Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Dating the inception of an artistic movement is often futile. Generally, the larger the movement, the more approximations suffice, the Italian Renaissance being the case in point. Even precisely dating the birthdate of a jazz band can be elusive. When does a band become a band, an entity? When it first performs in public? When it settles on a name? When their gigs get reviewed in local newspapers and jazz magazines? Or when they get a grant?

Answering any of these questions yields a different birthdate for Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. Their grant-supported debut occurred on June 27th, 1970. However, McGregor, the South African pianist who arrived in London in 1965 with the Blue Notes, began occasionally fronting a big band in April 1967 at the Old Place, the original site of tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, bequeathed to the new wave of British jazz artists for the duration of its lease when Scott moved the club to a more upscale location. Several of the musicians on that first gig would stay on to become core members of the Brotherhood.

Ordinarily, the odds of making a big band a going concern are slim, but McGregor’s timing in forming his first London big band was propitious; during the summer of ‘67, concert and festival promoters programmed exponents of the budding British jazz scene with popular folk, blues and rock acts, which led McGregor’s Big Band to be on the same bill with Fleetwood Mac, Alexis Koerner and others at a Birmingham festival that August. Additionally, the residual buzz of the Blue Notes’ arrival, compounded by British jazz’s seemingly overnight coming of age, and the equally sudden arrival of receptive reviewers in the pages of the influential Melody Maker (a London-based weekly whose circulation approached 200,000 copies), improved McGregor’s chances to beat the odds.

However, the pianist brought a relatively thin book of his own big band charts from South Africa; and even though his main focus had been the Blue Notes, he was arguably not its principal composer. Alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana was as prolific a writer as McGregor, and arguably had the more mature compositional voice when the Blue Notes left South Africa in 1964 – as least as evidenced by two recordings that surfaced decades later: Township Bop (Proper) and Legacy: Live in South Afrika 1964 (Ogun). By then, Pukwana had already penned the enduring “B My Dear,” a Cupid’s arrow of a ballad; additionally, Pukwana demonstrated a nimble approach to hard bop on compositions like “Two for Sandi,” a melding of bright melodic elements and driving pulse that prompts comparisons to form-tugging writers like saxophonist Hank Mobley. McGregor tunes like the Horace Silvery soul-jazz blues “Dick’s Pick” and “Vortex Special,” which exudes the svelte swing of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, are more baldly derivative.

McGregor’s experience leading big bands in South Africa was limited to fronting a university student ensemble and a brief stint in 1963 directing a Johannesburg brewery-sponsored series of concerts  with a big band of leading South African jazz musicians, including the Blue Notes front line – Pukwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza and tenor saxophonist Nick Moyake – and the Blue Notes’ first drummer, the aptly named Early Mabusa. (Louis Moholo subbed for Mabusa at the big band’s Johannesburg date, which paved the way for Moholo to replace Mabusa in the Blue Notes.) Again, McGregor was neither the principal nor most polished composer contributing charts to The Castle Lager Big Band – South African architect and record producer Julian Beinart identified McGregor as being primarily the arranger. Only two McGregor compositions are included on the big band’s Jazz – The African Sound (Teal); “Early Bird,” a smart amalgamation of bop lines and show-stopping ensemble flourishes, and “Now” (aka “Manje”), a loping blues variant with an appealing swagger. Neither composition possessed the sophistication of those written by Abdullah Ibrahim, the pianist then known as Dollar Brand, and saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, veterans of South Africa’s other now-legendary jazz group, The Jazz Epistles. Duke Ellington was a major influence on both McGregor and Ibrahim, but the latter’s “Kippie” better conveys what Billy Strayhorn called “the Ellington effect,” where subtle use of instrumental color evokes romance and mystery.

The Old Place gave McGregor unprecedented latitude to develop a new book of charts; but he was just one of several composers – Graham Collier, Michael Gibbs, John Warren and Mike Westbrook – using the venue to articulate the new cosmopolitan vitality then dawning on the London scene. Subsequently, the premise, the promise, and the implicit pressure represented by the Old Place sent McGregor into overdrive; but without a piano in his London flat, McGregor spent all-nighter after all-nighter composing in the damp, cold basement venue, often falling asleep at the piano. McGregor’s health had been compromised by an early ‘60s case of jaundice that required almost a year for his recovery, and he had worked himself to the brink of a physical breakdown during the two weeks of rehearsals and performances culminating in Jazz – The African Sound. Unsurprisingly, given this history, he had another health crisis when he awoke one morning in the Old Place to find himself completely rigid. After taking two hours just to crawl out onto the sidewalk to hail a cab, McGregor spent a week in bed. The exhaustion from the all-nighters also caused McGregor – a devoted family man by all accounts – to miss the birth of his first child, Andromeda, a month before the first Big Band gig; mistakenly believing his wife was simply out on errands one morning, McGregor crashed for nearly 12 hours before being awakened to learn of his daughter’s birth.

