McClure Plays McDonald’s

Nicole Levy / Contributing Photographer
Nicole Levy / Contributing Photographer Photo by Nicole Levy.

In the Financial District of Manhattan, the McDonald’s at 160 Broadway serves the usual hamburger fare. As cashiers at the first-floor register process orders within moments, Ron McClure contemplates his view from the crow’s nest window at his leisure, before sounding the piano keys of his next song.

McClure’s jazz is anything but processed. And over the span of his 64 years playing music, it hasn’t been prepared quickly.

But tourists, businessmen, and saleswomen from the Century 21 across the street barely register the strains of the Howard grand that McClure coaxes with deft, age-spotted fingers. They enter beneath a cascade of music, oblivious to the novelty of this garishly-decked hamburger joint the musician has made his neon-lit lagoon.

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Ron McClure, now 69, has served the very captains of jazz and piloted much of his own work. From 1966 to 1969, his stint as bassist with the Charles Lloyd Quartet, a progressive acoustic jazz ensemble, garnered attention from Downbeat critics and young audiences alike. In 1965, he was appointed to replace Paul Chambers — bebop’s preeminent bass player — in the Wynton Kelly trio. “It was a very brave thing for him to do, to hire me at that time,” McClure says of the risk Kelly took in abolishing the band’s black lineage. In McClure’s words, racial purists asked: “What’s that white boy doing there with him?”

That white boy from North Haven, CT, raised as a “Tom Sawyer” of the suburbs, modestly attributes his spot on the bandstand to the whims of fortune. His sideburns long since silvered, McClure had come with the Maynard Ferguson big band to play Atlantic City, and, in down time, witness headliner Wes Montgomery perform with Wynton Kelly. Paul Chambers never showed up the night that Jimmy Cobb banged out a few rim shots on the drums and singled out McClure with one stick. “Talk about being at the right place at the right time,” he muses. To McClure, Cobb and Kelly were as nice as “Santa on steroids.” His analogies are frequently as unmanicured as his bushy eyebrows.

McClure considers himself the antithesis of a “hustler” striving to get ahead, and he self-diagnoses his strengths as that of a complementary player. “I don’t see [music] as a contest, but I have good musical sense, and I like playing with other people. It’s a conversation, not a contest,” he says, envisioning his career as largely a game of waiting for the other shoe to drop. For a month, he may wait, as the phone hums with only a noxious dial tone, and he tightens like a tuned string, and he comes to the conclusion he will never, for the remainder of his life, find further employment.

“And suddenly the phone rings, and you’re doing something beyond your wildest imagination,” whether that’s playing sideman for Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Joe Henderson, or Sarah Vaughan, summiting the Top 40 with jazz-rock fusion band Blood, Sweat, and Tears, opening for comedian Lenny Bruce at the Village Vanguard, or working several gigs with the Miles Davis Quintet, sans Miles.

“The best things just kind of happen,” McClure believes. “We’re human beings, not human doings.”

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A decade ago, the absolute worst came to pass: the Twin Towers were hit only two blocks away from the McDonald’s where McClure now stamps his timecard. The windows of the franchise were blown out, the floor coated in three inches of soot, and its 20 years of piano entertainment suspended. The restaurant would have been used as a center for triage, had there been survivors to save.

Music resumed when Michiyo Tanaka, McClure’s girlfriend, who had been visiting the World Trade Center ruins with her church group to pray for the dead on the first anniversary of the terrorist attack, stopped by to relieve herself in the restaurant’s bathroom. Lofted above the door, attended to on most days by ailing entertainer Joe Panama, the lonesome piano waited. Tanaka asked the management if they would pay her to keep it company. Paul Goodman, the owner, was only too happy to oblige, hiring her to play Saturdays, and, when Panama died, the rest of the week.

Soon McClure, closet pianist since mandatory study of the instrument in college and McDonald’s employee at age 16, when he blended milkshakes at a franchise in Hamden, began to sub for Tanaka two times a week. “It’s the day job I never had,” he jests, despite the fact he has taught ensembles and private students at New York University as an adjunct for the last 22 years.

McClure has never planned a program for his McDonald’s set in advance because his contract stipulates none, and he has no particular audience in mind. “It would be like playing at Grand Central station at rush hour — who would you play to? There’s any possible combination of people at any moment,” McClure explains.

Among the variables, there are the grateful listeners: the Brazilian tourists who left McClure a note saying he had made their lunch much more than fast food; shift manager Carlos Luzuriaga, who thinks the live music is “awesome” and reports that enthusiastic customers have asked the McDonald’s staff for McClure’s name; Mary Langcake, an Australian trauma surgeon who frequents jazz clubs in Sydney and hardly expected to find free jazz in New York; and Lou Peterson, a freelance programmer who lives down the street and works on his laptop at the restaurant, because the live music is better than that broadcasted on Jazz FM radio. “It’s so loud and busy, [the music] fades into the background,” Peterson comments from his table in the far corner of the second floor. However, he believes diners generally appreciate it, “even subconsciously.”

However, to the peanut gallery there belongs the woman who left McClure a scathing missive on a paper bag that wrote off his playing as dissonant, self-indulgent, and avant garde. There belongs that horde of kids who bombarded him with packets of ketchup, in their insistence that he play Beethoven, to which McClure responded by sounding the opening motif of the Fifth Symphony and telling them to go to their rooms. And there belongs the supervisor who continues to request covers of Pearl Jam and Lady Gaga songs. He’s but one of many to overlook the spontaneous improvisation so central to McClure’s music. “They think you practiced it note for note,” he grumbles.

