Noel McGhie: Free Jazz, Paris and the Seventies

an interview with
Pierre Crépon and Jochen Behring

Noel McGhie                                                                                                               © 2018 Uli Templin

This interview was conducted at Noel McGhie’s apartment in Asnières-sur-Seine on October 20, 2017, during the Festival Musiques (re)belles, organized by the Souffle continu at the Théâtre Berthelot in Montreuil.

Noel McGhie: I’m still playing the standards, but I was never a bebop drummer, I was never a bebop musician.

Pierre Crépon: So there was a kind of detour?

McGhie: Yeah, I came to bebop, and by the time I was getting into bebop, I was doing rhythm and blues. You asked me about reggae; well, by the time I decided to be a musician, I wanted to be a jazz musician, not a reggae musician. I’m still a jazz musician, but I’m incorporating reggae and calypso, which are my roots, and African rhythms which is all our roots.

Crépon: When you first got into jazz, it was before free jazz came around, I guess?

McGhie: Yes, yes, absolutely.

Crépon: Even at this time, you were not interested in playing bebop?

McGhie: Non. Non, non. Because I was in England at the time [the early ‘60s], I lived in England. Bebop was okay, I listened to Dizzy Gillespie, I listened to all that stuff, man, but even then I was thinking that music could be a livelihood, that you could earn your living playing music, and I saw who was making the money [laughter]. It was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things, Manfred Mann ... And R & B, you know, the Four Tops, James Brown; that was cause I was young, that was popular. But I started playing music when I was twenty years old.

Crépon: You were born in 1944?

McGhie: In 1944, yeah. April 4th. I’m seventy-three now, so I can do whatever I want in the motherfucking music. I’m one of the last old cats. Steve McCraven is still playing, he’s doing good, but he’s only fifty, sixty. I think he’s fifty, so he’s a kid, man. He’s playing with Archie [Shepp]. I played with Archie. Who else is out there? Oliver Johnson is dead, he died a stupid death ...

Crépon: In Paris?

McGhie: Yeah, yeah, I don’t even want to talk about it, that’s a sad story. [Sunny] Murray was a completely avant-garde drummer, he never wanted to do anything else. He didn’t know to do anything else. I don’t consider that I should do the same thing all my life, the music is too strong and variée for us to stay in one créneau. Don’t get me wrong, now, if you come up with an idea, and you want to play nostalgie, and you say “man, I would like to put the Steve Lacy alumni together,” I would love it. Because, I mean, my days with Steve Lacy was the heyday in my career.

Jochen Behring: I mean, it’s timeless music, so we shouldn’t talk it’s happened forty years ago, it would have worked today.

McGhie: Timeless! Right!

Behring: So, we can only discuss quality, what is quality in music.

McGhie: Right, right. Quality of the music. There are only two musics, good music and bad music, as Ellington said.

Behring: Exactly.

McGhie: So, yeah, I’d like to honor the memory of Steve Lacy. He’s in my heart, man. The first album I bought, when I started listening to jazz, was an album of Steve Lacy that’s called Soprano Today [title of UK release of Soprano Sax]. The very first album that I bought. So I was deep already into jazz, and then the second was Lady Sings the Blues, Billie Holiday, and after that I started collecting different stuff. But those were the first two records.

Crépon: That was in England?

McGhie: Yeah, yeah, in 1963.

Crépon: Because you arrived, I think, in ‘62, yeah?

McGhie: Yes, I arrived in ‘62. I was eighteen years old, so ... I was destined to be ... I was an electrician in Jamaica. We were English, a British colony, we’re independent now, thank God. But I still travel on a Jamaican passport. So, I was supposed to be an electrician, and I came to England and I’m going to this electricity company and I said “yeah, I’m an electrician.” They said “how is this?” I said “well, in Jamaica ...” They said “oh no, in England, you have to do five years apprenticeship, and have a blah blah blah.” I started when I was fourteen years and nine months, the year of my fifteenth birthday. When I should be fifteen, when I should go back to school in January, my father said “come with me, I’m taking you some place.” Electricity. Beautiful, I love it. And when I got to England three years after that and the guy said that I couldn’t be an electrician, I said “what?.” And then I saw a friend of mine, he had a trumpet, I didn’t know what it was, I said “what you got in here?” It was a trumpet. When I was growing up in Jamaica, the music was everywhere. And they used to have bands, there were no sound systems in those days, it didn’t exist where I lived. There was no electricity even. And then they used to have cricket matches, and there would be a band playing. The drummers hit the motherfucking drums in my heart, man, right here. I used to make drums, I was born to play the drums. So when he said he had a trumpet and said “we got a band, but we don’t have a drummer,” I said “shit, you got a drummer now!” So I just rushed on to the drum store and bought me some drums, man, and started playing.

Crépon: Was the trumpet player a musician we could know about?

