Monday, 2 June 2008

Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath

This article was originally published in the South African jazz journal TwoTone in October 1992. The editor introduced the piece with this superscript header: "In the first of a two-part series, Tony McGregor uses the re-release of a little-known classic as an opportunity to review the recording career of the Blue Notes and Brotherhood of Breath and argue that tragically, they remain in South Africa Prophets Without Honour."

For nearly thirty years, only a few diehard fans knew the album existed.

Now Gallo/Teal has re-released Jazz: The African Sound, a gem of an album by Chris McGregor and the Castle Lager Big Band. It was recorded in 1963, a year before Chris and five fellow-musicians left South Africa, never to record or play together here again.

The re-release is a poignant reminder of how much we South Africans have paid, in cultural terms at least, for apartheid.

Even most serious South African jazz fundis (fundi - a South African word meaning one who knows, an expert) are unaware that a group of six South African musicians turned the European music scene upside down from the mid-Sixties on.

Never mind the British Musicians' Union and Equity bans - apartheid drove these musicians out of South Africa and kept their immeasurable contribution to South African music a secret from most Sou8th Africans.

Perhaps the opening up of South Africa and the slow and painful demise of apartheid will at least bring appreciation for the legacy of those musicians who, long before Paul Simon and the rest, saw the huge potential of our indigenous musical heritage. Dud Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Nikele Moyake, Johnny Mbizo Dyani, Louis Tebogo Moholo and Chris McGregor, calling themselves "The Blue Notes", left South Africa in 1964 after a nation-wide tour, to play at the Antibes-Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival on France's famed Cote d'Azur, where they attracted very favourable critical notice. They went on to busk around Europe for a year before settling in Britain where they promptly began blowing up quite a storm.

In the words of British jazz critic and author Valerie Wilmer, they "literally upturned the London jazz scene, helping create an exciting climate in which other young players could develop their own ideas about musical freedom."

Wilmer described the change brought about by The Blue Notes like this: "There were times when rooms more accustomed to the anodyne four-in-a-bar jocularity of an Acker Bilk took on the gritty character of a Soweto shebeen..."

Some of this character and energy can be heard on the relatively few recordings made by the band - what a shock numbers like Don't Stir the Beehive, We Nduna and others must have been to most British jazz fans.

From the energetic core of The Blue Notes McGregor developed his next big band, called the Brotherhood of Breath, reflecting in the name something of Chris's deeply-felt belief about music transcending and breaking down what he termed "outdated concepts of national identity and the nation state."

The band went through a number of incarnations from its formation until Chris' death at 53 in May 1990. Over the years it became what Dutch jazz writer Frits Lagerwerff called "the best free jazz big band in the world."

It was formed early in 1967 and had its first public outing at the famed Ronnie Scott's "Old Place" in March of that year. Clive Crickmer of Melody Maker was moved to write of its debut: "This must be it. The most urgent, and explosive, and powerfully swinging new big band to have appeared in years."

In the Daily Telegraph (yes, indeed!) Peter Clayton wrote about the "kwela a sort of ceremonial abandon which seems to inform some of Dudu Pakewana's (sic) more inspired flights."

In an interview at the time (with Chris Bird of Melody Maker) Chris said: "I'm not interested in that highly organised, compositional aspect of big band music, I go for moods, for feelings and textures and most of my things are very sketchy. That way the guys themselves can contribute more to what's going on."

In another interview at that time he said: "There are so many ways of making music and they all interest me."

Tragically, to my knowledge at least, no recordings of this band exist. At the time journalist Miles Kington wrote that soem of Chris' South African recordings (Jazz: The African Sound, in fact) were available to Decca, "but there seems little hope of their becoming more than merely available."

Kington prophetically continued: "This is a great shame because by the time these bands (he was writing about the Brotherhood as well as Graham Collier's septet and the Mike Westbrook Band) are well-known enough to force companies to record them, whole stages of their development will have vanished forever."

The band did not last long and there was a three-year gap before it was reborn, but what a rebirth it was.

"If anyone tells you that happiness has gone out of jazz, tell them about the Brotherhood of Breath," wrote Valerie Wilmer in Melody Maker. "If anyone says that the New Music is committed to overtones of anger and hatred, tell them about Chris McGregor's Big Band. If anyone asks you where have all the firemen gone, tell them about Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath.

