Chris – the Brother I loved

Chris 1964

Chris in 1964

“With his imagination and his fingers, Chris McGregor created a rich legacy of music, infused with the rhythms and harmonies of Africa. Tony McGregor remembers his brother, the jazz giant who died in 1990.” This article was first published in the South African jazz journal TwoTone in March 1992.

From a young boy running over the rolling hills of the Transkei (now the Eastern part of the Eastern Cape Province), quickly picking up the rhythm and melody happening all around him, to the owner of a peaceful farm in a beautiful valley in the South West of France – this is the story of the brother I loved.

In between lay the years of study, the years of listening and learning, which took him from the lecture halls of the College of Music in Cape Town to the shebeens and beer halls of Langa, Nyanga, Soweto and countless places between. The on to the jazz clubs, cafes and eventually the concert halls of Europe.

And always litening, picking up the rhythm, the melody, the harmony of whatever was happening around him.

One of my favourite memories of Chris is of the time I arrived at the Moulin de Madone (his farm in France) on my first visit to Europe in 1979. I was suffering from deep culture shock, not to mention the effects of a gruelling three-week tour of Germany and Switzerland with a party of journalists from South Africa. I had left the party the day before in Geneva and had flown to Paris, then taken the train first to Bordeau and then Tonneins. There I found a taxi driver who agreed to take me to the Moulin. I had no idea where it was. I was exhausted and felt lost.

Hazel Miller (widow of bassist Harry Miller), Chris and Maxine outside the Moulin

Hazel Miller (widow of bassist Harry Miller), Chris and Maxine outside the Moulin

After a drive of about 40 minutes through rolling green hill, not unlike those of the Transkei, we arrived at a rambling, rather ramshackly building. “Le Moulin,” the driver announced tersely and I got out of the cart just as Chris came to greet me, arms outstretched, long grey hair and beard flowing, and that deep, loving voice, “Hey, Anthony!”

We spent some time talking and, getting my things sorted out, walking around the farm. Maxine, Chris’ wonderful wife, was out driving with her sister who was also visiting, so Chris and I had some hours on our own.

At suppertime Chris asked what I fancied for the evening meal. “How about omelettes aux herbes sauvage?” he asked.

As we walked together Chris picked leaves from a variety of wild plants next to the road or in the fields.

Back in the kitchen – an amazing room with onions and garlic hanging next to windows garlanded with spiders’ webs, posters on the walls and a grand piano in the corner – eggs were broken into a large pan and mixed with the leaves he had picked.

We ate the best omelettes I have ever tasted with thick chunks of bread – a far cry from the super-refined, homogenised food I had been eating for three weeks.

Chris at Halfway House, Johannesburg, in 1985

Chris at Halfway House, Johannesburg, in 1985. Photo by Tony McGregor

For me this episode epitomises some of Chris’ 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.

His imagination and fingers created a rich legacy of music which has been an inspiration to many musicians and a source of joy and sometimes wonder to many thousands of music lovers in Africa and Europe.

Chris’ roots, through all the years in Europe, remained firmly in Africa. Through all his music the complexc rhythms and harmonies of Africa, both rural and urban, pulsate and shimmer like a heat haze over the veld, weaving patterns of light and shade like the blades of grass blown by the wind – now in unison, now in contrary motion, but never still, always full of energy and life.

I think it is no accident that he always seemed most at home musically with a rhythm section with similar African roots. During his last, most creative years he was urged on by the dynamism of drummer Gilbert Matthews and bassist Ernest Shololo Mothle. During the early Blue Note years, the time of often desperate struggle, it was Louis Tebogo Moholo on drums and Johnny Mbizo Dyani on bass who provided solid support and a foundation for the sometimes wild flights of creation. Louis and Johnny also formed the core of the first Brotherhood of Breath big band – as Gilbert and Ernest did in the last, great incarnation of the band.

Chris with Archie Shepp, 1989

Chris with Archie Shepp, 1989

We are fortunate that much of Chris’ music still exists on record. From the three exciting tracks on the 1962 Moroka-Jabavu Jazz Festival ablum to the 1989 Brotherhood of Breath concert with Archie Shepp in France, Chris’ genius as arranger. leader and pianist can still be heard, and, within the limitations of recording technology, experienced.

After the 1963 Moroka-Jabavu festival Chris put together a big band, his first, for a three-week period,  with sponsorship from the Festival sponsors. This band made a recording – Jazz: The African Sound – which was remarkable, not only for the quality of the arrangements, the exciting musicians featured and the great compositions played, but also for the recording quality.

Featured on the album were established greats like Kippie Morolong Moeketsi and then up-and-coming young musos like Barney Rachabane, Bra Duds Pukwana, and the 17-year-old trumpet wizard Mongezi Feza – who blew them all away!

The album showcased Chris’ arrangements of two songs by Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), two by Kippie and two of his own compositions.

This gem of an album has been unavailable for many years, but is soon to be re-released by Gallo Music Publishers.

In 1964 Chris left for Europe with the Blue Notes, a band made up of people he enjoyed playing with, many of whom had been on the big band album of the previous year.

The group consisted of Dudu Pukwana on alto, Nikele Moyake on tenor, Mongezi Feza on trumpet, Mbizo Dyani on bass, Louis Moholo on drums, and Chris on piano. Ronnie beer, another tenor player, joined the group in 1965.

In 1968 Chris’ first album recorded outside South Africa was released on the Polydor label. It was called Very Urgent and featured the same musicians – with the exception of Nikele Moyake who had died tragically.

On this album the Blue Notes showed their mastery of the freer form of jazz then in vogue in Britain and Europe, as well as their deep African roots.

Chris with daughter Andromeda at Qolora River Mouth during his first visit back to South Africa after leaving in 1964. December 1970

Chris with daughter Andromeda at Qolora River Mouth during his first visit back to South Africa after leaving in 1964. December 1970. Photo by Tony McGregor

The song Don’t Stir the Beehive 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 purploe and orange haze. I certainly feel the longing for home that pervades the track.

In all the recordings Chris made – whether with the Blue Notes, the Brotherhood of Breath, or with other musicians such as District Six (Brian Abraham’s wonderful group) and Courtney Pine – this rootedness in Africa is apparent.

But more than the great musician, I miss the great person, a giant both physically and intellectually. I wish that his many recordings (at the time of writing this was about 14) were more readily available to his brothers and sisters back home. But even more I wish he could have experienced the amazing flowering of music, the music to which he devoted his life – both here, in this country he loved so dearly, and internationally.

It seems so much like a vindication of all he strove for.

One Response to “Chris – the Brother I loved”

  1. Thank you for this.
    Thank you so very much.

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