McGhie: No, no, no, those guys fell out. They fell off the tree. You can’t be a musician, you have to be born to be a musician. You can’t just like music and say “I’m gonna play music.” Because you have to get married. It takes ten years to be a professional drummer. You can be a professional saxophonist after three or four years, you know.

Behring: So you got into contact with the English, the London scene, in ‘64?

McGhie: Yes, ‘64, I was in the British scene, yeah, yeah. I was going out to hear Georgie Fame, I was going out to hear Alan Jackson, I was going to the 100 Club. I knew Dave Holland. You know Dave Holland is English? I’ll tell you a story about John McLaughlin, we used to play in a place in Liverpool Street, called Peanuts Club. Why the peanuts, the cacahuètes? Because the money was so motherfucking small [laughter].

Behring: Like nowadays in Paris.

McGhie: I don’t know, I’m not dealing with that scene anymore. I’ve left that scene behind me. Well, I played a couple of concerts to put the [Afro-Carribbean Project] out there, but I’m not in competition to play in Paris, cause the scene has completely changed, I’m too old. And anyway, John McLaughlin was playing there and I walked up to him and I said “man, I love what you do, let’s play.” We were supposed to play together, he said “yeah, I’m going to Germany, I’m going to Essen, Germany.”

Behring: Essener Songtage.

McGhie: Yeah, “and when I come back, we’re gonna start rehearsing.” But while he was in Essen, Tony Williams called him up.

Behring: Yeah, that was 1968.

McGhie: Right, I’d been playing for four years and I wanted to play with fucking John McLaughlin already.

Behring: Then Lifetime came out.

McGhie: Yeah, and Tony Williams called him, and he went to New York. And while he was in New York, Miles heard him. He said “come here, motherfucker.” And Dave Holland, I used to go to the 100 Club to listen to Dave Holland and Tony Oxley, John Surman, you know.

Crépon: And before you got in contact with the live music, did you first discover free jazz through recordings, people like Albert Ayler?

McGhie: No, no, I discovered it once ... Because I discovered Monk. Monk was my first opening to jazz. The onliest Monk. This is my reference. So, like, I got into bebop, really got into Monk, and then I got into all of that. And anyway, so, my first album was Steve Lacy, Soprano Today, and he had a West Indian drummer [Denis Charles]. So when I came to Paris some years after, I was at the Chat qui pêche, and I was smoking, I was burning, playing with François Tusques, and Clifford Thornton, I was playing with everybody. Sometimes I had two gigs in a day. The only other drummer who was prolific was Muhammad Ali, with Frank Wright. We became good friends. Bobby Few I played with. I played with Bobby Few for twenty years. He’s still playing, he has a nice trio now, with a Japanese drummer [Ichiro Onoe] and Harry Swift. I’ve played with him since 1984. So anyway, Steve Lacy walked up to me and said “my name is Steve Lacy, and I would like you to play in my band.” And I just ... “Don’t wake me the fuck up. I must be sleeping here.”

Behring: That was ‘72?

McGhie: Yeah, ‘71, even. I was starting to make all those incredible recordings. [Noel shows the LPs on which he plays.] Ah, this is the album you were talking about [Group-Music: At Different Times]. That’s what I was looking for. We recorded in Nijmegen. I lived in Nijmegen, and on Sunday afternoons we used to walk across the border into Germany.

Crépon: This is from ‘70?

McGhie: Yeah, baby, yeah. Burton Greene, Robert Scholer, he’s from Luxembourg. Peter van de Locht, goddamn! And Boy Raaymakers … It looks like it’s in good shape, man, it’s not scratched.

Behring: No, it’s just some fingerprints.

Crépon: Just to make sure we have the history down correct, you came to Paris at the start of ‘70, and then, quickly, you moved to Holland? And then came back to Paris after?

McGhie: Yeah, what happened was that when I was in London I met, at Ronnie Scott’s – it was ‘67 or ‘68 – a couple of guys from Oxford University, students. I’m still friends with those guys, one of them is a great painter. One was a guitarist, one was a bass player. So they invited me to come to Oxford. That was a great experience that opened my head to everything. I could begin to understand people. That the racists and the bigots are the people who are not educated, the educated people are not ... They don’t have the time for racism, and bigotry, and xénophobie, you know? So I realized there are only two types of people in the world, the educated people and the uneducated people. And so we played up in Oxford, and I had Dudu Pukwana and Harry Miller in my band. Those guys were in my band, I’d take them up there and play, and I even had Dudu Pukwana come over to Paris to play with me.

Crépon: Yeah, in ‘72? I found a review of the concert.

McGhie: They used to have the festival in Paris. And so they decided, we had a gig ... We were playing, we had a band. And I had my own band and I was playing with them and Paul [Hirsh] ... So they got a gig in Brussels, there was a guy in Brussels, his name is ... What was the motherfucker’s name ... Nato. You don’t know him? He’s a happening artist. I saw him on TV the other day, he has a happening and he walks around nude and shit, it was crazy. So we went over there, there was a guy who had a club in Brussels. At that time, this Frenchman, Eddie Barclay, he was signing anybody who had a voice, he signed everybody for his label. And so we went over there to join this Nato guy, and that didn’t work out.

