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The Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath - Marching to a Different Drum

Duncan Heining By

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Early one August morning in 1964, seven people crossed the border by train passing from South Africa into Mozambique. It was an unusual group of people—five black men, one white man and one white woman. Any "mixing of the races" was, of course, immediately suspicious in apartheid South Africa. The six men—Louis Moholo-Moholo, Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani and Nikele Moyake—made up The Blue Notes. South Africa's only multi-racial jazz group was ostensibly travelling via Mozambique to Paris and then to the South of France to play at the jazz festival in Juan Les Pins. The woman was Maxine McGregor, partner of the group's pianist and the group's manager, publicist and often main source of financial support. It was true that they were heading for France but there was no question that they were coming back.

On the train in Mozambique, though the country was still subject to the often brutal colonial rule of the Portuguese, there was an air of freedom amongst the party, in particular the black men. For the first time, they could stand next to a white man in the bar on the train without fear of arrest. Playing gigs and touring in their native land had become harder and harder. Concerts were segregated. They might play for whites in the evening and for a black audience in the afternoon. Even though they might not have been doing anything illegal, by their very association they were always at risk.

When the Blue Notes formed in 1962, there was a great deal of interest in jazz in South Africa. Venues might have been few but the country did have a couple of festivals, sponsored by one South Africa's breweries. That fact is astonishing enough, in the context of a country that had become increasingly repressive following the Sharpeville uprising and massacre in March 1960. Nelson Mandela had been arrested in August 1962, tried and sentenced to five years imprisonment after the CIA had tipped off the South African authorities as to his whereabouts. Of even greater significance was the Rivonia Trial of 1963/4. In June 1964, eleven leaders of the banned ANC, including Mr. Mandela, were convicted of sabotage and treason, each one receiving a life sentence.

Maxine McGregor, Chris McGregor's widow, still lives in Lot-et-Garonne in France in the converted mill the family moved to in 1974. She was back in South Africa visiting family when we spoke and I asked her how a multi-racial jazz group could survive in the context of apartheid.

"The police couldn't be everywhere and the group was mostly popular amongst black people and the police didn't really know about it because they were living in a different world, as it were. Also, in the early sixties, when we were doing it, apartheid hadn't really hardened. It wasn't as strict as it was in the late sixties. It was difficult for them to survive. They moved fast and never went to the same place twice. So, the police didn't really cotton on."

Louis Moholo-Moholo is now back living in South Africa, though he still works almost entirely in Europe. He remembers vividly how McGregor would come into his township disguised as a black man, giving a whole new and radical meaning to concept of the 'black-face minstrel.'

"It was very, very tough. By chance we got by. They were heavy but they were not looking for this kind of thing. So, we would do these things under their nose. So, Chris would come to my location, from which he was banned, and he would put some black polish on his face and wear his cap to hide his hair."

McGregor's father was a pastor in one of the townships and he grew up with a love of church music, jazz and the traditional musics of South Africa. As a student, he even succeeded in persuading his liberal tutors that he might undertake a project involving the formation of a multi-racial big band. In McGregor, anti-racism was instinctive, learned through his parents' example and acquired through his own experience of African culture. The Blue Notes had come together in 1962, though as Maxine pointed out, not in their 'final' form. As with all seminal groups, it was a process of coming together and shedding personnel to produce the finished article.

"The thing is it existed in 1962 but not in the same form. It had Dudu Pukwana, Nick Moyake and Chris in it and then, after the '63 festival, they got the others -Mongezi Feza and Louis. There was another bassist and they got Johnny Dyani right at the end."

It was while McGregor was making the big band record, Jazz: The African Sound for Gallo records, that Moholo came into the picture. It's a story that has a kind of serendipitous inevitability to it. They had recorded the album but were following this up with a couple of concerts, as Maxine explained,.

"On Jazz: The African Sound another drummer called Early Mabuza was playing drums in that band. At the second night of the concerts, some people were jealous of Early and had got him drunk and he didn't turn up. Louis had been to all the performances and had seen what the drummer was doing and he just played that night and that was how he joined Chris."