McGregor understood he had a one-time opportunity and little time to take advantage of it: the lease on The Old Place would expire in a year; many cutting-edge British musicians were, for the moment, available for low-paying gigs; and there was a momentary jazz crossover interest in kwela, the South African street music then popular in London’s African communities for its irrepressibly joyful melodies and infectious grooves (a Zulu word, kwela translates as “get up”). The latter is noteworthy as the only recording McGregor made in 1967 was Kwela by Gwigwi’s Band, a set of rollicking, 45 rpm single-length kwela tunes led by alto saxophonist Gwigwi Mrwebi, one of the company members who stayed in London after the celebrated 1961 run of King Kong, the all-black South African musical that launched the international careers of singer Miriam Makeba and trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

Like many jazz musicians at the time, McGregor’s music was evolving faster than what the market – even relatively innovation-friendly London’s – could bear. The Blue Notes’ month-long residency at Copenhagen’s famed Jazzhus Montmartre in October 1965 gave McGregor an aesthetics-expanding exposure to exponents of the African American avant-garde like Albert Ayler. In an interview with author Ian Carr, McGregor relayed how he then understood that these influences “weren’t going to suit that old repertoire.” Yet, McGregor connected the tenor saxophonist’s atomizing intensity to African music in deep, unexpected ways. “The muscular relationships [of Ayler’s music] would obviously appeal to African music [which] is so much a music of reaction and rhythm – the response of the body to rhythm. I saw how much Albert’s music was very much that ... a way of keeping that flame alive.” McGregor’s connection to Ayler and his music deepened in 1966; in addition to writing an effusive commentary on Ayler’s Ghosts in a “My Favourite Things” column for Melody Maker, he met Ayler at a taping of the saxophonist’s group for the BBC TV program Jazz 625 that autumn, leading the two musicians to spend several days together.

McGregor’s engagement with the music of Ayler and other avant-gardists coincided with the splintering of The Blue Notes. Stylistic evolution aside, sustaining the group in London on club gigs and the very occasional concert – and initially living crammed into a single flat for months – had already brought the group to the breaking point. “I suppose we tended to overestimate the scene here,” McGregor admitted in a July ‘67 Melody Maker Interview. Beyond the sense of artistic renewal and expansion the Montmartre stands gave the Blue Notes, their time in Copenhagen also gave them a hint of a broader market for their music. After the second stand, drummer Louis Moholo spent late October and early November touring with saxophonist John Tchicai and trombonist Roswell Rudd as New York Art Quartet, recording an America album issued under Rudd’s name in the early 1970s. Feza initially returned to London with a Danish bride, but then moved back to Copenhagen during the Christmas holidays, not to return to London until early ‘67. In the spring of ‘66, Moholo and bassist Johnny Dyani joined a quartet led by soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy that included trumpeter Enrico Rava. After playing Italian festivals, the quartet embarked on an ill-fated tour of Argentina, where they recorded Lacy’s classic free jazz album, The Forest and the Zoo. Still, the tour was a disaster; arriving just in time for a repressive military coup, they discovered that most of their concerts had fallen through, and those they did play were scorned by critics – one said they played “as if they had knives in their teeth.” Without return tickets or air fare, they were stranded for months. By the time McGregor’s Big Band was gigging, the Blue Notes were becoming yesterday’s news.

McGregor was therefore in a precarious position when he undertook a big band; increasingly IDed as avant-garde because of an increasingly explosive piano style that was susceptible to lazy comparisons to Cecil Taylor’s, McGregor only had three gigs during the first half of ‘67 outside his bi-weekly Old Place slot. Subsequently, not only did McGregor have to come up with a repertoire in short order, but one that glued the multiple, arguably disparate facets of his music into a persuasive whole. Fortunately, in addition to Ibrahim’s “Kippie” – the one finished chart McGregor brought to his Big Band’s first rehearsal, according to saxophonist John Surman – McGregor had a few tunes by Pukwana and himself that could be easily taught to a large ensemble by ear.

One of these first tunes was Pukwana’s “MRA,” whose title is often misinterpreted as initials instead of an exclamation of the lesser-known synonym of the more familiar “bra,” South African shorthand for “brother.” The piece has an all-caps intensity that immediately distinguishes it from boilerplate kwela, as riveting rhythmic figures are layered by bass, piano, and trombones, the see-sawing harmonic movement between chords a major second apart buttressed by saxophone voicings. The ascending long notes at the front end of the trumpets-introduced theme have the rallying quality of a bugle call; but the resolving phrase squarely locates the composition in the mid ‘60s, particularly when echoed by the saxophones. In the hands of a contemporary commercially-motivated composer, “MRA” could be fodder for a ‘60s TV action series. However, McGregor sustains the pneumatic attack as he creates tight-fitting call-and-response interplay between brass and woodwinds, giving “MRA” a cutting edge from beginning to end.

While the bursting energy of “MRA” distinguishes it among the compositions McGregor would bring to both his Old Place Big Band and to the Brotherhood of Breath, it shares a central characteristic with other McGregor charts from the same period, including the cartoonish, maniacal romp of “Union Special.” Instead of employing a structure entailing refrains or contrasting thematic materials, these compositions consist of a single, repeated melody; additionally, these compositions did not feature solos – it’s a measure of McGregor’s arranging skills that these skeletal lines are so memorable. Beyond structural features, however, the compositions contribute to a composite picture of the South African experience McGregor was then reexamining; while “MRA” exhorts comradeship among musicians and other anti-establishment forces, “Union Special,” which presages the satire of jazz-oriented composers like Willem Breuker, mocks the pompous militarism of a morally bankrupt state.