Crépon: So that was you, and ...

McGhie: Me and Paul Hirsh and Andrew Evans – the two guys that I met in Ronnie’s and who invited me to Oxford. They left and then I joined them. While we were over there, there wasn’t anything happening. We weren’t getting any gigs, because this guy Nato wasn’t singing worth shit. So the guys left. They were still students in Oxford, I think. They left in February [1969], we stayed a month. And I just stayed in Brussels, practicing, practicing, practicing. But back then, I had met my friend Kenneth Terroade, who had come to Paris. We started playing together in England, he came to Paris, it was in ‘67, and in ‘68 he was caught up in the revolution, and there was this one French guy who was a photographer, and he wanted to get away from the scene. He was a young student and he wanted to get away, so Kenneth Terroade told him to call me. So he called me and I put him up with his friend in my house, my apartment, and he took photographs of my children ... And anyway, I was in Brussels, practicing like a motherfucker, every day, getting my shit together, cause now it was 1970. I had only been playing for six motherfucking years. Now, you don’t go out and become a professional drummer after six years of playing, you have to be born for that. So, the people I was staying with, they decided to come to France to see a Marc Chagall exhibition. When they were over here, they met this dude, this photographer who I had put up in London.

Crépon: Do you remember the name of the photographer?

McGhie: Alain Mingam. He became ... He did a photo that made him rich and famous. It’s a photo of the guys ... When the Salazar regime broke down in Portugal, he was over there, he was a photographer, a real photographer. Anyway, they went over to see him, to see Kenneth, and Alain was there. And so he said: “Oh, Noel McGhie ... Where’s Noel McGhie?” They said “he’s in Brussels and he’s stuck.” I was stuck but I was practicing, I wasn’t really stuck. I had my family already in England, two children and a wife, but I was determined to be on the continent. He said: “What, Noel McGhie?” So he sent me a telegram, “come on over, I got space for you.” So, I was in Paris in 1970. That’s when I met François [Tusques]. You heard the interview I gave for the film, I was talking about meeting François Tusques [François Tusques: Portrait musical, by Jacques Lampecinado and Boris Monneau].

Crépon: At a house in Nanterre?

McGhie: Nanterre, yeah.

Crépon: This house in Nanterre, was it a place where the musicians of the Dharma were living together?

McGhie: Right, right. A bunch of people. And then I moved into that house with my family. And anyway, so I’m in Paris now, working, making money.

Crépon: Maybe just a week after you arrived, you were playing at Gérard Terronès's Gill’s Club already? Already with Tusques and ...

McGhie: Yeah, yeah! We went to play the Gill’s Club, we burnt that motherfucker, we tore that motherfucker up. Me and François Tusques, and Bernard Vitet, and Beb Guérin.

Crépon: Great bass player.

McGhie: Ooh. Ooh. We had a group, it lasted until he killed himself. He committed suicide [in 1980]. We still kept up playing with Bernard Vitet, with François.

Behring: Was that ever recorded?

McGhie: No. We weren’t recording those things. No, it wasn’t recorded, we were just playing. In those days they had maisons des jeunes et de la culture, so we were getting gigs. And we were playing on all university campuses. Like now, the French musicians are serious concurrence for us, but in those days, they didn’t exist. There was Daniel Humair, and there was Delcloo, Georges Arvanitas Trio with Jacky Samson and Charles Saudrais, but the young guys ... And they were all playing bebop, there was nobody playing what we were playing. And Alan Silva was over here, Frank Wright, Alan Shorter, Wayne Shorter’s brother.

Crépon: In your opinion, why was there such a big scene in France for free jazz at the time? Because it’s kind of remarkable, there were so many gigs, so many musicians for a while, it’s impressive.

McGhie: Yes, because the Americans, the Afro American musicians in the United States, they weren’t considered with any respect, and the music ... Jazz is an American cultural heritage, which was invented by black folks. Benny Goodman and the white musicians, they were doing well, but they were playing like swing. Stan Getz. But the really creative musicians like Mingus and Parker and all that, they weren’t treated with the same respect. So, after the war, when the musicians started to come, the Afro Americans came to Europe, and they saw the way they were treated, with respect, treated like human beings, whereas in the United States they were treated like ... The shit was shat upon. And word got around.

Behring: Even if those days, around 1970, it wasn’t that easy for African American musicians like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, it was just a relatively short period.

Crépon: Yeah, it was short but ...

McGhie: Intense.

Crépon: Intense, because, like, you were talking about Alan Silva, the fact that he was able to do those concerts with thirty musicians in front of two thousand people. Today it would be completely unthinkable.

