South African jazz pianist Chris McGregor was instrumental in creating European free jazz. But his contributions to the music world are little known in the country of his birth. However, with the young generation of South Africans eager to learn about their struggle heroes, McGregor’s story is slowly resurfacing. (Image: Instant Jazz.com)
At the 1963 Moroka-Jabavu Jazz Festival in Soweto, the crowd went wild over a slightly-built pianist named Chris McGregor. But they also wondered why he wore a cap that covered most of the top of his head.
According to an article in Drum magazine in that same year, the cap was covering his unruly brown hair, which would have given away the fact that he was white and not coloured as the crowd had thought. To play the jazz he wanted, he often had to cross this colour line. “If I thought it would help my music and the country’s jazz, I would not hesitate to be reclassified as a coloured,” he said.
The anecdote is a perfect example of the kind of man McGregor was, and the kind of message that he and his bandmates from The Blue Notes and Brotherhood of Breath sent out: that skin colour would not stop them from making music together.
McGregor’s wife, Maxine McGregor, who managed the band, recalls: “The Blue Notes group was a visible rejection of apartheid in that it was mixed band; and yet it was not saying anything in words that could be taken as subversive as such. The authorities were suspicious but there was nothing much they could really prove.”
McGregor’s jazz was heavily influenced by South African traditional music, including marabi, mbaqanga and the Xhosa choral songs he grew up hearing in the Eastern Cape. (Image: Tony McGregor)
Described by French daily newspaper Ouest-France as a man with long plaited hair, a mischievous elf’s beard and possessing a wrestler’s stance, McGregor looked the part of a rebel; and by being the sole white member of The Blue Notes, was certainly acting it. But all he ever wanted to do, according to Maxine, was create an African village with his music.
Despite finding success in Europe, and to some degree in the US, McGregor is not well-known in his place of birth, South Africa. “The Blue Notes actually left when they were young and spent [most of] their lives abroad,” explains Maxine. “They never went back as a group and were therefore unknown to a whole younger generation of South Africans.”
But slowly his story, and those of his bandmates from The Blue Notes and the Brotherhood, is starting to surface, she says. “I put this down to the fact that the younger generation in South Africa who did not live through apartheid have now grown up and are curious about the facts and heroes from this time.”
Origin of The Blue Notes
The Blue Notes, founded in the early 1960s, was one of South Africa’s first mixed-race bands. It was supposedly led by McGregor and included alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, tenor saxophonist Nik Moyake, bassist Johnny Dyani and drummer Louis Moholo. How The Blue Notes started is a murky story. According to many sources, including Maxine’s book, Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath, McGregor was the founder of and central figure in the band.
But South African writer Aryan Kaganof, who was also in exile in the 1980s, disagrees, saying McGregor and Pukwana started The Blue Notes. In a profile of Pukwana published in the April 2013 edition of the South African edition of Rolling Stone magazine he quoted the band’s bass player, Dyani, as saying: “Dudu was behind all that and Chris was, you know, there, but Dudu was the composer and Chris was kind of the arranger of Dudu’s songs, but Dudu was the one. And Dudu was the one who taught Chris to play mbaqanga on the piano and showed him what it’s all about.”
Listen: Chris McGregor and his Blue Notes’ ‘German Luger’, a track composed by Dudu Pukwana
Kaganof writes that although two compositions in the band’s first recorded album, called Very Urgent, were Pukwana’s, they were still called The Chris McGregor Group. “The racial politics of the day could not see the band any other way than the so-called ‘white’ man was the leader of ‘his’ Blue Notes.”
In an interview published in the May 2005 issue of French magazine ImproJazz, Moholo expressed his frustration, telling writer Gary May that it was an extension of the racist attitudes that prevailed at the time. McGregor himself was not responsible for creating this perception, Moholo added. May explained: “While it is true that McGregor, as a white man, had openings which would have been impossible for an all-black band, on a musical and personal level [Moholo and McGregor] were equals.”
