Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath

by Nov 13, 2013Magazine

The morning of our father’s 82nd birthday dawned with the news of Chris’s death. We had known for some time that he was desperately ill and so had already booked a flight to France to go and visit him – ironically the flight was due to leave that very evening.

Chris McGregor was my only sibling, a much-loved older brother, but he was also a brilliant musician who ‘belonged’ to the world, a presence on the European jazz scene who facilitated an understanding of the richness of South African music for an audience much wider than would have appreciated it had he and his compatriots in the celebrated jazz formation The Blue Notes remained in the stifling oppression of apartheid.

Chris’s widow, Maxine, has written an elegant and insightful memoir (originally published in 1995 and now beautifully re-published by Rhodes University) of the struggles and hopes that musicians faced in those days and how these six musicians went on to interact with and influence musicians from around the world: ‘Dorkay House was a window on a world bursting with a tremendous will and artistic wealth but with almost nowhere to give it expression.’

The tale is one of courage and joy, and sometimes incredible sadness at the blindness and cruelty of racial prejudice, not only in South Africa, but also in Europe.

Maxine writes of some of the tragi-comic events which seemed to happen so often in the South Africa of apartheid: a concert had been advertised at ‘an earlier time than we had realised, we arrived to find the hall half full and all the people seated, but no-one had been on the door so no tickets had been sold!’

But there were real dangers stemming from the tensions of the times. For example, the 1963 Cold Castle Jazz Festival at the Moroka-Jabavu stadium in Soweto descended into a near-riot, in large part because of an inadequate sound system: ‘By dark the people, half or wholly drunk and frustrated at not being able to hear anything of a show for which after all they had paid good money, became threatening. Bottles were thrown around; the judges moved onto the platform for safety and to be able to hear the music, and the madding crowd outside became more and more dangerous. The time was ripe for a riot, and the recording van, in which I was sitting, gathered up its microphones and got the Hell out of it!’

Out of the chaos and fear of that time, though, came a recording which has subsequently become a South African jazz classic: Jazz – the African Sound.

Maxine writes: ‘Chris took advantage of the proximity of all the best jazz musicians in the country to persuade the breweries to back him in another venture – a big (17-piece) band with the musicians of his choice. They gave him a week to arrange, teach and rehearse with the band, and during that time he did not sleep at all.’

Once again the vagaries of apartheid played their part: ”… the breweries were prepared to put on concerts in the black townships but not in the main city of Johannesburg. This meant that no whites would see it, no white newspaper critics, no-one who could help with getting the band known ‘overseas’ – for that was their ambition: to be able to communicate with other jazz musicians in the world outside South Africa from whom they were completely cut off, and to make known the music of which they were so proud.’

After the exhilaration of the big band experience the desire to leave the claustrophobic atmosphere of apartheid South Africa became stronger and Maxine began to look for ways to achieve this. What followed is one of the most revealing parts of the book for me: the travails of taking a racially mixed band of jazz musicians on a country-wide fund-raising tour through the highways and by-ways of a land in which ideological issues were affecting everything people, especially black people, tried to do.

‘We began to feel that it was imperative to get overseas. There was a market for the band in South Africa – a large market; but it was so incredibly difficult to reach it in the circumstances.’

No doubt a band playing the sort of jazz the Blue Notes played – a jazz which was starting to push the envelope and mixing the standard be-bop emanating from the States with local kwela and mbaqanga rhythms and harmonies – would have had difficulties anyway, but the racial climate made these far worse: ‘The political threat was always a shadow – a sword of Damocles – hanging over us.’

Once the decision to leave was made, the difficulties of obtaining passports for the musicians was added to the urgent need to make enough money to pay for fares and the like.

So urgent was the desire to leave South Africa that Maxine and the musicians didn’t give much thought to anything beyond that: ‘Getting out of the country was the goal we had been striving for, and about what would happen afterwards, I had only a vague hope.’

Maxine’s book is full of such honesty and forthrightness – she tells movingly of her struggles on a personal level as well as the hardships the musicians faced, especially in the early days in Europe.

After they arrived in Antibes for the Festival, their main reason for coming to France, Maxine, as their manager, had to try to get something real out of this opportunity, but found ‘Rendezvous were rarely kept, no more than the many promises made. For me, who had hoped, even relied on the fact that this gathering of musicians might lead to something concrete, it was frustrating and nerve-wracking.’

After a hard time playing a sort of residency at a club in Zurich the band moved to London where Maxine had a job at the Transcription Centre, since outed as a CIA front, though she was not aware of this at the time.

In London the real disillusionment with European attitudes set in and the band broke up: ‘… victim of a pervading apathy which was to prove, musically at any rate, more deadly than the system they had left behind.’

Maxine became very depressed at the difficulties they all faced, and the breakup of the band – only Chris and Dudu Pukwana were still in London: ‘Even I, absorbed in my job and the struggle to survive in London, remember not having much time to sympathise.’

But on a personal level things were a bit more positive: Maxine and Chris married in 1966 and their daughter Andromeda was born the following year.

In 1973 Maxine and Chris moved to a small farm in the South West of France, on which was an old water-driven mill, the Moulin de Madone. Here they lived until Chris died, and Maxine still lives in the beautiful old mill house over the river. (Two historical asides: the concrete pylons on which the house stands have been carbon dated by archaeologists at the University of Toulouse to about the Ninth Century; and the mill room has a double floor built to accommodate fugitives from Nazi Germany as it is on one of the escape routes set up during World War II).

In the meantime, Chris had formed the Brotherhood of Breath big band, which gained a substantial following in Europe and even further afield. This band was Chris’s greatest achievement musically and he really flourished writing and arranging for the band. He followed Ellington’s example, writing parts for individual musicians rather than for instruments.

There were set-backs even at the Moulin, with occasional droughts and more frequent floods, one of which swept Chris’s piano and a whole bunch of charts down the river over which the mill house stood.

Fortunately for jazz lovers much of Chris’s music has been released on recordings. Included in the book is a discography compiled by this writer back in 1994. It is rather out of date as many recordings have subsequently been released. I have been assured that when the book is re-issued I will have the opportunity to update the discography.

Soon after arriving in France and at the Moulin during those sad days in 1990 a wake was held in the garden that Chris loved so much and Maxine and I scattered his ashes among his beloved roses.

Tony McGregor is the brother of Chris McGregor and a Jazz lover.

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