McGhie: Mais oui, mais oui. That’s what I’m saying, that the times are evolving and me, as a living ... Survivor, I have to evolve, I can’t stay stuck in the seventies. I got to move forward because that was exactly what was happening, that can’t happen now. But if we come up with something now that is viable, that is livable, we can do it. And I think this album can do that. This new album that I just made. Anyway, so I came over and that’s when Lacy walked up to me in the Chat qui pêche. I also met these Dutch musicians here in Paris.

Crépon: Those on the Group-Music record?

McGhie: Yeah, I met Boy Raaymakers, he came over with Peter van de Locht and Robert Scholer, they came over from Nijmegen. So we played together. And they said “yeah, man, come on.” So I went over, and played with them. And in Holland, in those days, they were still in search of the grand master painter. So, what they did, the Dutch, they subventionnaient les arts. If you’re an artist, they give you a place to live and they give you money to buy your paint and canvas, and whatever you do they buy it back from you. That was how it was in those days. So those guys, all the artists, they were allotted places to live by the government. So I went there, I was living with Peter and Barbara. Barbara’s his wife. I stayed with them, then I stayed with Boy. I was going backward and forward between Holland and France. Then I went back to England to get my family and took them to Holland, to Nijmegen. And we stayed in Nijmegen for six months. I waited for a room to be liberated in this house in Nanterre then took my family. François Tusques came over and got me, you know. I have been friends with François Tusques all my life. And so, Steve Lacy walked up to me and I said “yeah, okay.” I was playing with Colette Magny. You know Colette Magny?

Crépon: Yeah.

McGhie: If you’re a friend of [filmmaker] Pierre Prouvèze ... he loves Colette. [Prouvèze is currently at work on the documentary Sur les pas de Colette Magny.]

Crépon: She’s one of my favorite singers.

McGhie: I got an album here with Colette, man ... Répression! You know that? And so one time we were doing a television show, when Mitterrand was elected. His nephew, Frédéric Mitterrand, had a television show. And so he invited Colette and he wanted to do a special on the American revolution, the Black Panthers[Du côté de chez Fred, Antenne 2, March 31, 1989]. And so he invited ... What was the name of that black girl that had the space in her teeth here? She was on the FBI’s most wanted list.

Behring: Angela Davis.

McGhie: He invited Angela Davis and he invited Colette Magny with us, me and François and Beb. And so he had made a show, made up his thing around the Black Panthers. And Angela came in. We were talking about “[imitates free jazz] Libérez Bobby Seale! [imitates free jazz].” Did you ever know Colette Magny?

Crépon: Met her? No.

McGhie: You never knew her? Phew. And she had this voice. And she sings “Strange Fruit,” baby ... When they walked in, they looked at us like we were crazy. Now, I understand, after having read Elaine Brown’s book [A Taste of Power]. I understand where they were coming from, they knew stuff about the Black Panthers and Huey Newton that we didn’t know. Anyway, that’s another story. So when she walked in and Frédéric Mitterrand said – his program was called Du côté de chez Fred, that was the name of his show, on daytime television, he was quoting Proust, Du côté de chez Swann. And she walked in and she said “no, no, no, I don’t want to do that, I am here to publicize, to present the Women’s Film Festival in Créteil.” So Frédéric, he was getting ready to tape, luckily we were taping those shows. And so he had to rewrite his whole program. Colette, Colette ... They gave her a show because she was extreme left. And when the socialists came into power in ‘81, when Mitterrand was elected president. But she was popular already, everyone loved her, the left, the gauche, les gauchistes. She should have been a major star, but she was extreme left.

Crépon: She didn’t want to make any compromise.

McGhie: No compromise, no kind of compromise. So anyway, we lived in Holland, and we used to go up to Haarlem to listen to Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg on a Sunday afternoon. And so we got a place to live, but the Dutch people, they didn’t like us coming in. I mean, I had a hard time being there, because, I have a Jamaican passport. I was traveling on a Benelux visa at that time. And so, yeah, it was cool, it was beautiful. This playing I did in that place in Amsterdam, the Paradiso. Oh man, we played all over baby ... Germany, I played in Wuppertal.

Behring: So you had contact with the German free jazz scene?

McGhie: Yeah, yeah! Sure, man. What was that saxophone player, what’s his name, Peter ...

Behring: Peter Brötzmann.

McGhie: Peter Brötzmann! Is he still alive?

Crépon: Sure, very active.

McGhie: I liked this scene, those guys. But I haven’t turned my back on that music, I’ve decided to move on. You got to grow, man. But that’s the basis of my musical career.

Crépon: You toured with Colette?

McGhie: Yeah, I toured with Colette.

Crépon: Was the band with François, you and Beb?

McGhie: François, me and Beb. And she played some guitar. And we were playing free jazz.

Crépon: I was wondering about the show, I read some reviews, and first it was you, François and Beb playing trio, like the introduction, free jazz?

McGhie: Yeah, yeah.
Crépon: Then Beb with Colette, just the two of them?

McGhie: Yeah!

