Thursday 29 July 2010

Obituary: Harry Beckett; a doyen of Jazz trumpet and flugelhorn.

Obituary: Harry Beckett; a doyen of Jazz trumpet and flugelhorn.
This is a great tribute to Harry Beckett, the only musician besides Chris to have been in all the formations of the Brotherhood of Breath. He was a great man and a superlative musician whose musicality and dedication will be greatly missed.

Friday 4 June 2010

The day the piano went silent

The silent piano. Chris's beloved Bosendorfer at the Moulin in May 1990

Musician and visionary

(This was written on 26 May 2010)
Exactly 20 years ago today my brother, jazz pianist, composer, band leader, arranger, and visionary, left us after a painful struggle with cancer. He was older than me by almost exactly seven years. His name was Chris McGregor and he and his musicians between them put out some of the most amazing jazz, in trio, small group, and big band formats.
Chris was much more than a musician, though. He really was a visionary. Even the name of his big band, the Brotherhood of Breath, spoke about his vision. He was passionately committed to freedom, not only in the music, but in his home country of South Africa, which he left with his small group, the Blue Notes, in 1964, when apartheid was tightening its grip on the bodies and minds of the people.

Facing his death

I have written about him elsewhere so would just like to add here a paragraph from an article on him by renowned British jazz journalist Graham Lock, from his book Chasing the Vibration (1994). Lock interviewed Chris in September 1984.
“Chris McGregor looks more hippy sage than African. A tall, stocky, cheerful man with humorous eyes and a ready smile, his most distinctive features are a long grey beard and even longer grey hair worn in a ponytail that hangs all the way down to his ample waist. But African he is.”
Chris's widow, Maxine, wrote a book of her life with Chris. This was published in the US by Bamberger Books of Flint, Michigan, in 1995, and was called Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath, and subtitled “My Life with a South African Jazz Pioneer.”
Maxine wrote of Chris's philosophy of life:
“Because he was able to really accept life in its entirety, to accept all that came his way, to let go and not set such store on results (a philosophy of 'Whatever happens is the story'), Chris was able to take his life – and death – with a lightness, an expansiveness and a sense of humour that led to peace.”
And she wrote of her own experience of Chris's death:
“Certainly facing his death with him – because he seemed so much like a prolongation of myself – was identical to facing my own death, something that I had always avoided doing even with the deaths of my parents. It was an indescribable experience that has made me fear death no longer – Chris was making jokes ten minutes before he died – and gave me the courage not to hold myself back from life. For if you no longer fear death what is there to fear?”

The day he died

The day Chris died my then wife Joan and I were about to fly to France to be with him and his family. We realised that the situation was serious. We had been in daily telephonic contact with Maxine and she and Chris knew of our plans to come to them.
The 26th  May 1990 was also our father's birthday and so that morning we were getting ready to celebrate with him before flying out that evening when the call came from Maxine to say that Chris had just left us. To say we were shattered would be a vast understatement. I had spoken to Chris just a few evenings before and he had said, in his usual funny way, “I've been to the angels and they told me they weren't ready for me yet.”
In the interview with Lock Chris spoke of his inspiration, what kept him going: “I guess you have to approach it with your instincts, just grab hold of whatever's coming and follow it through.
“Really, that's all. That is a musician's work. It's a great life, too. I wouldn't edit my story at all. When I think back there's nothing I regret, nothing that seems to me to have been wrong or off-key.
“You have to be 50 years old to realise, though. That's maybe something there is to regret, that we get too soon old and too late smart.”
Hazel Miller, Chris and Maxine at the Moulin
We went to France, to the Moulin de Madone, where Chris and Maxine had lived since 1973 in the South West, where we all tried to support each other in our grief and loss. Wherever we looked there were reminders of that great spirit who had lived there, and who had made such great music, and brought so much joy to others with that music.
And I was grateful to have known him, to have called him, in blood and in spirit, my brother.
This little poem is by way of my tribute to him, my remembrance of his African-ness, so it is writtne somewhat in the style of a traditional Xhosa praise poem and using, in typical call and response style, two little phrases from two Xhosa songs, Thula Sana (Sleep my Child) and Thula Sizwe (Be still, My People).

The day the piano went silent

The day the piano went silent
thula sana
the day the piano stopped singing
thula sana
the day your fingers stopped dancing
thula sana
that day our hearts went quiet
thula sizwe

Now the piano song is stilled
thula sana
And our hearts are stilled with pain
thula sana
We long to hear that song again
thula sana
The way our ears were filled
thula sizwe

The way our ears were filled
thula sana
With the song of the beating heart
thula sana
But now that heart is stilled
thula sana
The heart that gave us love
thula sizwe

O brother of mine, I miss you so
thula sana
My sister is weeping also
thula sana
Your songs are still in our hearts
thula sana
And their rhythms still mark our paths
thula sizwe

The hills and valleys of our youth
thula sana
Are waiting for the song's rebirth
thula sana
And the wind blowing over the hills
thula sana
Still cries out your name to the earth
thula sizwe.

