In 1976, having moved to Middlebury Vermont to run the record department of The Vermont Book Shop, I soon fell in with the musos broadcasting on WRMC-fm, the radio station at Middlebury College. My main guy there was Jon Hart. He was from Philadelphia and was a total jazz head. Late that winter I started guesting on his weekly show, and by the spring we were co-hosts. I learned a lot about jazz from Jon. He hipped me to Berendt’s The Jazz Book, to Sun Ra’s Philly roots, and told me of his many music quests to Third Street Jazz, the legendary record store in his hometown. In fact, he regularly brought back from such quests the limited edtion hand-coloured covers and records Sun Ra was producing in the seventies.
One of the rituals of doing or show was diving into the station’s large collection. By 1976 I was basically oriented to the great spread of Riverside and Prestige and Blue Note hard bop, and to the masters. Whereas Jon’s interests were broader and more advanced. He was a junior by then and he knew the station’s collection like the back of his hand. Before shows he would pull out, for example, Don Pullen’s ESP record, or those of Milford Graves and Guiseppe Logan, and have me deal with ’em! Jon turned me onto Pharoah Sanders, Randy Weston, Mal Waldron, and, bless him, he pulled out Dollar Brand’s African Piano disc on Japo one evening before a show. . . .turning point.
There was also in the collection a record by another South African, like Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand,) in WRMC’s collection. It was the Neon (RCA) pianist/composer/bandleader record of Chris McGregor. One evening we auditioned it. I know I dubbed it on a cassette. I don’t remember anything of the details of what we felt about it at the time. Although, invariably Jon and me got stoked by any sound of surprise we came upon. A few years later, I had acquired every last bit of McGregor vinyl I could locate, McGregor and his small band The Blue Notes, and his big band, The Brotherhood of Breath, his music became a mainstay of my own WRMC jazz show, Groovin’ High (1980-1988.) I became a crusader for his music as record maven and broadcaster. As well, early on I reckoned McGregor to be the South African equivalent, musically, of Charle Mingus.
Although McGregor’s big band and combo music is volcanic too, the main point of it is that McGregor’s creative vision was attached to the people of South Africa. He states as much–as recounted by his wife Maxine in her book about her husband, Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath. McGregor met with acclaim in South Africa 1961 and 1963, convening various groupings of The Blue Notes starting in 1963. Unfortunately South Africa and its apartheid system provided a singularly dastardly environment for musical ambition and artistry.
Although McGregor would play farewell concerts in 1964 in South Africa, he, as did Abdullah Ibrahim and others, chose to exile himself by the end of that year. The sad fact is that McGregor managed to survive but never really thrive as a entrepreneurial musician over the next, his final, 25 years. Maxine tells that his insistence on the integrity of his music was “over the top,” unmanageable. Which is to suggest that no compromise for commercial advantage could carry for him any appeal. Yet, records were made, tours and nightlub stays were secured, and his run of iconoclastic and courageous artistic mission, today, turns out to have been well documented.
The many musicians and listeners who were drawn to the deep contact point of the Brotherhood’s sound were transformed. I’ve never met anyone who’s been exposed to McGregor’s music who was ambivalent about the experience. For me, simply though records, my experience galvanized my understanding of the joyful humanity that is the fuel for any profound people’s music.
This fall, Ogun, the music label originally founded to document his music, has released the box set of the year (or any year,) Blue Notes: The Ogun Collection. It collects previously released and unreleased recordings made in the mid-sixtiez. mostly by the most famous core ensemble, Dudu Pukwana, alto saxophone, Mongezi Feza, trumpet, Johnny Dyani, bass, and only surviving member, drummer Louis Moholo. I was previously familiar with two of the sessions, so the new music just blew me totally away.
This isn’t intended to be a review. (Try Sid Smith.) For me, this is holy African music. Don’t resist. The past four ears have brought forth a steady stream of essential Brotherhood music. Just this past year all three of the Brotherhood’s Polydor sessions have been issued, including a brilliant unreleased date. An unreleased trio date is crucial. Previously unheard Brotherhood of Breath dates are being released by Cunieform. ‘Embarassment of riches’ underplays the magnitude of these gifts!
Recently issued Chris McGregor:
Blue Notes: The Ogun Collection (5CD)*
1. Blue Notes for Mongezi
2. Blue Notes In Concert
3. Blue Notes Farewell 1964
4. Blue Notes for Johnny
Up To Earth
(all recorded for Polydor Records.uk)
Our Prayer (previously unreleased trio date)*
source: Downtown Music Gallery
Bremen to Bridgewater
Eclipse At Dawn*
source: Cunieform Records
*If you can’t get them all at once! Blue Notes: The Ogun Collection qualifies as a desert island recording. Reviews of the new issues.
Then there is the brotherhood of musos. Hat tip to Jon Hart; and to musicologist Doug Richardson, who laid on me a precious cassette of rare South African jazz from the 50’s and early 60’s, including several tracks of McGregor’s Castle Lager Big Band and the famed 1961 septet; and to Lars Rasmussen, who besides being a tireless supporter of South African jazz, (and Abdullah Ibrahim’s discographer,) has published an important book of biographical captures and rare photos, Cape Town Jazz 1959-1963. The Photographs of Hardy Stockman. Sad story: years ago I took the two Musica solo records of McGregor (Piano Song V1&2) to work to play in the store, and inadvertently left them on the back seat. Yeah, it was summer. It took ten years to track down some quality mp3s. (Turning up the records, each worth $500+, is impossible.) Here’s the opening track, the medley Burning Bush-Mbizo’s Baby, from Piano Song Volume 1. Enjoy.
update: December 21 site: Blue Notes The South African Jazz Exiles (hideously hard to navigate but a labor of love of one MFowler.)