While “MRA” and “Union Special” established the polarities of the South African experience, two other early Big Band pieces gave it a more familial orientation. Both McGregor’s “Andromeda” and Pukwana’s “The Bride” conjure an African idyll. As is the case with “MRA,” McGregor’s craftsmanship in charting snug dovetail joints between trumpets, trombones and saxophones gives Pukwana’s pentatonic theme equal measures of jubilance and unbridled power, which made it a blowing vehicle well-suited for Surman’s bundling of sinewy lines and fierce squalls on baritone, as evidenced by a surviving December ‘67 tape of an Old Place gig. Of the early pieces that became the backbone of the Brotherhood’s repertoire, “The Bride” makes for the closest comparison, generally, between the South Africans’ vernacular and that employed by African American composers in their contemporary evocations of Africa, even though very few African Americans had the laboratory conditions then enjoyed by McGregor.

Arguably, the centerpiece of McGregor’s big band book from the Old Place period is “Andromeda.” Again, McGregor neatly entwines figures for brass and reeds; but the jaunty, even giddily exclamatory thematic materials, laid across a buoyant rhythm and a 1-4-5 harmonic pattern, blurs the lines between social musics from throughout the African diaspora – just as listeners oriented to South African music will hear kwela embedded into the A section of the composition, those informed by Caribbean music will hear a calypso tinge. McGregor then makes the B section of the piece simply soar with a jitterbug-inciting, riff-powered swing. Not only does McGregor milk the back-and-forth between the two sections to maximize the overall jump-for-joy aura of the piece, but to allow soloists to make brief, voltage-spiking shout-outs. At a time when McGregor was increasingly identified with what many jazz fans thought to be an off-putting avant-garde – Pukwana had sidestepped this to an extent by playing in organist Bob Stuckey’s straight-ahead quartet – “Andromeda” exemplified the earthy swing and heart-on-sleeve spirit that London audiences had so enthusiastically embraced when the Blue Notes arrived.

McGregor’s big band quickly, if not immediately generated a similar buzz throughout the London jazz community and music press, the latter typified by Christopher Bird’s July ‘67 Melody Maker account, in which he reported that “(d)ancing broke out during the Kwela and High Life passages of the ‘Freedom Day Suite,’ premiered at the Old Place on Monday by the Chris McGregor Big Band – even though it was packed to the doors!” “Little wonder.” Bird explained, as “there are passages in MacGregor’s richly melodic music where he makes full use of African raw materials and deceptively naïve-sounding brass and reed voicings which have the simple direct appeal of folk music. They make the other passages, which are freer in form and give more scope to the interplay of the band’s major soloists, a more compelling and shattering impact.”

The contrasting elements in McGregor’s music identified by Bird became increasingly isolated in the press’ respective characterizations of the Big Band and what was now billed as the Chris McGregor Group. This is typified by David Illingworth’s October ‘67 Jazz Journal review of several Old Place gigs. Illingworth found McGregor’s Big Band “less ambitious but far more exciting” than Alan Cohen’s, which performed clever big band arrangements of chestnuts penned by Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. It is telling that Illingworth mistook original compositions by McGregor and Pukwana as “the folk-tunes of [McGregor’s] Native [sic] South Africa;” his observation that“a good deal of the scoring consists of short repetitive and overlapping question-and-answer figures swapped between sections; the saxophone section in particular has a beautiful fat sound – no messing around with flutes and clarinets” suggests that tunes like “MRA,” “The Bride” and/or “Andromeda” were performed. Even though the Big Band that season featured such British luminaries as Surman, alto saxophonist Mike Osborne and bassist Dave Holland, the only soloists Illingworth cited are Feza and Pukwana, “the most exciting alto player to settle on these shores since Joe Harriott.”

There’s a marked change of tone in Illingworth’s comments on the McGregor Group, which leads with mention of the pianist’s reunion with Dyani and Moholo. Prefaced by the comment that the McGregor Group was then “playing some of the most unrelenting and fierce jazz in Britain,” Illingworth’s review repeatedly references the African American avant-garde; McGregor is “an exciting Cecil Taylor follower,” while tenor saxophonist Ronnie Beer, another white South African, is “Ayler inspired.” (Beer’s septet came in second to the Blue Notes in the 1963 Cold Castle National Jazz Festival competition.) Additionally, Illingworth employs stereotypical descriptions: “the rhythmic intensity ... reached an almost unbearable pitch;” Moholo “is a maniacal drummer” with a “blistering attack.”

In the absence of contemporary commercially released recordings, one of the problems of assessing what seemed to be a growing dichotomy in McGregor’s development at this point is calibrating criticism written for daily and weekly newspapers; regardless of the writer’s qualifications and tastes, writing on a very short deadline (often as early as 10pm on the night of the performance) and with a strictly limited word count leads to partial accounts and clichés. McGregor’s case is exacerbated by the contrast presented by Very Urgent, the May 1968 studio session that reunites the Blue Notes and adds Beer, and Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, recorded several months after the big band’s debut. Both were recorded for major labels and produced by Joe Boyd, then renowned for his work with Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and other progenitors of retooled British folk music; however, the Brotherhood’s record – which features such early pieces as “MRA.” “The Bride,” “Andromeda,” and “Union Special” – is as streamlined and polished as Very Urgent is sprawling and edgy.

