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Chris McGregor

Quoting from Dennis Constant Martins introduction to Maxine McGregor's book: 'Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath'.

When the six Blue Notes appeared on the stage of the Antibes Festival in July 1964, we, French spectators, had no idea of who they were, or where they came from, musically speaking. Some of us did know of apartheid and realized how a multicultural orchestra must have been difficult to form and maintain in South Africa. We could hardly imagine that there was a lively tradition of jazz in South Africa, and the twenty minutes the Blue Notes were allowed to play, caused both amazement and enthusiasm. They were fire, modernity with roots and fragrance, feeling and emotion; they were moved by an incredible energy which made their disappearance backstage almost painful. These musicians, in less than a decade, were to exercise a major influence on the evolution of jazz in Europe; but that could not yet be foreseen; nor is the extent of that influence always realized today.

The Blue Notes were a group; the combination of six original personalities. Chris McGregor was their federator rather than their leader, a role that he continued playing with the various Brotherhoods of Breath. And one of the roots of his particular musical genius lies precisely in the capacity he demonstrated from the start to empathize with other musicians' inclinations, to draw the best from them, and to facilitate their co-operation with fellow instrumentalists in the band. He could be that sort of a musical cornerstone because of his character, shaped by his intimate experience of several facets of South Africa within a family in which cultural open-mindedness and care for others are rules for life; and also because of his unique musical talent.

Chris McGregor was born in the Transkei and enrolled at The University of Cape Town. He was known as a hardworking and gifted student. His interest was in what the African musicians were doing. Chris was not afraid to live in the townships, which he did on occasions. He was energetic and enthusiastic, always practicing and composing, and defying 'illegal gathering' laws in order to meet and play with the musicians he wanted to. And that's how the Blue Notes came together. Chris often went to The Vortex jazz club in Long Street, a popular venue where musicians jammed together. Dudu Pukwana was the regular pianist, He'd rehearse during the day, perform at nights and sleep in the basement. Chris and him talked about getting a band together, but they were both piano players. Dudu, however, had always wanted to play sax, so they hired one and the Blue Notes took off.

 

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Chris McGregor together with Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo formed the 'all-star' Blue Notes. Blue Notes created a healthy catalogue of inspiring recorded music. Together with the Blue Notes, Chris made an impact across the country through touring. The Blue Notes were a fully South African brought up and based band until 1963 and a final musical climax.

Chris put together a seventeen piece band featuring some of the best musicians across the country as a symbolic climax to the end of a rich period of jazz. It was said to be a last minute affair. Chris composed furiously, whilst Maxine arranged financing and facilities. Even though there was no time for rehearsing, the individual skill of the players saw the band to victory and a recording. The Blue Notes won first prize at the Cold Castle Jazz festival in Johannesburg with their big band that featured an 18 year old Barney Rachabane. This was their last performance in South Africa together as they, one by one, joined the tremendous list of exiled musicians. There were many South Africans in exile. Journalist Nat Nakasa fell to a premature death in New York, apparently a suicide, as at the time of his death he was deeply saddened by the world of racism that existed in America.

The exiled musicians made a lasting impact on the European jazz music tradition with the creation of an international syndicate of musicians born out of the flame of the Blue Notes and the passion of Chris McGregor. They were called the Brotherhood of Breath and were located in Europe (London and France). Throughout exile they took their magic and shared it with the rest of the world.

All Blue Note band members save Louis Moholo died in exile. Maxine McGregor witnessed the death of them all, Mongezi age 27, Dudu, Johnny and Chris. “Musicians are like sensitive flowers. When their muse dries up, they die,” she said.

 


 

 

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