he jokes, when asked about the few members of Abrams’ pioneering AACM large group who haven’t left the Windy City. “When the other guys went to New York I had plenty of jobs here to keep me busy,” he recalls. “I probably had more work in Salsa bands then they had to New York.”
McMillan, who reports that people on Chicago’s north side know him as a Salsa player whereas on the south side he’s known for his “avant-garde” work, has followed this dichotomy since growing up in St. Louis. As a matter of fact he made his professional debut on conga drum. His family is part American Indian, which accounts for the unusual spelling of his first name. McMillan’s introduction to music was sitting between his grandfather’s knees as the older man played piano. However membership in the high school drum and bugle corps got him interested in percussion, which led to purchasing a conga drum. That was the late-‘50s though, and captivated by the sounds of Afro-Cuban jazz via, “Cal Tjader, Herbie Mann, Buddy Collette, Jerome Richardson”, he recalls, he was soon back at the music store buying a flute. The store owner recommended an experienced teacher and McMillan was schooled in classical flute technique and repertoire, He was also doing his first gigs, “playing shuffle rhythms” on congas with an organ player. A stint in the navy 1960-1967 gave him time to play and study music, “it made me more efficient on flute, piccolo and alto saxophone,” he explains. Today he plays most saxophones and flutes. On sax though, McMillan points out, the influence of soulful St. Louis stylists like Jimmy Forest and Tab Smith still informs his playing.
Playing wasn’t his paramount concern after his navy stint, but moving from a St. Louis he found too small was. Settling in Chicago, by chance he came across Abrams’ Experimental Band playing in a local park. At school in St. Louis he had “Bowies all around me,” McMillan jokes, and with Abrams’ band he reconnected with trumpeter Lester Bowie and his brother, saxophonist Byron Bowie. Byron was leaving the band and in short order McMillan replaced him as the group’s baritone saxophonist and joined the AACM. Although he hadn’t heard of the organization or the advanced compositions Abrams and others were writing, he fit right in. “Because of my training as a good reader I wasn’t thrown by the music,” he recalls. Abrams obviously felt the same way. McMillan has been part of various Abrams ensembles on-and-off for four decades. Things to Come from Those Now Gone in 1972 was his first record with the pianist and besides appearances on subsequent Abrams sessions including Mama and Daddy and Blues Forever he contributed to other AACM classics like Roscoe Mitchell’s Nonaah. Notwithstanding his reed proficiency, his first instrument hasn’t been ignored either. “One time when we played the Berlin Jazz Festival I told Muhal ‘make sure they have congas on stage’,” he recalls. The festival complied and McMillan’s opening unaccompanied conga solo brought down the house.
Besides better-known AACM groups, nearly every member had his own band then, and McMillan recalls one of his with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and Threadgill. “Henry is like my right hand,” he notes “and this experience helped both of our flute playing.” Over the years McMillan has also worked with pianist Adegoke Steve and vocal Iqua Colson’s Unity Troupe, with which he last played in NYC, plus multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart’s band Inventions. Besides his North-side activities in Afro-Cuban bands, especially with the local La Conquistadora, the reedist spent time teaching music in elementary schools. At one point, in a parallel move to the famous AACM school that taught improvisational basics to children, McMillan was teaching Latin rhythms to school-age children.
Sometimes these other activities separated him a bit too much from the AACM though, McMillan admits. Visiting from New York this year, Abrams had to get the saxophonist’s telephone number from Ewart to gauge his availability and later send McMillan the flute and baritone parts for gigs they would be playing at September’s Chicago Jazz Festival and in New York, He’s still practicing the baritone sax parts, McMillan confirms, although he’s now in the process of moving from his apartment to a senior citizen’s residence. “They’re going to let me practice in the basement and in the park,” he reports.
The lack of leadership sessions by McMillan may soon be overcome in the form of a reel-to-reel tape a fan sent him of a 1981 set at Austria’s Nickelsdorf Konfrontation. Performing his own compositions, the suite is played by quartet rounded out drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Jones and guitarist John Thomas. The tape has already been professionally mastered, and when he can raise enough money to do so will be released on McMillan’s own IANOE label, named for another Native Indian expression.
No release date is set however. So those who want to be exposed to the talents of an unjustly neglected first-generation AACM stalwart will have to see him in person.
Muhal Richard Abrams – Things to Come from Those Now Gone (Delmark 1972)
Roscoe Mitchell – Nonaah (Nessa 1977)
Steve Colson & the Unity Troupe –Triumph! (Silver Sphinx 1979)
Henry Threadgill – X-75 Volume 1 (Arista/Novus 1979)
Muhal Richard Abrams – Mama and Daddy (Black Saint 1980)
Muhal Richard Abrams – Blues Forever (Black Saint 1982)
—For The New York City Jazz Record October 2015