Crépon: And then you all played together and you did the Black Panther thing which is on the record? [“Oink Oink”, on Répression.]

McGhie: Right, right.

Crépon: Was it always like that?

McGhie: Yes, yes. One time, we went to the Faculté de droit, at rue d’Assas in Paris, to do a concert. Colette was not on this concert. [Asked about the line-up during a follow-up interview, McGhie said that it was probably François Tusques, Beb Guérin, Bernard Vitet and him, and that he concert was a benefit for the Black Panther Party. The exact date remains unknown despite extensive research, but it is most probably early 1971.] There was a film, and we went through to play, but the Faculté de droit is the birthplace of the extrême droite. So we went up there, talking about “Libérez ...” and the guys wouldn’t have it. They came and chased us out. Yeah, they crashed the concert, they had a gun. I don’t think it was real live bullets, but you could hear it, you know, and so we had to split. I had to leave my drums and everything. That was a big thing. So, word got around, we called up the guys from ... Our guys, from the left. And so the next day, they came and they surrounded the whole block. And so we went there to do the concert. They kept ... The guys with that cross ... I don’t know what their name was. New Order or something. [Ordre nouveau was a far right, neo-fascist movement.] So we did the concert, and we did the film. Because not all of the faculty was extreme right, but the extrême droite was ... Faculté de droit, rue d’Assas, ooh. Yeah, and so I met Clifford Thornton, and then he got expelled from France, because there was a concert at the Mutualité [in 1970] – there was the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Clifford, he was the minister of culture for the Black Panthers, and he was playing there too. And he made a speech, and he didn’t know that the French police was in there, and so they heard his speech and he was calling to kill the police. And so he went back to the US.

Behring: You were there, at that concert?

McGhie: No, I wasn’t at that concert, no, no. I don’t know where I was. I don’t think Steve Lacy was at that concert, I might have been somewhere with Steve Lacy. But I mean, I was in France at the time. By then, we had played a concert, this record, The Panther and the Lash, it’s made from a concert we gave at the Maison de la radio. So I think he must have gone to the Mutualité after that. Anyway, he went back to the US, and when he tried to get back ... We had a concert at the Théâtre des Amandiers, in Nanterre, with Clifford [in 1971]. Me and Beb and François and Clifford. So we were on stage doing the sound check and he was supposed to come in and join us, and while we were on stage, they came and told us that Clifford had just been deported. He had been refused entry to France.

Crépon: And he was allowed to come back, around ‘77.

McGhie: No, he was never allowed to come back. He did come back, but he went to Switzerland.

Crépon: Si, si, he did some playing in Paris in the late seventies.

McGhie: Maybe, but he went to Switzerland, and then he used to sneak back across the border from time to time. But back then I wasn’t playing with him anymore, he had Oliver Johnson, because he was hard to play with, he was a very hard guy, very “you gotta do this.” He’s got some beautiful tunes on this album. Beautiful! I was smoking. I was twenty-six, twenty-seven. In the heyday of the energy, of the complete, total commitment to this music. Totally committed to this music, you know.

Behring: So then you started to play with Steve in ‘71.

McGhie: Yeah, I think it was ‘71, yeah. Then I got fired in ‘73. I don’t want to go into the story of why I got fired. But it was salacious, one of those vicious stories that happen when you’re having a beautiful life, and a beautiful ... Having too much good time. And that was cool, that was cool. And then I went back to school, started studying again, and looking at my life.

Crépon: Did you go to study music?

McGhie: Yeah, sure, sure, man. I went to the conservatoire of Clichy. I went to a drum school that Kenny Clarke had set up with Dante Agostini in Paris. That was great, that was great. I wanted to write so you have to have the solfège. I studied piano and classical, classical percussion.

Crépon: To go back a little bit to Clifford: Do you know more precisely how he was involved with the Black Panther Party?

McGhie: Well, he was the minister of culture, or so he said.

Crépon: This is surprising to me, because I’ve done research on him, and I have not been able to get clear information. I asked [people in the party leadership] and they told me that they didn’t know him personally, but ...

McGhie: They might not have known him personally, but anyway, he projected himself as the minister of culture of the Black Panthers. But now that I know the story about the Black Panthers, which I’m not gonna go into, I understand more. And, he came over here, maybe he was just purporting himself to be the minister of culture, but he was a teacher at Wesleyan University. He was an intellectual, Clifford. But he was also very violent.

Crépon: If you can talk about that, I’m interested.

McGhie: No, I don’t want to talk about that, because I don’t know enough about it. I don’t know enough about it because we were separated when we were supposed to get to know each other, we were separated. We did one concert. We were a group, a quartet, we were a group, soudé, very tight, until he got deported. And so we couldn’t work, because we were working mostly in France. He was in Germany, and then he went to Switzerland, and he called Oliver Johnson to come up, because I was with François and different people, Mal [Waldron], I was touring with Mal, with Colette, I was touring with Archie. I worked with Archie.