Subsequently, most present-day listeners are presented with a flawed construct contrasting McGregor’s sextet and big band. Very Urgent reveals the shortcomings of Illingworth’s presumably reflexive comparisons of McGregor and Beer to Taylor and Ayler. Comparing McGregor’s recently expanded piano style to Taylor’s falls short as it confuses influence with usage, as McGregor’s playing differs fundamentally from Taylor’s, which was then an open hydrant of clusters, octave-leaping percussive figures and arpeggios. Throughout the late ‘50s and ‘60s, Taylor, like McGregor, often cited Ellington’s influence, but it did not extend to Taylor appropriating the Ducal touch as an accompanist; rather than picking his spots to spur an ensemble or solo, Taylor’s torrents were constant. McGregor had something of Ellington’s knack of knowing when to lay out and when to make a lightning-quick interjection to jolt horn solos, albeit using a vocabulary closer to that which Taylor introduced in the mid-1950s. Unlike Taylor, the harmonies and chord progression central to church music – McGregor’s earliest influence, his father being a Church of Scotland missionary in the Transkei – and mainstream jazz remained discernible in even McGregor’s most envelope-pushing passages. With the benefit of almost a half-century of hindsight, a less lacking comparison is with another then-emergent pianist – Don Pullen.

Additionally, the compositions included on Very Urgent reinforce the argument that comparing the South Africans with the American avant-garde was folly. Rather than open the album with explosive, exhortative free jazz, the sextet leads with “B My Dear” (then titled “Marie My Dear” – “B” is Pukwana’s then-future wife, Barbara, a server at Ronnie Scott’s when they met). The ballad plays against type. Pukwana combined a fierce attack, a tone that suggests an eternity of screaming, and slashing lines to create riveting, even blood-curdling solos. His compositions that were part of the core repertoire of both McGregor’s Big Band and the Brotherhood of Breath – “MRA,” “The Bride,” and “Nick Tete” – were blunt, even in their joyfulness. “B My Dear” was the polar opposite – tenderly romantic, it almost begs for sentimental lyrics. Yet, the composition is not an anomaly without roots in Pukwana’s early days in Port Elizabeth. When McGregor and Pukwana first met, the latter was the pianist for The Four Yanks, a vocal group, which gave Pukwana a thorough education in the mechanics of pulling heartstrings with a song.

This “B My Dear” bears no evidence of radicalization, comparing well with versions recorded by the Blue Notes shortly before they quit South Africa, and another ‘68 version by Pukwana with Stuckey’s quartet; if anything, its steamy torch ballad qualities are intensified on the Very Urgent version. It is noteworthy that “B My Dear” serves as the front end of a medley with McGregor’s “Travelling Somewhere,” a composition clearly informed by Ellington. Within a short duration, McGregor creates a soundtrack for ambling, unconcerned with destination. The opening repeated phrase sways, and then is capped off with a hint of syncopated swagger; the bridge creates a contrasting stately and sophisticated mood by reconfiguring the kernel of the repeated phrase in different keys; a brief return to the opening material gives way to a strolling blues, a groove more conducive for lobbing bon mots than chucking Molotov cocktails.

Granted, much of the remainder of Very Urgent is the type of hard-hitting, envelope-pushing jazz supportive of the labeling of McGregor and his cohorts as avant-garde, generically, and reinforced the narrative of the South Africans as outspoken political refugees, their denouncement of the apartheid regime crystallized by McGregor’s searing “White Lies.” It is also the music that most snugly fits an American mold. A contrast is provided by McGregor’s album-closing “Don’t Stir the Beehive,” a melding of traditional South African materials and the dramatic sweep of the ‘66 Ayler sextet. Instead of Ayler’s ebullient heralding of freedom and grace through marches, anthems and hymns, McGregor is initially plaintive; the horns rising together, then peeling off like fireworks, while the rhythm section roils, rubato. A magisterial reiteration of the traditional melody alters the trajectory of the piece, a glimpse of the triumphalism soon to be heard in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

The headline of Melody Maker’s heralding of Very Urgent upon its May ‘68 release – “The McGregor legend on record at last” – reinforced the notion that McGregor and the Blue Notes had become lore in just three years. By frontloading accessible tunes they honed in South Africa, ending the album with a deconstruction of a traditional South African melody, and placing their more overt distillations of American free jazz to its midsection, the album is something of a retrospective of McGregor’s London years, a both/and approach to mingling African and American materials. Yet, the British press had the same reflex as their American counterparts, mislabeling a pan-stylistic aesthetic as simply avant-garde. McGregor faced a dilemma similar to that then confronting Archie Shepp, whose image as a firebrand was not in the least dampened by his covers of Ellington and Jobim tunes on his iconic Fire Music, or by 1966’s Mama Too Tight, which previewed the inclusive rag-time-to-no-time representation of jazz history in the side-long “A Portrait of Robert Thompson (as a Young Man),” and included the boogaloo-fueled title tune.