You left us before we were ready
thula sana
Before we knew how to sing
thula sana
But now in our sadness we sing
thula sana
And the people will join our song
thula sizwe

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010

Saturday 10 April 2010

The Blues – the Bedrock of Jazz

The Blues – the Bedrock of Jazz

The blues as the bedrock and foundation of jazz. The second article in my series on the history of jazz
“The story of the blues is the story of humble, obscure, unassuming men and women.” - from The Blues Guitar by Alan Warner (nd)

Tuesday 2 March 2010

How did jazz begin? Part one of a history of jazz

South African bassist Ernest Mothle with Rene McClean
How did jazz begin? Part one of a history of jazz
Jazz was born out of the pain of slavery and the clash between the cultures of West Africa and the Protestant ethos of the Southern states of the United States. This is a first article in a series looking at the history of jazz through an examination of its many genres.

Monday 4 January 2010

Chris McGregor – the posthumous albums

When South African exile musician Chris McGregor died in May 1990, there was already a respectable, though not entirely representative, discography of his work, both in Europe and in South Africa. But like any jazz musician, he played gigs all over the UK and Europe, some of which were recorded, but never released.
Since his death a number of albums of previously un-released material have come out and they fill in the gaps most admirably. The albums are both of live gigs and studio recordings and they make interesting listening.
The last album that Chris recorded with the Brotherhood of Breath in a studio was the great Virgin release Country Cooking (1988) (released again in 2001 on French label Great Winds/Musea). It is a great album, possibly the greatest Brotherhood album.
In 1989 Chris was on tour with the Brotherhood with guest artist Archie Shepp. They played a concert at the Banlieues Bleues in Paris which was released as En Concert a Banlieues Bleues in 1989 on the French label 52 Rue Est. This album features some great solos by the guest and the usual band members, but unfortunately it also features a rather out of tune piano. Chris had wanted to stop the release of the album, feeling it was not up to standard, but for contractual reasons the release had to go on. The music is nevertheless great – a wonderful song called “Sangena” sung by Sonti Mndebele, with the band roaring enthusiastically behind her, is just a delight.
The band was on tour again in early 1990. Chris fell ill on the tour and died before it had been completed. The following are the releases of previously unreleased recordings issued after Chris's death

SA Exiles' Thunderbolt

In 1986 Chris put together a band which he called the “South African Exiles' Thunderbolt.” This band was in a sense a musical response to the situation back in South Africa where then President P.W. Botha had decreed a “State of Emergency”, basically martial law, in an attempt to contain the rising resistance to apartheid. Personal freedoms and other freedoms like that of the press were being systematically, sometimes quite brutally, suppressed. People lived in constant fear and anger, and violence was increasing dramatically. At the forefront of the resistance, though not of the violence, was an organisation called the United Democratic Front (UDF).
The Thunderbolt went on tour through Europe playing many festivals and other gigs. This album was recorded at Mainz, Germany, on 17 May 1986.
Chris wrote the following “personal statement” to explain how he saw the Thunderbolt project: “Humanity is essentially a unity. The realisation of this unity on earth is our greatest task today. This is not idealistic – it is the only chance the human race has to survive on this earth. We come from a society in which separateness – apartheid – is institutionalised. The destructive power of this separation becomes daily more obvious. We wish our Thunderbolt to be a celebration of the end of separateness and its concomitant fascist oppression – for we know that the present murderous attacks on innocent and powerless people represent the dying throes of a monster. Our music, song and dance are also an affirmation of human values – we give them to show appreciation to those who realise that our struggle is theirs also. The world wide interest in events in South Africa and near universal condemnation of apartheid is a potent indication of the dawning unity of humankind.” (from the liner notes of the CD).
The musicians on the gig were, with one exception, South Africans long in exile: Dudu Pukwana, the ebullient alto player; Johnny Mbizo Dyani and Ernest Mothle, great bassists, great musicians, great people; Gilbert Matthews, master drummer; Pinise Saul, wonderful singer; and great guitarist Lucky Ranku, although he is not, for some reason, credited.
One of the outstanding tracks is “Magwazakazo” which features Ranku in a performance of rare beauty. Another track of note is “UDF” composed by Dyani in tribute to the organisation “back home.”
The album was released in 1997 by Popular African Music, a label of G√ľnter Gretz.