"And say it loud, for if you don't, the band will stow away their charts and fold up their music stands for another three years," she continued. "They keep on trying to tell us that jazz is dead and rock's the thing, but not so, folks. With men like McGregor's around, jazz will never die."

The band, in its second incarnation, got its recording break in 1971 when RCA chose it to launch their new Neon label and over the following years in its various versions, made some outstanding recordings. Limited availability in South Africa has meant that these are all too little-known.

A total of seven Brotherhood albums were released: two on the RCA label, two on Ogun, and one on Virgin. The other two were released on French labels only.

This period also saw many concert, festival and club appearances and many ups and downs for Chris and the other Blue Notes pioneers.

The Brotherhood fluctuated in size from around ten to around 17, and Chris went out of his way to find musicians from many different backgrounds to bring their own particular gifts and insights to the music.

But it was always the South African core of musicians who contributed theior energy and the creative edge to the band. The music, however "far out" it became, however "free", was always grounded in African harmonies and rhythms.

The South Africans in the early Brotherhood included Mongezi Feza (trumpet), Dudu Pukwana and Ronnie Beer (saxes), Harry Miller (bss) and Louis Moholo (drums). By the early Eighties the new generation of South African members were Brian Abrahams and Gilbert Matthews (drums), Ernest Shololo Mothle (bass) and Peter Segona (trumpet).

By the late Eighties the band included, besides the now "older" generation represented by Mothle and Matthews, "younger" musicians like Claude Deppa (trumpet), Frank Williams and Robert Juritz (saxes).

Singers like Peggy Phango, Phinise Saule, Sonti Mndebele and Aura Lewis sang with the Brotherhood from time to time. Cosmo Pieterse recited his poems to their backing.

The longest serving member of the Brotherhood is trumpeter Harry Beckett, the only person besides Chris to have been in all the band's various incarnations.

Two women have played with the band - Annie Whitehead on trombone and Caroline Collins on cello. And if the cello is an unusual instrument in a big band, Brotherhood has also featured a bassoon (Robert Juritz) and has had from time to time two basses and two drummers together in its line-up (coincidentally one each French and South African - namely Didier Levallet and Ernest Mothle on basses and Jean-Claude Montredon and Brian Abrahams on drums).

Beside compositions by Chris and other Blue Notes' members the band has played songs by Makaya Davashe (Lakutshon' iLanga), Mike Osborne (Think of Something), trombone player Radu Malfatti (the exciting Yes Please), Ernest Mothle (Thunder in the Mountain) and George Lee (Big G). And the surviving original members of the Blue Notes were meanwhile all actively pursuing their own individual musical careers.

Mbizo Dyani, Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo were playing with some international jazz greats like Steve Lacy, Don Cherry and John Tchicai as well as then also expatriot fellow-South Africans Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela and others.

Some of these recordings have been seen on local record shop shelves, but they have certainly not been given the exposure they deserved. Ironically, musicians who were sought out by European and US musicians, had less success in their own country than these very same international performers.
It is still easier to get albums by Max Roach than Louis Moholo, David Murray than Dudu Pukwana and John Patitucci than Mbizo Dyani, despite the international acclaim for these South Africans' talent.


Greenlight said...

Dear Tony,

My introduction to the circle of jazz musicians you've know all your life came through "Tunji's Song," the uplifting jam from the Live at Willisau date, which appeared on the Rough Guide to South African Jazz, several years before the Penguin Guide fully documented your brother's career. I'm neither from SA nor from the UK, so it's through "book learning" that one gets these introductions.

Thank you for all the added insight into these albums!

You mention the Gallo CD remaster of '63's, "Jazz: The African Sound." If you have any sway with Gallo, please implore them to do another pressing of this CD. It went completely out of print far too quickly, once again. I have searched high and low, low and high, for any copy that might be available, to no avail.

Any theories or hints on where to track down one these days?

You might also find this ongoing thread about Chris interesting on the Allaboutjazz forum, if you haven't checked it out already.

Best wishes to you,
Vermont, USA

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