The reaction to Very Urgent consigned McGregor to the avant-garde. His outward trajectory – at least with small groups, given the absence of big band recordings – was undeniable. Had Up to Earth, the Joe Boyd-produced follow-up album, been released as planned in 1969, it would have cemented the label. Beer and Dyani were gone, the latter giving the face-saving explanation that his departure was due to the increasing Americanization of the music, a claim Up to Earth largely supports; at the same time, growing tensions between Dyani and Moholo forced McGregor into a him-or-me decision, which went the drummer’s way. Feza and Pukwana were joined in the front line by Surman and tenor saxophonist Evan Parker, the former already being hailed in the press as a leading exponent of the emergent London scene. (The bass duties were split between Danny Thompson, then best known for his work with Pentangle, primarily a folk group that swerved occasionally into Mingus tunes, and Barre Phillips, with whom Surman and drummer Stu Martin would soon form The Trio.) Instead of opening with tunes like “B My Dear” and “Travelling Somewhere,” “Moonlight Aloe” commenced the proceedings with a blunt, lumbering theme and concussive solos strung together with blasts of polyphony, elements then in frequent use by the American avant-garde. While themes like “Yickytickee” and the title piece are built on sprinting boppish lines, the squalling horns and McGregor’s shrapnel-like clusters and splayed arpeggios made a persuasive case that he was now a fully committed avant-gardist.

In this regard, Parker’s presence had a signal quality. The now-iconic saxophonist was then all but unknown beyond the small committed pool of free improvisers and listeners meeting at the Little Theater Club, the venue that spawned Spontaneous Music Ensemble and other major exponents of British improvised music, and is now more venerated than even the Old Place – it was there that McGregor first encountered Parker several months after the saxophonist first heard the pianist’s big band at the ‘67 Birmingham festival. Up to Earth was only Parker’s fourth recording session, and his first playing tenor. His only prior recording of lasting historical consequence was SME’s Karyobin, their first foray into completely improvised music. The SME album was issued on Island, a cutting-edge pop label, just months prior to the McGregor date, concurrent with the validation of British jazz represented by Miles Davis’ recruitment of Dave Holland, the bassist on Karyobin, factors reinforcing the quixotic idea among a few industry insiders that there was a wider, rock-weaned audience for free jazz; but, the tenor saxophonist’s growl, sputter and yelp punctuated solos were more severely intense than the other horn players’, and contributed to the tipping of the stylistic balance MeGregor achieved on Very Urgent towards, ironically, Amercentric avant-garde jazz.

Polydor was less concerned with McGregor’s development than their own bottom line; by then, sales figures from Very Urgent led them to conclude that Boyd’s wild success with bands like the eccentric, bardic Incredible String Band – whose The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter climbed to the top ten in the UK and the top 40 in the US, and was proclaimed by Paul McCartney to be the best album of 1968 – was not transferable to McGregor. At the last minute, Polydor cancelled the release of Up to Earth. (Surviving test pressings of the album are among Brit jazz collectors’ most coveted items.) Subsequently, 1969 was something of a nadir. Our Prayer, a trio album with Phillips and Moholo recorded at the same time as Up to Earth, was also passed over and, like the septet date,went unissued for almost 40 years. After the closure of the Old Place, McGregor’s Big Band had very few gigs, even in London. Without a national network of clubs and presenters, McGregor rarely had out of town concerts – let alone tours – with his small group or his big band. McGregor also gained a reputation for hours-late arrivals to gigs in outposts like Bangor and Newcastle, playing sets that then lasted just a few minutes or two hours, and shrugging off the pleadings of presenters, who were mostly university students who knew of McGregor mainly from notices in Melody Maker. McGregor did perform at high-profile concerts and festivals; but he was overshadowed by the phenomenon that was John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Natural Music concert in Cambridge in March, and he was simply lost in the crowd at the notorious five-day Actual Festival, held in Belgium in October.

Concurrently, market conditions began to fundamentally change at decade’s end for jazz in the UK. The market for modern jazz all but dried up, impacting even high-profile musicians like pianist Stan Tracey, renowned both for Under Milk Wood, his mid-‘60s heralding of British jazz’s coming of age, and his seven-year tenure as house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s, which led to his playing with Sonny Rollins on the film soundtrack for the Michael Caine vehicle, Alfie. The record industry’s infatuation with avant-garde music – which had extended to leading exponents of what became known as non-idiomatic improvisation as percussionist Tony Oxley and the noise-privileging collective AMM – had practically frosted. Venues shuttered or changed booking policies. Even though, artistically, British jazz was in full bloom, the economics had withered.

A game-change was needed to curtail the downward spiral, which arrived in 1969 in the unlikely figure of John Cruft, the head of the Arts Council of Great Britain’s Music Division. Until then, the bulk of the ACGB’s music funding supported symphony orchestras and operas. Although a few jazz composers like Graham Collier and Mike Westbrook had received commissions for large-scale pieces, there were no touring schemes or organizational support for jazz. Cruft at least occasionally went to jazz gigs, giving him some first-hand knowledge of the structural challenges British jazz faced economically, as well as its vitality and potential. However, he knew that the task of forming a comprehensive jazz program from scratch had to be delegated, and for this he turned not to a seasoned bureaucratic, but to a recent university graduate – Annette Morreau.