The Cuneiform Albums

Cuneiform Records of Silver Spring, Maryland, USA, released three live albums of Brotherhood of Breath gigs.
The first of these was called Travelling Somewhere and was recorded in January 1973 in Berlin. It was exceptionally well recorded and shows the Brotherhood in fine fettle. The line up consists of Harry Beckett, Mark Charig and Mongezi Feza (trumpets), Nick Evans and Malcolm Griffiths (trombones), Mike Osborne, Evan Parker, Dudu Pukwana and Gary Windo (saxes), Chris McGregor (piano), Harry Miller (double bass) and Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums).
The second, released in 2004, is a double album called Bremen to Bridgwater and actually covers three gigs: the first gig was a Radio Bremen concert at Lila Eule in June 1971; the second gig was at the Bridgwater Art Centre, Bridgwater, England in February 1975; the third, also at the Bridgewater, in November 1975.
The third album, called Eclipse at Dawn, was released in 2008 and was recorded in November 1971 at the Berliner Philharmonie Jazztage.
These three albums show the Brotherhood in great form. The Bremen to Bridgwater album has several tracks of extended playing featuring the trademark Brotherhood mix of great playing to written charts with some ecstatic moments of free playing – order dissolving into chaos and coming back to order again, which was Chris's great genius, being able to write charts of exceptional beauty while feeling comfortable to let the players also express their own ideas and feelings.
There are on this album also two tracks simply called “untitled original”, one by that wonderful British alto player Mike Osborne and one by Chris.
The Bridgewater album also has a great mix of great names in British and European jazz in the lineup: Harry Beckett on trumpet; Elton Dean and Mike Osborne on alto; Nick Evans and Malcolm Griffiths on trombone; Evan Parker and Alan Skidmore and Gary Windo on tenors; and of course the great South Africans Dudu Pukwana on alto; Mongezi Feza on trumpet; Harry Miller on bass and Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums. A powerful line up indeed, with Chris urging the whole outfit on from the piano.
The Eclipse at Dawn album has more modest line up that still burns with bright energy: the ever-steady Harry Beckett and Marc Charig on trumpet; Nick Evans and Malcolm Griffiths on trombone; Harry Miller on bass; Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums; Dudu Pukwana on alto and Alan Skidmore and Gary Windo on tenor.
All three albums are superb productions with great liner notes and photos. More about them can be found here:

The Fleg'ling Albums

In 2008 English record company Fledg'ling released two albums which had been recorded in 1969 by producer Joe Boyd and not released at the time. As Boyd writes in the liner notes to the first of these albums, Up To Earth, “It's hard to remember why this record never got released. I suppose it was because my relationship with Polydor had soured and my new ally, Island Records, was not exactly a jazz label.”
“I do remember,” he goes on, “however, how exciting were the sessions.”
These two albums, Up To Earth, which features a septet of the best of jazz musicians playing in Britain at the time, and Our Prayer, showcase Chris's music starting to evolve from its roots into a new space and energy.
The musicians on Up To Earth were some British musicians Chris enjoyed playing with, and the US/French bassist Barre Philips. The others in the septet were John Surman on bass clarinet or baritone sax; Evan Parker on tenor; and the South Africans Dudu Pukwana on alto, Mongezi Feza on trumpet and Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums. Danny Thompson replaced Barre Philips on one track.
Our Prayer was a trio date with Barre Philips on bass and Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums. It ranges from jaunty African rhythms to some rather free playing with Chris's percussive playing keeping it all together.
As Boyd wrote in his liner notes to Up To Earth: “One day, when critics start to absorb the compositions, the arrangements, the orchestras, the tours, the solos, the visions, the leadership and the musicians he inspired, Chris McGregor will be appreciated for the giant he was.”
More information about these two albums, plus the Chris McGregor re-releases by Fledg'ling, can be found here:
Fledg'ling have undertaken a “campaign to document Chris McGregor’s Witchseason recordings from the late 1960s early 1970s”, of which these two albums are a part.
These two albums can also be downloaded from emusic, as well as the other Fledg'ling releases.

Township Bop

The final album of these posthumous releases is a curious one, curious in how it came about. It is called Township Bop and was released in 2002 by Proper Records. The 14 tracks on the album were all recorded in the Cape Town studios of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in early 1964. How the tapes of these recordings came into the possession of Proper Records is something of a mystery, and one which perhaps we should not delve into too deeply.
What is interesting about these tracks is that they were the first recordings made by the group which Chris put together in Cape Town in the early 1960s and which soon became known as the Blue Notes.
Chris was experimenting with different musicians and different ideas and with these musicians soon went on a tour of South Africa just before leaving for the Antibes Jazz Festival where the Blue Notes created quite a stir that year, European jazz fans never having heard something like this from South Africa before. It was an eye-opener to many that such music was happening there.


Chris's beloved Bosendorfer at the Moulin after his death
Altogether these seven albums add considerably to the richness of the heritage of the South African exile musicians. They are important documents of the South African jazz diaspora. They are a great source of wonderful, exciting and original jazz, with a typically South African edge despite the European influences. To quote Joe Boyd again: “Loud, wild, fast, abstract playing to be sure, but it seemed that for them, the best revenge on the murderous Boers was not anger, but joy and yes, exuberance.” And these albums are all full of that.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010