Thursday, July 27, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 033 Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath: Country Cooking

Chris McGregor was one brave son-of-a-bitch [ETA 6/5/07: and now, I find out, my kinsman!]. Growing up a white South African with an interest in jazz, he took that interest where it led him—straight into the townships, the “tribal homelands” in which the white minority government had segregated blacks. By corralling them in these barely-livable “independent states,” they could absolve themselves of any responsibility for infrastructure (you know, minor things like food, clean water, schools, sewage disposal, and so on) under the heading of “maintaining security.” Of course, these homelands were completely surrounded by white enclaves in which curfews and paramilitary police forces made sure blacks couldn’t travel freely for work.

The result was great for whites: a captive, essentially slave population who, desperate for work, would cross over into the enclaves to clean houses, do the laundry, mow the lawns, nurse the children, and so on—and then cross back into the homelands at night, to try to rustle up the same resources for their own families. White South Africans in the apartheid era had a higher, artificially-inflated lifestyle than any other nation with the same average per capita income. Of course they didn’t want it to end. Just like whites in the American South didn’t want Jim Crow to end. Just like entirely too many Zionists don’t want Gaza to be opened. It’s not about security, or “respecting cultural differences,” or “allowing the subordinate population its own governance.” It’s about “I got mine and I’ll keep my foot on your neck as long as necessary to keep it.”

Chris McGregor, Johnny Clegg, and a few other white musicians had the balls to defy this white minority color bar. McGregor was a pianist interested in jazz, Clegg a guitarist interested in Zulu music, but they both had the ferocious determination to learn that took them out of the white ghettos and into the townships.

Black South African music under apartheid, as is ironically the case with so many such situations, was an incredibly rich, diverse, and exciting world. In the mining camps and gospel churches, on the Jo’burg streets and in the Durban shebeens—and just occasionally on college campuses and in unannounced “guerilla” concerts—musicians of many ethnicities including Zulu, Xhosa, and Shangaan were working out syntheses of their various musics with each other and with the musics that had come with the Afrikaans and British colonizers. Guitars and concertinas became Zulu instruments, pennywhistles and pianos became kwela (street jazz) instruments, and, in 1962, McGregor formed the Blue Notes, a racially-mixed jazz group which included future greats Dudu Pukwana (alto), Johnny Dyani (bass) and Louis Moholo (drums).

They were a fantastic band, playing a mixture of hard-bop, standards, Ellington-esque originals, and, most originally and enchantingly, improvisational tunes based upon township grooves (the gorgeous and eloquently-simple mid-tempo marabi chord progression—I IV I6/4 V--among them).

After the 1948 elections, when the Afrikaans National Party roared into power and enacted sweeping new apartheid laws, it was illegal for musicians to perform or crowds to congregate in mixed-race settings. It only got worse after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960: just as South African national radio maintained a psychotically paranoid playlist and censorship policy (consciously promoting European classical music as “South African” music and keeping anything but the most innocuous indigenous music off the air), the security forces kept the audiences separate as well—they had learned from America’s Jim Crow laws. So the Blue Notes, and the crowds who loved them, had to perform in the gray areas between legal and illegal venues: little bars, college “folk” clubs, and on the street. They finally left in ’64, part of the exodus that also saw the departure (and legal banishment) of other great musicians including Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, and Hugh Masekela. In almost all cases, they would not revisit their shared homeland for the next 30 years (the exception was Dudu Pukwana, who with truly breathtaking courage slipped into Soweto in the late ‘70s to record an LP defiantly entitled In the Townships).

Like many expatriate musicians—and especially bandleader/composers, who somehow have to corral enough players to play their charts!— McGregor scuffled for years, playing around Europe’s festival circuit with various pickup bands. He had the guts—and the stamina—to keep after his original vision. Though times were tough, his presence in Europe, along with Dudu’s and Johnny’s, was fantastically liberating for the British free-jazz scene of the early Seventies. Eventually, his peripatetic big band, the wonderfully-named Brotherhood of Breath, included along with Dudu and Louis Moholo, John Surman, Evan Parker, and Kenny Wheeler, who would go on to become stalwarts of Britain’s new- and free-jazz scenes.

The Brotherhood pointed a new way for a big band, moving past the riffing-sections-under-soloists models of conventional swing and post-bop arranging, past the (beautiful, but meticulous) orchestrations of Gunther Schuller and Gil Evans), toward a more open, interactive, sprawling, conversational texture. In fact, they played more like an African band or percussion ensemble, with a sense of improvisational-but-responsive, loose-but-tight-knit give-and-take which is like a breath of pure country air.

I first heard them on the LP Country Cooking. I was living in Indiana, going to school for jazz, but interested in a wide range of world (especially African) musics. I was playing with the great Heather Adou, a singer, dancer, and percussionist from Mali, and with Alain Barker (another culture-crossing white South African who was lambasted for doing it), from whom I learned my first Zulu dancing, drumming, and panpiping. Country Cooking, the title track on this LP (based once again on the venerable but irreplaceable marabi chord progression) was so simple, so clear, and yet the solos and the overall aura of the record were so technically commanding, that it seemed to point a way toward a synthesis of those two worlds—jazz and African music—that I loved.

Maybe it’s the egolessness which African musicians are expected to develop. Or the sense, always present in South African music, of sacred joy under the simple grooves. Maybe it’s the unshakeable sense of self that jazz players under apartheid had to maintain to survive. But I think a lot of it’s Chris—his personality, his charts, his piano playing, and his vision of the band are all over this music.

Two years later, I gave a final master’s jazz recital of original charts which blended jazz, blues, Afro-Cuban, marabi, mbaqanga, and izihlabo styles, with a “pocket” big band of ten players, some of whom later went on to the Basie band, and two dancers.

Afterwards, a tight-assed ethnomusicology student, who had half the cultural insight and one-tenth the musical chops of anybody on stage, said “was that supposed to be some kind of joke?” At the time, I was too taken aback to articulate all the snotty comebacks I later thought of. But in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t: the best way to fight apartheid of any sort, from any source, and whether in the jazz clubs of South Africa or the recital halls of Indiana University, is to play music that denies its existence.

Chris McGregor taught me that.

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