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


Christine H. said...

What a nice tribute to your brother. I was glad to be able to read about him on the Wikipedia article too. Although he accomplished so much, we can only imagine what else he might have done, had he lived longer.

CommanderSchweppes said...

Wonderful tribute. I hope we see more about Chris and his very important contributions to jazz from this blog. Many thanks - Peace

tonymcgregor said...

Thanks for your comments Christine and CommanderSchweppes. I appreciate them muchly!
Love and peace

LiT Web Studio said...

a moving tribute...i love Nick Drake's Bryter surprised to read that your brother played on that album

Unknown said...

I was so glad you left a comment on my vuvuzela hub, as that way I found you and your blogs! I think you are my GW (Godwink) for today! I liked that you mentioned your brother, as you obviously admired him! My son is also called Chris, although we usually call him Christopher. Not as interesting as yours, but I also have a blog that you might want to read: and the vuvuzela hub was my 46th in HubPages. Greetings to your daughter!

patrick lee-thorp said...

Thanks for the reminder. A founding father as far as SA Jazz is concerned. Not really given the credit he deserved.

Nou Dadoun said...

I was very sorry that he passed - I never had a chance to see him live; in fact, the late Ken Pickering who was also a big fan had booked him for a solo concert for the Vancouver Festival 20 years ago and many fans here were very excited that he would finally be coming to town. Unfortunately we got word that he had to cancel due to illness and he passed before the festival at the end of June which was dedicated to him. (Dudu actually passed the week of the festival which was another shock.) In 2005 for the 20th anniversary festival we managed to bring the Dedication Orchestra with Louis Moholo (and Steve Beresford at the keys) to reprise the great Brotherhood of Breath charts with many of the original members for their only North American concert ever. A couple of magic evenings and a reminder of that great legacy.