In a 21st Century environment requiring degrees in arts administration for entry-level positions in foundations or government agencies, Morreau would have never had gotten the gig – she was a cellist with a music degree not from Oxford or Cambridge, but from Durham University. Like pianist Howard Riley, who was a year ahead of her, she took advantage of Durham’s exchange program with Indiana University; but, unlike Riley, who studied jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist David Baker, Morreau studied with János Starker, whose recordings of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites remain benchmarks. However, her spirited advocacy of jazz as the equal of classical music was enough for Cruft. In short order, Morreau began interfacing with newborn organizations like Jazz Now – founded by Victor Schoenfield, an avid supporter of AMM and Spontaneous Music Ensemble – and began soldering the circuitry that eventually became the Contemporary Music Network, a touring program that remains in a league of its own.

Cruft began to spread the word about the newborn jazz division. As reflected in an August letter to Cruft from McGregor, the two had a recent conversation at the Marquee, its briefness suggested by McGregor’s query about how to apply for a grant. McGregor was apparently an early-bird; even after his initial query was redirected by Cruft, the application for the grant that eventually led to the formation of the Brotherhood of Breath was made not on a government form, but in the form of a 3 1/2-page letter typewritten in October. Not only does every part of the letter provide insights into McGregor the man – the striking complimentary closing, “Yours faithfully,” is a reminder that he was a missionary’s son – but it prices the nuts and bolts of leading a big band in sterling.

After establishing the reconvening of his big band as the purpose of his application, McGregor dryly summarized his untenable position in South Africa – “It was impossible to continue [leading the Castle Lager Big Band and, implicitly, The Blue Notes] owing to the fact that the band’s multi-racial personnel limited our possible work outlets to an extent which made the undertaking financially impossible.” McGregor then pivots to his scant, but critically acclaimed big band activities in the UK, mentioning that the big band was voted “Second best Big Band in the World” [sic] in Melody Maker’s ‘67 Critic’s Poll. However, the conditions for this success – rent-free rehearsals at the Old Place and the willingness of London’s best to participate for a couple of pounds per performance, each requiring three, three-hour rehearsals – ended with the closing of the Old Place. “The closing of the ‘Old Place’, which was my main source of income,” McGregor continued, “also means that I now have to take more work with my sextet out of London and do more ‘odd job’ musical work (writing arrangements for singers, lead-sheets, copy-work etc.), than would allow me to concentrate on the work of composing, arranging, and copying parts for my new work.”

“With the purpose of solving these problems and forming a big band of both artistic purpose and economic viability,” McGregor laid out a three-step scenario: three months of composing new works, followed by rehearsals and an inaugural concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall, which would create the conditions for sustainability. To realize the first two steps, McGregor requested £830 and detailed a five-part budget: living expenses while composing new music; fees for musicians and space for seven rehearsals; musician performance fees; the hire of QEH; and publicity. It is noteworthy that instead of the paltry pay his musicians received at the Old Place, the grant would allow McGregor to offer union scale to his colleagues. Additionally, McGregor framed the grant as seed money, which would allow him to use tickets sales from the QEH debut to fund subsequent rehearsals and concerts.

McGregor’s plan for sustainability was injured – perhaps fatally – when the ACGB granted only £400 in two payments of £200. The date of the first payment can only be estimated to be in early 1970, as this is when McGregor began enlisting section players like Malcolm Griffiths, who McGregor approached shortly after the trombonist’s return to London in February from a US tour with drummer Buddy Rich’s big band, and two members of pianist Keith Tippett’s sextet – cornet player Marc Charig and trombonist Nick Evans, who were surprised that McGregor had remembered them from a West End jam session the previous summer. However, the remainder of the bursary had not been paid as of June 11th; with the debut concert already scheduled for the 27th at Notre Dame Hall, Leicester Square (the downscaled venue reflecting a severely reduced budget), McGregor faced going into rehearsals without funds for musician fees and space rental, necessitating him to write a letter to Cruft that is striking for how he couches the urgency of his situation with apologetic language.

Presumably, McGregor’s line-up was already in place. With Feza, Miller, Moholo and Pukwana on board, South Africans made up a significantly larger portion of the Brotherhood of Breath than its Old Place predecessors. Only five British musicians were recruited – the aforementioned brass players and saxophonists Osborne and Parker. The horn sections were filled out by two Caribbean musicians. Barbadian trumpeter and flugelhorn player Harry Beckett was then best known for his work in the front line of Graham Collier’s groups, in part because one-offs and passing encounters with, respectively, Charles Mingus and Oliver Nelson did not pan out, and because he had yet to lead his first recording (His Flare Up, an octet date with Osborne, Surman and Alan Skidmore – the future saxophone trio SOS – was waxed for Philips a month after the Notre Dame concert). Kenneth Terroade was already a proficient saxophonist and flutist when he came to London from Jamaica as a teenager in 1962; after several years of shuttling between rock and jazz gigs (where he initially crossed paths with McGregor and Beer), Terroade turned up in Paris for the July ‘69 explosion of free jazz recordings made for BYG/Actuel, playing on dates led by drummer Sunny Murray, pianist Dave Burrell and bassist Alan Silva, as well as his own septet session, Love Rejoice, which featured Beer in the front line. Both Beckett and Terroade were then seen as emergent major forces; while Beckett’s promise was realized over the ensuing decades, Terroade’s was truncated, as he returned to Jamaica in the ‘7Os, and music became a part of his missionary work.

