McFerrin grew up with the musical taste of his parents that ranged from classical, top 40 and jazz, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Led Zeppelin, George Gershwin, Verdi, Joe Williams, Marvin Gaye, Sergio Mendes, Brasil ’66, to name a few. This influence led to an eclecticism of work with the likes of Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Yo-Yo Ma, and Robin Williams. Additionally, his current projects include VOCABuLaries, a collection of McFerrin’s songs from over the years; Bobble, an opera representing various cultural operatic styles; Voicestra, an ensemble of singers trained in jazz, classical, and theater; and other collaborations. McFerrin, a husband and father of three adult children, will perform in concert at Minnesota Orchestra on Friday, April 22, 8:00 pm, for the US Banks Pop Season, An Evening with Bobby McFerrin.
McFerrin took time for an interview with Contributing Writer Maya Beecham, to discuss influence, family, and music.
Maya Beecham: Can you give me specific examples of your father’s influence on your life as a musician and a family man?
Bobby McFerrin: I used to sit under the piano and listen to him teach. His dedication to excellence and his love of all kinds of music imprinted me for life.
MB: What advice did your parents give you that you still draw on today?
BM: Family comes first. Trust in God. Do right.
MB: What conversations did you have with your father regarding the dynamic of conducting the St. Louis Symphony in 1993 while your father performed?
BM: We didn’t really discuss the dynamic; we were just amazed to have the experience. We’d sung together before, but though I played at being a conductor as a little boy, neither of us took it seriously. As a lot of people know, I didn’t start conducting until my 40th birthday—just 3 years before that performance. So it was a great surprise. I always loved and admired my father’s singing, so it was a treat.
MB: What influence does your current family life have on what you create musically?
BM: My family is a source of great joy, and of course that gets expressed through music. We’ve always sung together a lot, just going about the day. I miss that now that my sons are living on their own and my daughter’s away at college. A long time ago I wrote the song Simple Pleasures about my family, and my kids sang it for me last year at my birthday party. [Bobby’s children are Taylor McFerrin, 29, a beatboxer/producer; Jevon McFerrin, 25, an actor; and Madison McFerrin, 19, a freshman at Berklee College of Music and an aspiring singer.]
MB: What advice do you give your children regarding music and life in general?
BM: Enjoy every minute.
MB: What have you learned in working with music cross culturally?
BM: I’ve performed all over the world, and have always tried to interact and improvise with local musicians. It seems to me that the impulse to sing and make music is universal, but the place music has in our daily lives can be very different. Seeing music’s place in other cultures has reinforced my belief that music belongs in our everyday lives, not just on the stage or in a packaged format.
MB: When Bill Cosby made a way for you to perform at the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1980, what advice did he give you as a budding celebrity?
BM: We didn’t talk about celebrity. We mostly talked about jazz; he’s incredibly knowledgeable. And we’ve both had the experience of feeling changed by what we’ve heard.
MB: Your voice is like an expression of human diversity in culture, individual spirits, gifts, talents. How did you become so aware and grounded and what keeps you that way?
BM: I think music keeps me grounded. I think that when you go deep within yourself—the way you do when you’re really singing or praying—that leads to something universal. That’s why great singers and dancers and writers and painters from all different places and perspectives seem like they are speaking a common truth, getting at the human condition.
MB: Would you consider yourself a spiritual person/minister of music/healer?
BM: I do consider myself a spiritual person.
MB: What advice do you have for upcoming musicians, and people in general who aspire to live the freedom expressed in your music?
BM: Always be true to yourself. And don’t forget to play. I always say I learned everything I know at MSU: Making Stuff Up. No matter what style of music you play improvising is great for your flexibility and your ears. Be spontaneous; it forces you to connect every note you play to your soul, to your mood, to the environment you are in, to your audience.
For more information on tickets visit www.minnesotaorchestra.org, call 612- 612.371.5656 or 1.800.292.4141.