Crépon: Did you record with Archie?

McGhie: Yes! But it didn’t come out, because we went to the studio, and Archie was playing piano, and there was Jerome Van Jones playing organ. Van Jones was on Gospel Caravan, but the Gospel Caravan was 1979. And I think we did that thing with Archie later, in the eighties, when I went on the road with Archie. But by the time I got with Archie, he wasn’t playing free jazz anymore, cause Archie’s singing now, singing the blues, because his lips are messed up. He has a beautiful voice. So when I went with him he was playing like “In My Solitude,” he was playing standards. I was going [imitates free drumming], I mean Archie, I knew from the New York Contemporary Five, you know? We did some beautiful things with Archie. He was playing standards, I was going [sings “Solitude” interspersed with free drumming] [laughter]. We had Bob Reid on bass at that time and we changed and got another bass player. And then we finally played a concert at the radio, and he just couldn’t stand it any longer and so he didn’t call me anymore. He did call me once, with Gérard [Terronès], they were playing in the treizième arrondissement, at the Totem, and the drummer was Clifford Jarvis. He was late, and I was at home watching TV, and they called me up, and I went over, because Archie can’t go on stage without a drummer. And so I went there and then Clifford showed up so I gave him the sticks and went back home, to watch TV and shit. Archie is beautiful, man. We’re still very close. Because the thing he liked the most about me was I was the only black musician in Paris with a black family. Lester Bowie had a family, but he was married with a singer, and they were like bourgeois. But I was in Paris, and Archie also had a black family he used to bring with him from time to time, but they didn’t live here. He admired that, he thought that was heroic [laughter]. The question why the black musicians came to settle in Paris, it was because the soldiers went back to the US after the war and a lot of them stayed, like Sidney Bechet. He came over and he found out life was beautiful. And so the Second World War started, and Klook came over and stayed, Art [Taylor], and a lot of people were over here, and then the American Center, we took over the American Center. Lou Bennett was over here. And so word got out, and this became the scene, the refuge.

Crépon: Would you say that at the time, the early seventies, the fact that there was a lot of extreme left in France also helped the music being popular?

McGhie: Right, right! That did help. Because the music is a revolutionary music. The music we were playing. And the children, we were all of the same age as the students who were uprising in all these places, in California and wherever, you know, and in ’68 in Paris. So, the music was to support the revolution, the young people. That’s what it was about. So, I don’t play it anymore, because the revolution is still going on, but it’s going on without us, it’s going on at a different level. But it’s a revolutionary music, yeah. It was a music for, to support the revolution.

Crépon: Do you think that when the extreme left got weaker, after some time, do you think that there was a parallel with the free jazz scene becoming smaller also, with less gigs?

McGhie: No, no, because we weren’t really with the extreme left. I’m not really a gauchiste. I’m more of a socialist than a leftist. But the thing is, since everybody saw me with François Tusques, I was always with Tusques, and Tusques is à gauche, and Colette, et tout ça.  And being black too, I would have to be extreme left. No, je suis pas communiste, me.

Crépon: I have the impression that at the time, a lot of people kind of said “if you’re playing this, you’re automatically extreme left.” Even Albert Ayler, when he died, people here wrote that he was in the Black Panther Party.

McGhie: Yeah, he wasn’t at all. That’s propaganda. People have to put their own interpretation on what other people do, and they don’t know why people do what they do, and they want you to be what they are. And so if you’re not being what they are, all of a sudden you’re no longer considered as someone who deserves to live. But, I mean, no, we weren’t all extreme left. But the music was a revolutionary music. And the revolution was coming from the left, so, it’s like during the war, when the United States became ally with Russia, with the communist regime, it was necessary to beat Nazism. But after that, they separated. So, we weren’t political at all. But it was time for the music to evolve into a new sphere, a new era. Because we were coming from rag, Dixieland, swing, bebop; because bebop was aging, and we were young, the young generation. BYG, Beautiful Young Generation. You know the label? It was a French label, and one of my best friends set it up, Jacques Bisceglia. Bisceglia was one of my best friends. Because this guy Alain brought me from Brussels, and he came to meet me at Gare du Nord, he took me to rue de la Huchette. And rue de la Huchette, il y a le Chat qui pêche, sur la droite, en allant vers la place Saint-Michel and en face there is Storyville. And Storyville was Jacques Bisceglia’s place.

Crépon: Was it a club, or more like a discotheque?

McGhie: No, it’s a café. Le Chat qui pêche is a club, Storyville was a café. He took me directly to meet Jacques Bisceglia. And who was in the place? Don Cherry.

Crépon: Damn.

McGhie: Don Cherry was in ... Don Cherry. You know Don is like that, he said “no, I’m nobody, man, I’m nobody.”

Crépon: So you knew also people like Claude Delcloo?