McGregor had also expanded the purview of the concert to make it a larger cultural and political statement. For this, he tapped two prominent South African exiles: poet Cosmo Pieterse and singer Peggy Phango. If nothing else, the inclusion of Phango is a marker of the long-term impact of King Kong, which was subtitled All African Jazz Opera. Replacing Miriam Makeba as Joyce the glamorous “shebeen queen” for the 1961 London run, Phango was featured in two of the show’s more spritely songs, which, in a plot that follows the tragic real-life rise and fall of boxer Ezekiel “King Kong” Diamini, provided theatergoers with well-placed respites from scenes where race-based repression and self-destruction work hand-in-glove. (After his boxing career collapsed, the drink-diminished Diamini pleaded for the death sentence during his trial for knifing his girlfriend; subsequent to his 14-year sentence, he was found drowned, which was ruled a suicide. He was 36.) The most searing themes from King Kong are prime examples of how singularly South Africans meld hymn and anthem with crowd-rousing results; the arrangements by, among others, tenor saxophonist Mackay Davashe and Kippie Moeketsi, whose warm and wistful clarinet spots are highlights on the London cast recording, bridge the music of Saturday night and Sunday morning. Given the contemporary associations of “Sad Times, Bad Times” – which opened and closed the last act – with the four-year treason trial of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and others, which ended with their acquittal in 1960, even the presence of a chorus member from the London cast, let alone Phango and her endearing, booming voice, would have provided a powerful signal.

Pieterse came to London in ‘65, his teaching post in Cape Town underdone by his banning under the Riotous Assembly Act of ‘62. Securing a day job at the BBC World Service, Pieterse gained initial notice as an actor, appearing in the Stephan Frears-directed The Burning in ‘68. Some scholars consider Pieterse to be a more consequential anthologist and promoter of South African poetry than a poet, perhaps because volumes like Present Lives Future Becomings mashed poems, narratives, and satirical sketches with the work of several photographers. Even the voices employed in his poems were widely varied, spanning blunt declarations and sound-sensitive, multi-layered circumlocution. Additionally, pegging Pieterse as a poet is complicated by his modernist use of typography and his multi-lingual wordplay. The latter is exemplified by his pun on “mayibuye,” a Xhosa word that translates as “to return” and “to urge someone to come back,” in the last poem of Present Lives: “Let it come back / To this [extended space] May we be you blue”. Regardless of his standing in the rarified realm of contemporary poetry criticism, Pieterse’s stature in the exile community prompted his enlistment to read at the concert.

The ringer of McGregor’s trio of guests was Jon Hendricks of the famous vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Hendricks moved his family to London in 1968, ostensibly to provide for his children’s education. Living in Camden Town, close to jazz venues like the new Ronnie Scott’s (where most contemporaries presume to be where they met), Hendricks was soon a presence on the jazz scene, occasionally sporting a derby cocked at an angle. In short order, he cut “No More,” an ebullient assertion of self-determination that was given a mod soul jazz treatment. Not to be confused with “No More Blues (Chega de Saudade),” the João Gilberto-penned bossa nova tune Hendricks recorded in 1961 for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise imprint, “No More” was closer to Georgie Fame than Oscar Brown, Jr.. Even though the Verve single charted briefly in the UK, barely causing a ripple in London’s popcentric music industry, jazz supporters pointed to “No More” as an example of jazz’s commercial viability.

Hendricks’ popularity was not lost on McGregor’s team, who placed the singer’s name just under the pianist’s in ads for the concert that ran in Melody Maker; but Hendricks is not mentioned in the blurb that ran in their Jazz News column the week of the concert, which focused instead on the ACGB’s bursary. The advance work was successful, as the concert drew a near-capacity crowd in the 400-seat Notre Dame Hall, now known as Leicester Square Theatre.

Reviews in The Guardian and Melody Maker suggest that the compositions McGregor called that night were as listed in the program. Starting with “Andromeda,” McGregor then raised the voltage with “MRA” and “Nog ‘n’ Gogga” (“another insect” in Afrikaner). A tune that surviving band members have been unable to identify from tapes of McGregor’s Old Place band and his sextet (including a BBC session), “Nog ‘n’ Gogga” is generally remembered for its incessant drive and unbridled joy. Writing in The Guardian, Ronald Atkins praised “the blistering counterpoint of pieces like ‘MRA’ and ‘Nog ‘n Gogga’ built to a level of intensity that recalled the great days of Dizzy Gillespie.” For a mid-set, pressure-dropping ballad, McGregor chose Kippie Moeketsi’s “I Remember Billie.” McGregor immediately reignited the proceedings with “Restless,” a high-velocity bebop riff that did not surface on commercial recordings until Cuneiform’s illuminating series of concert CD that commenced in 2001. “Call” concluded the first part of the concert; since it was either recorded under a different name (which occasionally occurred; “Travellin’ Somewhere” took on an African name for the ‘68 BBC sextet broadcast) or not at all, it can only be presumed that it too was a flag waver.