It was in 1964, that The Blue Notes proper actually came together, forming in effect out of three different groups that had played at 1962 National Jazz Festival in Johannesburg. There was Chris McGregor's own septet that included Ronnie Beer, a white tenor player who would work with McGregor again in Europe. Then there was the Jazz Giants that included Dudu Pukwana and Nick Moyake and the Jazz Ambassadors with drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo. Though trumpeter Mongezi Feza was at the festival, he didn't play but met and was befriended by Dudu. The group chose their name for a very simple reason—it was anonymous and would not draw attention to the fact that it was a multi-racial group. In fact, Chris McGregor's name often didn't appear on posters and in publicity material for the same reason.

The sound of the early Blue Notes in South Africa is well captured on Proper Records' Township Bop, which features tracks from their first to their final incarnations. It's the sound of a hard-bop group inspired by Art Blakey, Max Roach with Clifford Brown and Horace Silver with perhaps a hint of Charles Mingus and, in Nick Moyake's tenor, a touch of 'Trane. Through the record's 14 tracks, it's possible to see the group emerge and grow, as first Louis and then Johnny Dyani join the group. But it's the bringing together of bop elements with the wilder music of the different tribes or 'nationalities' of their homeland, which begins to suggest something more unique and distinctive. Legacy—Live In South Africa 1964 from Ogun's Blue Notes' box set is even better, a remarkably good recording given both the time and the place.

Travelling together was clearly risky in South Africa but they had devised a number of routines to deal with the inevitable police roadblocks. As Maxine points out, "The police were always quite happy if there was a white person directing black people. Chris always used to make out that he was their teacher and they were just some people he was teaching. That's how they used to get past it. If there had been two whites, it might have been difficult. So, he would say they were his students or even they were his servants. They were his gardeners or whatever. You weren't allowed to drive with mixed people unless you were transporting your workers or students somewhere or something like that."

In the face of the ongoing state of emergency, life became ever more difficult. Forty-four years on, Louis Moholo can laugh about it but at the time it was very frightening. "Then when the state of emergency came—this was after Sharpeville and after Nelson was arrested—then it was tough. A lot of bands got disbanded. You couldn't be together—not three people, four people could not be together at the same time. So, a trio was out of the question. A quartet, maybe a hanging! (laughs)"

Oppressive regimes are by nature arbitrary, this being enough to hold a people subject and in fear. Even when they weren't breaking the law, The Blue Notes felt like fugitives in their own land. When the chance came to leave, they left with all the sense of loss, displacement and sadness that a life in exile would mean. There was no one event that led to their decision, as Maxine tells me, it was more a growing realisation. It still wasn't an easy decision for some of the group. After all, Johnny Dyani and Mongs were just 18 years old.

"They knew they wanted to go abroad, at least Chris did, because we were cut off from the European and American jazz scene," Maxine McGregor explained. "They didn't know we existed. When Louis first went to Paris and told people he played jazz, people wouldn't believe him because they thought it was a backward place. It was obvious that they would go overseas, if they could. It was partly my encouragement that we did. I got through to a mining house and asked them for money. They felt vaguely guilty about the way they were exploiting people, so they would give money for things like that and Chris wrote a very good thesis about why he wanted to go overseas and what it meant to him and it was they who gave us the money in the end."

Even with some money behind them, getting passports for the black members of the group was a huge undertaking. It involved returning with each of them to the place of their birth and obtaining affidavits as to their character from priests and teachers, who had known them. White people could get a passport for thirty shillings but an African had to put down a deposit of £100, an almost unthinkable sum.

They arrived in Paris, stayed for two weeks and headed for Juan-Les-Pins. Though, their festival performance was a success, they had no work to follow it. So, they busked on the streets of Nice with Chris on guitar, Johnny on bass and the three horn players, while Louis hustled the crowd. It was fellow South African Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand) who came to their aid.

"After the festival, we stayed on in the South of France because we didn't really know where to go," Maxine told me. "We made money to live on from busking. They were saved by Dollar Brand, Abdullah Ibrahim, who asked them to take over his residency at the Afrikana club in Zurich for a month. However, it was a very badly paying job because the six of them got the same fee that Abdullah got for just himself."