McGhie: Yeah, I knew Claude Delcloo, and Daniel Humair. Daniel Humair used to run the sessions at the Musée d’art moderne [de la Ville de Paris], you know, on Sunday afternoons. Claude Delcloo had his hand into ... I think he was part of the BYG movement, the Beautiful Young Generation.

Crépon: He was executive producer on some records.

McGhie: BYG Actuel ... Claude Delcloo ... But he couldn’t play [laughter]. Unlike Tony Oxley, this great drummer from England. He’s the one who would play with Dave Holland and McLaughlin, and John Surman. And then Chris McGregor came in, with Dudu [Pukwana] and Louis Moholo, and Mongezi Feza, and Ronnie Beer. I don’t know what became of Ronnie. He came over here with Kenneth Terroade [in 1968].

Crépon: They were very close at the time?

McGhie: Well, I don’t know if they were very close, all I know is Sunny Murray was playing in London with Jazz at the Philharmonic [Jazz Expo ‘68] and them things, but he was alone and so my friends went up and joined him, and they came over here with him. That’s Kenneth Terroade who told Alain Mingam to call me up and come stay with me. And Alain Mingam called me up when he was coming, when my friends came over to see an exhibition. This shit is tied up, this shit is all hooked up, you know. Kenneth Terroade, well, he married this girl that was from the deep Midwest of the United States and they were preachers. Kenneth Terroade and I were like brothers, you know? Because, when I couldn’t work as an electrician ... When I started being a musician, you have to practice all day. We lived in houses in England where people would buy a house, one guy would buy a house and then he would rent rooms to different people. And then there would be a basement where they used to store the coal, in the olden days, and so I would go the basement and clean it up and put my drums in there, and practice. This was the 1960s. I had hardly just started playing the drums. I’m twenty years old, it’s too late! I mean, at twenty, twenty-one, Tony Williams was already a superstar, you know. Nobody starts learning to play the drums at twenty. Unless you’re crazy, or a fucking genius – or both in my case. We used to go to Kenneth’s house, his mother had a beautiful home and he had his own room, and we used to go and listen to music all night. And in his basement, we used to set my drums up, and he wanted to play the saxophone. And so we used to work. We used to play and practice all day, but if you’re practicing all day, you can’t work. And so they had the unemployment system, if you work for three months, you could get unemployment. So I worked for three months. We all lived in Balham. You know, a little group of us, Keith [White], Kenneth, Bob [Arthurs] and me. And we were playing music. I convinced Kenneth's sister to lend him the money to buy his saxophone. That’s how close we were. So when he left, after two years as a saxophone player, he could play enough to get by, whereas two years as a drummer you’re headed nowhere. So he left me in England and came over. Something he did, he sent Alain to come and see me, you see what I’m saying? He left England and came to Paris and indirectly helped me to get to Paris. But by then, we had grown apart, because he was, like, considered a star.

Crépon: He was playing with Sunny Murray a lot.

McGhie: Playing with Murray, yeah. So he went and married this girl and went to the United States. I never wanted to go to the United States.

Crépon: You never went?

McGhie: I’ve been there, I went because my daughter lived there. But I wouldn’t go voluntarily. You know, if I have some concerts, yeah I’ll go. But I’m here, at the place where I decided I would be when I was twelve years old.

Crépon: Was it Europe or France?

McGhie: France. In Jamaica, when I was twelve years old I decided that. Jamaica is so small that you have to get away. It’s an island. Nobody wants to spend their life on an island. It’s okay. I’m not born to spend my life on an island, I was born to go visit the world, take music along the world.

Crépon: Can we talk a little bit about Jamaica?

McGhie: Jamaica is a beautiful place. Well, all my life now is about trying to get back to Jamaica. Yeah, go back to Jamaica, man. I haven’t been back to Jamaica since I left in 1962. And then Jamaica became independent. But in Jamaica there was music. I used to go to the rehearsals, there was Prince Buster, and all the groups that were playing reggae and ska. In those days it was ska, [sings ska rhythm]. And Toots and the Maytals, and there was Owen Gray, and there was Duke Reid, he had a sound system, and Coxsone, and he had a sound system. So the guys used to cut records for them. What was this piano player’s name? This Jamaican piano player, he’s doing pretty good, his name is Monty Alexander. And so these guys they would go on in the studio and cut a record for the sound system. Nobody was buying records, cause nobody had a tourne-disque. If you were lucky you had a radio, you know? The people who could afford to have tourne-disque they wouldn’t listen to no goddamn reggae, you know? [laughter]

Crépon: Yeah, okay, it was a class thing.

McGhie: Yeah, yeah, and ...

Crépon: And so that was in Kingston, I guess?

McGhie: Yeah, I grew up in Kingston, man.

Crépon: You were born there?

