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Meet Martin McFie

Meet Martin McFie
Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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I have seen music move big strong men close to tears, so I don't much care for genres of music or sub classifications of jazz, it's all music. If it's live and in the moment, it has enormous power to intrigue and change our experience.
Super Fan Martin McFie is so into live music he doesn't even have a record collection. These days, McFie, British by birth, calls both South Carolina and Nice, France, home. The frequent-traveling "jazz detective" has made it his business to seek out jazz of all kinds in some of the most unlikely places, especially when he's tooling around the Continent in his vintage London taxi.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in London at a time when the The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Tamla Motown ruled. There was trad jazz from [British clarinetist] Acker Bilk, and modern jazz from Cleo Laine, with her three-octave range, and saxophonist John Dankworth. Ronnie Scott had an enduring effect through his club. London was the coolest place on earth. Cool Britannia in clothes, style, and music. Ted Heath and his big band were still playing in a dance hall off the Aldwych. I actually bought Ted Heath's piano many years later, a 1920s German Menzel with a mellow sound and ivory keys. It was the color of honey and identified by the unique number on a metal plate from Harrods, the store that sold it.

My work life had nothing at all to do with music. I worked in shipping and logistics. I did, however, have to take people to the theater, opera, and ballet, all on the company account. I had no training for anything in my life except a driving license. That and a business sense, lots of work, and fearless attack based on complete ignorance have led me into all sorts of trouble, and a little fun. I did learn a couple of languages the lazy way, by living in Paris and Spain.

Now I live in South Carolina in winter and the south of France in summer, and I write books about music. The book sales now support music education in jazz and symphony. Writing gives people a word bridge to walk across into the music. I also produce. I produced La Boheme to great acclaim and financial ruin; it's the grand opera so that was to be expected. The experience of being in rehearsal for a month with such dedicated, talented people was humbling. Recently, I commissioned a new score to recreate Beethoven's 5th Symphony as a "jazzical" crossover for micro orchestra. The title is "Taking The Fifth."

What's your earliest memory of music?
A large brown Bakelite radio, which needed time for the valves to warm up, and then a terrible-sounding transistor radio made in Hong Kong. I remember Louis Armstrong, of course and, at the time, there was a New Orleans revival of trad jazz led by Acker Bilk, who played clarinet out of the side of his mouth and wore a bowler hat and brightly colored vests. "Midnight in Moscow" was a hit in the mainstream charts in England. [Ed note: Acker Bilk's single, "Stranger on the Shore" (1962) became the first Number One single in the U.S. by a British artist].

How old were you when you got your first record?
I never have had a record or CD collection. I went to a music shop to buy a record when I was about 10 years old, but came away with sheet music (which I couldn't play) because it cost less than a record.

What was the first concert you ever attended?
I was given some last-minute tickets to hear Tony Bennett sing in North London. My date wanted to hear him, but I wanted to hear the supporting act—Louis Armstrong! I don't recall what Tony Bennett sang, but Louis Armstrong sang "Hello Dolly" in his wet gravel voice, and included a scat section. But the big tune was "Aint Misbehavin.'" Hanging back behind the beat, each note was delivered with care, perfection, and precision. Big white handkerchief to mop his brow and a Satchmo smile from ear to ear. That night I heard the great man. I don't remember my date's name, but she went home in a cab.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
Above all Louis Armstrong, but Acker Bilk and his traditional jazz revival was also popular, so it was mainstream for a while, and playing on the radio.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
50 years, more or less.

How often do you go out to hear live music?
It depends where I am. In America, it's three or four nights a week, less in London. In France I only go to jazz festivals. In places where there is less jazz, I substitute classical or, better, opera.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
The element of surprise. If the mood is right, some truly exceptional music just happens by magic. After all the training and trying, it just happens when least expected. One musician has a great night and lifts the others and the whole room, the music takes on a life of its own, leaving everyone stunned and smiling at each other. I have seen music move big strong men close to tears, so I don't much care for genres of music or sub-classifications of jazz, it's all music. If it's live and in the moment, it has enormous power to intrigue and change our experience.

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