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When McClure began playing jazz, in the genre’s heyday, musicians worked six nights a week and sharpened their chops on the job. In his early teens, he played his first steady gig with the King’s Men, a quartet that performed jazz standards, rock, and sock hop music at bar mitzvahs and Yale fraternity parties, and to which two Yalies, pianist Jerry Swarski and saxophonist Dick Greenberg, belonged. “They were light years ahead of me,” he says of those students. “Playing with them “turned me onto the world.”

At 16, he accompanied legendary jazz pianists Marian McPartland and Toshiko Akiyoshi while they toured through town. He had soon jammed at all the New Haven hot spots — the Golden Gate, Monterey, and McTriff’s. Too young to earn his driver’s license, McClure had his mother drop him off and pick him up from work.

At home, no one understood McClure’s passion. His parents, neither of whom had gone to high school, “just wanted you to be safe. My brothers didn’t go to college, they just got married, had kids, got jobs.” He accuses his family of always having “wallow[ed] in mediocrity…. They didn’t even have a record player,” a travesty McClure rectified with his own purchase.

It was John Coltrane’s sophomore album, the 1957 “Blue Train,” that motored McClure into his future. After studying theory and bass technique with Joseph Iodone, protégé of the composer Paul Hindemith at the Yale University School of Music, McClure attended the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. After dropping out of the music education major, he studied bass performance, in what his professors thought was a risky move. “I wasn’t going to fall back,” McClure justifies his decision to push ahead as a professional jazz musician. If he was bound for failure, he would arrive with pizazz. “I was going to fall forward, on my face.”

McClure nearly had the bruises to attest to his resolve when, in 1961, the dean caught him and saxophonist Houston Person playing what the administrator derided as “body music” in the school’s basement; he threw them out on the street, “like trash,” McClure recalls. Ultimately, instead of expelling the young musician for “slapping” the bass, Hartt created a jazz appreciation class, and today the school offers a jazz studies major, the foundation of which saxophonist Jackie McLean laid in 1970.

But the world of jazz had had an unsavory reputation in the eyes of some for a reason: drugs were par for the course, and McClure himself would experiment with pot, hash, psilocybin, and cocaine, but never heroin, because “that would make me a drug addict,” he quips. Of his escalating habits, McClure says, “I hated it, but I did it anyway. People said, ‘You’ll play better; chicks will love you.’ Misery loves company. Nobody wants to get high and have you looking at them.” Eventually, “the writing on the wall became skywriting,” as his heroes died of overdoses, cancer, and heart attacks. McClure sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous and sponsored friends’ transformations in the wake of his own.

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Lately, he avoids clubs where he’s offered drinks, and where he’s “not all that interested in what’s going on with music these days.… It’s hard to say what the music of this period is. It’s really eclectic, it’s more about business, trying to sell units.”

The music between McClure’s ears remains his only lingering addiction and can be sampled on the 27 albums he has recorded over the course of his diverse career as a bandleader. He continues to compose prolifically in his apartment on the Upper West Side, where he’s lived since 1977. Although this is the first summer in 35 years McClure has not had a club or festival date booked beyond Manhattan’s boundaries, he looks forward to the Europe tour his band Quest will take next year. He describes the cutting-edge sound of saxophonist Dave Liebman, pianist Richie Beirach, drummer Billy Hart, and himself as “dark and lugubrious.” He kids, “We have a warning label on our records: don’t listen to this alone in the dark; you might hurt yourself.”

Meanwhile, he has just finished a week of playing rhythm section with Beirach’s quartet at Birdland, a jazz club in Midtown, and he continues to play the piano on Thursday and Saturday afternoons at McDonald’s. “Success is creating a job for what you do,” McClure says, adopting bassist Red Mitchell’s mantra as his own. In anticipation of his 70th birthday this November, he has neither the energy nor inclination to network and promote himself, as he recommends his students should, but he continues to evolve as a musician, clocking 12-dollar hours at the McDonald’s piano from 11:30 to 4.

“I just go on a trip, and I play whatever comes to mind,” he says from the bench of the Howard, on which his sweating cup of McCafé iced coffee rests. Unbeholden to the formal dress code for cashiers — a black cap, red vest, and white button-up top — McClure dresses for anonymity in an Under Armour t-shirt, and, if he feels mature that day, a snap-button tee.

He ends the afternoon’s set of jazz standards, his own tunes, and other contemporary compositions with an interpretation of “Taking a Chance on Love.” “I play for more people in one day than you would in a month at the Vanguard … not that people are listening,” he ruminates. McClure can ramble on for hours, talking or playing, without looking anyone in the eye for more than a moment. Playing music channels the steady current of his choppy thoughts into a basin that’s “never been enough, but it’s been enough. I mean I’ve survived.” Over the course of a year, McClure’s gig at the McDonald’s pays $6,000, enough to cover his rent.

His last notes rebound off the two-story mirrors on the striped walls and fade into the soundscape of “May I take your order?” and “Are you going to eat that last fry?” and, maybe, if the diners have been listening and waiting to tell him, “I’m lovin’ it.”

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