Even McGregor’s brother, Tony McGregor, attributes The Blue Notes’ “wild flights of creation” to Moholo and Dyani. In an article published in the South African jazz journal TwoTone in March 1992, Tony said both provided solid support and a foundation for the band, and would later form the core of the Brotherhood.
Maxine, however, provides some clarity. Before she started helping out as the band’s manager, she remembers, she met Pukwana backstage after one particular show. His piano skills playing for The Four Yanks impressed her, but he said he wanted to play the saxophone and to stay in Cape Town, where McGregor was living at the time. “Well, it was obvious really: he came to join us on a hired saxophone, and the group took off,” she says.
Mongezi Feza on trumpet, Dudu Pukwana on saxophone, Johnny Dyani on bass and McGregor on piano, performing at one of The Blue Notes live gigs shortly after their arrival in Europe. (Image: John Goldblatt)
Musicians who belonged to the people
The band initially travelled across South Africa, playing live gigs in township halls and pubs. They grew popular and the musicians were local heroes, says Maxine. “They, in a way, belonged to the township folk who were oppressed.”
She recalls a time when this admiration was a problem. Audiences wanted to celebrate the musicians, and they would frequently be offered alcohol or other perks. “People could feel rejected if their offers were refused as very often they had made sacrifices to provide them and they could take a rejection personally. It was a real strain on several members of the band which led to burn-out on some occasions.”
Adding to the band’s woes was the lack of an established circuit for touring companies. They would have to make their own plans, organise their own publicity and rely on friends to do the work. “As a result we sometimes found ourselves in places where there was no-one at the door to take the tickets and people had taken seats without paying. Once there was no piano, and many times very little publicity. Sometimes musicians were missing and impossible for us to find in the townships.”
Once, she recounts, Moyake, was missing for a concert in a township. Maxine took the band’s bus and went looking for him, enquiring at one house after another. Various members of each household chose to go with her and help her navigate the labyrinthine streets. There were nine people in the bus before she found Moyake and dragged him off to the concert.
With the state police always keeping a wary eye on them, it was almost impossible to perform without the danger of being arrested. “The police were unhappy about the music which they felt excited the audiences… And as Chris said, often all that separated the musicians from the police was a large audience. They would pack up their instruments, leave very fast at the end of each concert and be on the road before the police could catch up with them. But such an existence was precarious and could not have been relied on to keep one safe for long.”
They knew they had to make a living abroad. And by playing elsewhere, their music could be heard by a wider audience while cross-cultural relationships could be made.
Exile to Europe
Tired of having to escape the authorities after every gig, The Blue Notes decided to take their music to a place where it could be freely played and appreciated. In 1964, they were invited to perform at the Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival in France; they went, and remained in Europe. “The choice of Europe was not freely made,” says Maxine. “It was really the only choice we had.”
After the festival, they were stranded and only continued to eat “by dint of busking on the streets that summer”. They lived in a tent at a holiday camp, but with the help of legendary jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, at that time known as Dollar Brand, they were able to let a basement in a student house in Switzerland where he had previously lived, and he was able to get The Blue Notes a job at Café Africana in Zurich. “However, we were six people living on the same fee as [Ibrahim] earned as a single musician and it was really very difficult to eat enough and keep warm. Moyake was unwell – he went home shortly afterwards, and passed away a year later – and this made for enormous strains in the band.”
Drummer Louis Moholo, 74, is the sole surviving member of The Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath. Unlike many of his bandmates, he was able to return to the new South Africa to perform. (Image: Tum Records)
In Lars Rasmussen’s Mbizo, a book about Dyani, Moholo said the band members missed home even though they knew how difficult it was in South Africa. “We were still young, we missed our families. It was cold and the audiences were not like the African audiences we knew, loud and appreciating. When there were crises and one wanted to go home, we would sit down and discuss it and come to an agreement. The more we stayed, the more we got used to it, and apartheid was going on in South Africa and we didn’t want to go back to that.”