McGhie: No, I was born in Ocho Rios. Bob Marley and I are born in the same place. We’re the same age, from the same place. So, by then I was going to school, and the sound systems started functioning. Duke Reid and Coxsone; they were downtown and everyday they had the sound, baby. And they had this stuff on the radio. And Saturday afternoons, they would announce where the sounds were gonna be. These were great days, these were great days. Man, I was twelve, thirteen years old. I was always into music, I would go to the rehearsals. I couldn’t go to the concerts cause I had no money, but I would know that whenever there was gonna be a concert, there would be a sound test, and then you go on to the sound check. That’s how I met Brook Benton. Bobby Few was on tour with Brook Benton. And Jimmy Cliff, he was twelve years old, my age, when he was becoming a star. I used to go to sound checks, the theater, listen to the music. Years after, when I met Bobby Few, I said “didn’t I meet you?” He said “yeah, I was in Jamaica with Brook Benton.” I said “yeah, I remember your ass, motherfucker.”

Crépon: That’s pretty crazy, to meet Few again in the free jazz scene.

McGhie: That is how life is, we go That’s how it is. We’re on a level, us, we are in a stream, we’re all in the same stream, so we have to meet up. Yeah, so, in Jamaica, you know, I grew up, and I used to listen to the music, before I went to live in Kingston, I lived in what we call à la campagne, we call it the country, because you either a citadin or a campagnard. I was born in the country. We used to have cricket matches, because we were British. That’s something the French don’t know about. All the British Commonwealth, Australia, New Zealand, and India, the Pakistan, and West Indies, that’s our thing. Our common bond is the cricket. Saturday afternoons, we’d have a cricket match, and then after the match, there would be a dance we’d call the picnic. It had to be in the day, because there was no electricity. And the bands weren’t amplified. But I know that there was a drum, there was a bass, a trumpet player, and a guitar player, but the guitar was acoustic. And then, to see the band arriving in their car, in the daytime, the band would show up in their car. There weren’t that many automobiles, you know. That was in the forties, fifties. And when the band came, that was a big thing. I used to make drums, for my toys. There wasn’t no Santa Claus, no Noël near us. And so I would get a tin, and make a drum out of it and play with it. Cause, at Christmas, there was the parade from the carnival. And so they would have the flute and the dancing, and the guys in disguises, just like in Africa. We kept that African morale, and that African tradition with us. We left Africa as slaves. And the percussion was interdit, because in Africa we used percussions to send messages. Talking drums. And so, the Europeans, they didn’t want us sending messages across, from one plantation to another. Even in America. We weren’t going to revolt, but they were afraid of us. They still are afraid of us. That’s why there is racism. I put a post on my Facebook page that says “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s fear.” It’s a citation from une écrivain qui s’appelle Katherine Pancol. I don’t know where she got it. The contrary of love is not hate, it’s fear. All this racism is not about hate, it’s about fear. They’re afraid of Africa. I was watching the movie yesterday, it’s called Django Unchained, it’s like a fantasy movie. One of the guys, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, one of my favorites, a great actor – he’s trying to explain to his white friends “why didn’t the blacks kill us? Why didn’t they kill us? That shit was going on for three hundred years, we had them under foot, why didn’t they kill us?” Because we’re not afraid of you, why would we kill you? We’re not killers, you know. We’re not gonna kill you; you think you’re treating us bad; no, you’re treating yourself bad. We don’t give a shit. So, we were talking about growing up in Jamaica. We kept the African traditions, and the musics. And I don’t know if you know it, but salsa is a music from the Congo. And calypso is a music from Nigeria, that we took with us, you know. Bloodstream. We were denied the drums so we couldn’t play the drums but we still had. Anyway, at Christmas, they would have the Jonkonnu, an African tradition, where I lived in the country. And my uncles used to be the drummers. And there was a flute player, it was called a fife in those days. And so my uncles were the percussionists, and the guys would dress up, in costumes and it scared the shit out of me, cause they used to have a horse’s head. Got us running, cause we wouldn’t recognize all our uncles and cousins. They disguised themselves, and they would walk all over the country, walk, and go from town to town. And as soon as they came in into the town, they would go [singing] and start [sings rhythm]. Man, that shit was great. And so, we grew up with music. And then we came to jazz.

Crépon: Was there some jazz which was a bit popular in Jamaica?

McGhie: No, these guys were playing blues. Because in the forties, bebop wasn’t being broadcasted, it was not on the radio. But it was salsa, they were playing salsas, merengue, and stuff like that. They had improvisation, but they were mostly playing swing tunes and blues tunes, you know. Tunes that were popular, for people to dance to, cause it was a dance. I always loved dancing. Even classical music, it’s for dancing. Motherfucking Louis XVI and all [laughter]. So, when I went to Kingston, and I started working, and then I listened to the radio on Saturday nights – we had a radio – I was listening to Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino. Fats Domino! [Sings “Blueberry Hill.”] Elvis Presley. Big fan of Elvis Presley, sure. They tried to make it seems like Elvis was a racist, but I don’t think Elvis was a racist, he was too pure to be a racist.

© 2018 Pierre Crépon and Jochen Behring

To be concluded in Issue 65

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