McGregor then brought on his guests. Hendricks sang “No More” and Pukwana’s “The Bride,” for which Hendricks wrote lyrics (which Hendricks recently surmised is with his papers, currently in storage in Toledo, Ohio). Phango sang Mackey Davashe’s “Lakutshn Ilanga” and Miriam Makeba’s “Novema,” (they were included on the singer’s eponymous debut, issued in the UK on London), which, Val Wilmer admitted in her Melody Maker review, “made me want to get up and dance.” Pieterse read “Exile’s Re-Initiation (A Poem for Dumile,” its opening assertion of will equally applicable to both art and political struggle: “No poem is ever completed / No dance knows the perfect / Beat of his heart when the dancer’s feet are toeless and so defeated / But we go on, we go on and act.” To accommodate Pieterse, McGregor devised a flexibly structured piece eventually named “Night Poem” that receded when the poet read and surged at predetermined cue points.

It’s hard to imagine a more rousing finale than “Union Special,” which, despite its ironies, has a unique rallying quality, butressing Val Wilmer’s assessment in her Melody Maker review that the concert was “an open invitation to be happy at all costs.”

However, the enthusiasm of Wilmer, Atkins and other reviewers was not shared by Annette Morreau, who wrote an evaluation of the concert for McGregor’s Arts Council file. “The programme was very bitty in content,” Morreau opined, “swinging from a boringly repetitive and traditional jazz to a very free noisy avant-garde music.” Inadequate sound reinforcement rendered Pieterse inaudible “against a welter of sound from the band.” Morreau’s characterization of Phango as an unmoving, “slightly black mammy-like singer” is jolting, if not outrageous to 21st Century sensibilities; but, given Morreau’s aesthetic tilt, she may have expected a presentation closer to Nina Simone’s. If so, her comment that “John [sic] Hendricks was as smooth as ever” can be read as damning faint praise. Morreau concluded that the Brotherhood of Breath was “a most curious set of individuals, curious in their very different styles of playing. This was reflected in the general unevenness of the programme.”

There was one detail Morreau omitted from her report: McGregor donated the ticket sales to the African National Congress, then all but universally condemned as violent revolutionaries. For a bureaucracy embarking on a new program, the public knowledge that the bursary in essence helped finance the ANC would be toxic, if not fatal. Morreau demonstrated nimble instincts when she brought this up with John Cruft, mentioning the donation when the boss was at his desk, absorbed in writing. “Splendid,” he replied without looking up.

* * * *

Joe Boyd attended the Notre Dame concert and was stoked; having made new inroads with RCA and its new Neon imprint, he broached the idea of recording the Brotherhood of Breath with McGregor in short order. In the interim between the concert and the two days of sessions the following January at Olympic Studios (where classic rock albums by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and others were birthed), McGregor reshaped the saxophone section, replacing Parker and Terroade with John Surman and Alan Skidmore, playing soprano and tenor – Ronnie Beer was also brought on. Skidmore and Surman’s respective stints in McGregor’s Old Place big band gave cover against the suggestion of a strategic retreat from the avant-garde on McGregor’s part; conversely, Skidmore and Surman were major label-consecrated artists – and, in Skidmore’s case, state sponsored, as the BBC had his quintet represent the UK at a European competition held at the ‘69 Montreux festival, for which he and his quintet won top honors – reassuring signals that the Up to Earth debacle would not be repeated.

The sessions went smoothly, Boyd recently remembered, with most of the six pieces nailed in one or two takes. None were edited, even the 20-minute “Night Poem.” McGregor and Boyd sequenced the six tracks after the mix, yielding an album that flowed effortlessly from beginning to end. “MRA” proved to be an ideal, exhilarating opening track. Instead of calling “I Remember Billie” or “B My Dear” to be the album’s ballad, McGregor chose Mackay Davashe’s sumptuous “Davashe’s Dream,” featuring penetrating solos by Feza and Pukwana. Frontloading a ballad allowed the A Side to be rounded out by knockout versions of “The Bride,” which included a searing Surman soprano solo (instead of the baritone, which he used for the tune in the Old Place days), and “Andromeda,” which featured Feza, Pukwana and Evans extemporizing over the ensemble.

While the A side of the album was a streamlined, vivid summation of McGregor’s composing and arranging to date, “Night Poem,” which took up almost the entire B side, signaled a new direction. Instead of a brisk riff or a romantic introduction, “Night Poem” commences with African percussion, balafon and wood flutes, to which embellishing horns are added slowly over several minutes before the Miller-Moholo tandem ignites a furious groove. While the emergent two-chord vamp is sustained by some on the front line for the next ten minutes, horns continually shoot off like Roman candles, fueling a frenzy. Eventually, the vamp is submerged in the polyphony, the intensity starts to unwind, and what AACM musicians called “little instruments” retake the foreground before petering out into silence. There is an organic quality in how “Night Poem” unfolds that would present with increasingly frequency in Brotherhood performances into the mid-‘70s. After the communion of “Night Poem,” the acute Brechtian alienation of “Union Special” is like being dowsed with a bucket of ice water.

Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath sold well enough for RCA to release Brotherhood in 1972.

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