The band’s sound started resembling the free jazz of the era, which was heavily influenced by the American musicians they met at the Montmarte Club in Copenhagen, Denmark, where they had a month-long performance contract.
Maxine says the band had an enormous influence in Europe because the energy, rhythm and joy that emanated from their music was unlike anything people had heard before. “Most Europeans had never heard any jazz from South Africa and some would not even believe such evolved music could have come from there. There are many articles and books that confirm that The Blue Notes’ influence could be noticed in numerous groups that followed them, even though many European musicians would still find it hard to play a kwela beat.”
It was a move to London that eventually brought the end of The Blue Notes and the birth of the Brotherhood. Moholo described the city as the musical Mecca of the era. Maxine persuaded the Musicians Union, which had strict rules about visiting musicians, to waive the band and accept them as refugees. “That entailed taking no jobs that could be done by British musicians, which seriously curtailed work possibilities and eventually led to the splitting-up of the band,” she says.
At first, the London music scene was not welcoming, she adds, saying that The Blue Notes’ music was labelled third world and difficult for listeners to understand. It was only at the end of the 1960s that mainstream fans warmed to them. “Because they were a little ahead of their time it was really a struggle to get it off the ground and Chris felt he had to begin again from scratch time and again, whereas if their faces had fitted it might have been much easier.”
Birth of the Brotherhood
When London’s famous jazz venue, the Ronnie Scott Club, moved to new premises, the old club remained open as a showpiece for younger musicians. The Blue Notes played there and their energetic music was so surprising, it attracted more talented young musicians. Maxine says they would sit in with the band until there were about 15 musicians on stage. Gradually, this grew into a big band that people noticed and it was invited to play at other venues, which led to the birth of The Brotherhood of Breath.
McGregor was working with bassist Harry Miller when Moholo and Dyani toured South America. But on their return, McGregor formed the Brotherhood, an extension of The Blue Notes, with the addition of Miller and as many as 10 other London-based musicians who performed with the band whenever they were available. According to May, the Brotherhood allowed Moholo to display his capacity to the fullest and pushed McGregor’s original arrangement to breaking point. He said McGregor’s piano, and above all, Moholo’s drums, kept the band together and pointed them in the right direction.
On tour, they attracted a lot of attention in France, Germany, Holland, Italy and Belgium. The original group released seven albums in the 1970s, but an era ended with the deaths of Feza and Miller. The second and third incarnations of the band recorded three more albums in the 1980s.
Listen: ‘Kongi’s Theme’ by Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath from the album ‘Travelling Somewhere’
The kind of music McGregor was producing at this time is known to have been more structured and arranged, but Tony held that his brother was gathering his ideas in a more organic manner. One of Tony’s fondest memories was at the pianist’s farm, Moulin de Madone, in France in 1979. While walking together, McGregor picked leaves from the wild plants on the side of the road and the fields. Once they got home, he prepared an omelette in which he mixed the leaves, the best Tony had ever eaten.
“For me, this episode epitomises some of Chris’s most wonderful qualities – his connectedness to the environment around him and his ability to create a tasty meal from what was at hand – be it a meal for the palate or a meal for the ears. He took what he found and then transformed it with his imagination and skilled, strong fingers,” Tony said. “[McGregor] was always listening, picking up the rhythm, the melody, the harmony of whatever was happening around him.”
Transkei at the heart of McGregor’s music
McGregor might have been influenced by American jazz composer Duke Ellington and the classical music of Béla Bartók, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, but it was mixing these with the sounds of the Transkei, where he grew up, that made his music special. The call and response choral songs of the Xhosa, as well as the intricate harmonies of marabi and mbaqanga featured heavily in both of his bands’ recordings. It was a sound that, according to the French academic, Denis-Constant Martin, would lead to the “blossoming of a European free jazz”.
Listen: ‘Davashe’s Dream’ off the band’s self titled first album ‘Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath’
In Maxine’s biography of her husband, she writes of his childhood memories. He said the music he grew up with in the Transkei was communal and that he had clear memories of its beauty.
Even when he fled to Europe with The Blue Notes, this yearning for South Africa could be heard in his music. Tony said that when he heard Don’t Stir the Beehive from the album, Very Urgent, he could feel the longing for home. “The song harks back powerfully to a Transkei evening with herders whistling and calling to each other, snatches of song and the random rhythm of insects in the thorn trees. Listening to this track, I can almost smell the cooking fires and see the sun setting behind the hills in a dusty purple and orange haze.”
It was these kinds of images that McGregor’s music conjured and it was the reason he felt music could communicate without words, in a very precise way, Maxine says. The music could be seen as an escape from oppression and a joyous union with others of the same sentiments. Music for McGregor was a very important part in solving the world’s problems. He once said that it “orientates minds and spirits”.
But for Kaganof, the South Africa reproduced in their music was a fantasy that was merely being invented. In his profile of Pukwana, he wrote that “no place could be that special” and that the country the expatriates longed to return to only existed in the music.
McGregor’s music did a lot to break down apartheid, but he never got to return to perform in democratic South Africa. He died of cancer in 1990. (Image: Cuneiform Records)
Maxine’s book was 25 years in the making. She wrote the first part of the story while living in London in 1965, which explains the band’s travels on the road in South Africa. She packed the manuscript in a black envelope and took it with her wherever she went for the next 25 years without opening it. When she decided to write the book in 1991, she remembered the manuscript. “I found it very useful, as it was written soon after the event and there were numerous details of which I had totally forgotten.”
It took Maxine three years to write her book, which she says was a bereavement exercise. “I started to write my book because I felt that the Blue Notes’ and Brotherhood’s music had not been adequately exposed or appreciated. I also felt I needed to set down my life as it had been, in order to become more objective and be able to turn the page from that life.”
Maxine’s book was published in Europe and the US in 1995; it took 18 years before it could be released in South Africa.
For all the music McGregor produced in the name of freedom for South Africa, he never got to see it, let alone play in the democratic country. He died of lung cancer a little over three months after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990, at the age of 54.
Maxine says that during McGregor’s last concert as the head of the Brotherhood of Breath in 1990, he was at his most exuberant. “He danced from joy because being at the centre of the Brotherhood was one of the greatest thrills he knew, as he never ceased to reiterate.”
Had he stayed alive, Maxine was certain he would have fulfilled his dream of bringing the Brotherhood to South Africa. “The ironic fact that he died prematurely at this time was all the more frustrating from that point of view as it was such a typical ‘it might have been’ story.”
McGregor performing with American saxophonist Archie Shepp in 1989. The Brotherhood of Breath shared the stage with Shepp at the Banlieues Bleues Festival in Paris, France and their performance was later released as an album. (Image: Tony McGregor)
The Rhodes University Jazz Heritage Project in Grahamstown has preserved the legacies of The Blue Notes and the Brotherhood. According to Maxine, the project has archived all the cuttings, posters, brochures, music scores and other ephemera that she kept over the years. The material is now available online for study purposes. “I was happy that all this material went back to South Africa for use there, where it originally came from.”
Moholo, now 74 and the last surviving member of The Blue Notes and the Brotherhood, believed in the power their music had in breaking political and social barriers. “This music saw to it that the Berlin Wall fell. We liberated our country partly through this music. Everybody gave a hand – Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett, Elton Dean, John Stevens, Johnny Dyani, Mongs. Music is the healing force of the universe. The political disease that was there needed music to heal it up.”
The drummer went on to become a founding member of The Dedication Orchestra, a jazz ensemble created in the early 1990s that paid tribute to The Blue Notes and The Brotherhood.