It was in Zurich that Nick Moyake left the band. His behaviour had become quite strange and difficult to manage. He returned to South Africa and died shortly after from a brain haemorrhage. In the meantime, Maxine had gone to London and got the band a two-week residency at Ronnie Scott's Club in Gerrard Street. She had also managed to find work with a company that made radio programmes for African stations. Her boss helped her get the group into the UK and found accommodation for them. But there was one more hurdle—the tightly enforced Musicians' Union quota system.

"We went to the Musicians' Union because at the time there was a rule that you couldn't come and play in Britain unless an equal number of Britons went out," said Maxine. "We managed to get the Musicians' Union director (Harry Francis) to let them in as being refugees. In fact, he was a communist and he was happy to do that but he said they couldn't take jobs from British musicians, so they had a lot of trouble finding jobs. They had to make their own jobs or play in pubs or things like that."

By most accounts the two weeks at Ronnie's flew by, with a lot of musicians coming to check out the new band in town. The Blue Notes were well-received and even welcomed. There was also a great relief to be in Britain and hopefully to have the opportunity to settle and work regularly and without hassle. Louis Moholo responded quite forcefully, when I suggested to him that the group might have been seen as 'interlopers.

"They loved us. They loved us, man. Mongs? Who couldn't love Mongs? Dudu? Sweetheart. (whistles). Johnny? Magic. Chris? From God. We were very lucky, as luck has to do with things, and I was travelling with the most beautiful musicians of the era—Mongezi Feza, Dudu Pukwana, Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani. No, they welcomed us with open arms, with open arms. People like Keith Tippett. We were so lucky. This band was so lucky, even the Americans were so fond of us. People just liked us."

Work was, however, slow in coming after their residency at the Scott Club. Because of the MU's policy, they couldn't take the other options that were available to British musicians such as playing in theatre-land or doing sessions to supplement the money from gigs. It was in July 1965 that the offer came to play the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen. They were so successful that they were immediately invited back that October.

Coming from South Africa, The Blue Notes' work rate was awe-inspiring to fans and other musicians, as Louis recalls. "After two weeks we were asked to do another two weeks because we were working like horses. We came from a hostile country, where you have to work, work, work. When we got here it was easy because you work for forty-five minutes then a break. We did not know this. Three hours we would play. They would ask us to stop, 'Have a break you guys!'"

As well as a much-needed injection of cash, the experience provided a major boost to the group's confidence. They were welcomed and treated as equals by Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew and Sahib Shihab, who were living there at the time and got to hear Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor. It was these influences that they would bring back to London with them.

In a very fundamental way, free jazz touched the five remaining Blue Notes. It echoed their own sense of escaping from tyranny and also tapped into the very open, improvisational approach present in traditional South African music. As Louis Moholo points out, "Free music was born in Africa, I think, because in Africa we sit down and we don't count one, two, three, four. It's come sit down and play. It's as free as it can get. We never practised it. It was there. Coming from South Africa, it just fitted us like a glove. At first, it came across as undisciplined. No, not undisciplined, just fighting everything that was there, fighting everything that the establishment is all about. Sort of like, 'Don't conduct me! Don't tell me this because I've been told so much things.' Some rebel kind of thing happening. Break this. Break that. Break these forms." And he adds, "Then we found that we could use this."

However, back in Britain, the group struggled without enough work to sustain them and fell apart. It's also fair to say that the individual musicians in the band were attracting interest in their own rights. Don Cherry had been very impressed with Johnny Dyani and the bassist would eventually decamp to Copenhagen to play with Cherry and lead his own bands. As for Louis Moholo, both he and Dyani had attracted the attraction of Steve Lacy and in November 1965 and Louis had recorded with American avant-garde trombonist Roswell Rudd in Holland. When Lacy invited Louis and Johnny to come with him and trumpeter Enrico Rava on a tour of South America, they both jumped at the chance. The gorgeous album, The Forest and the Zoo, was the best thing to come out of the trip as Enrico, Johnny and Louis were left stranded in Argentina, when according to Louis, "Lacy ran off with the money."

With no records on the shelves and few gigs and effectively no band, McGregor was left struggling. From Maxine's perspective, after the initial interest in the group they were ignored by other musicians, entrepreneurs and fans. "They (the other group members) were invited by leaders who had more established groups who could offer them work and that's why they went because there was no work for The Blue Notes as such. That really is true because I was there trying to be their manager trying to organise it and it was very difficult. Even when (record producer) Joe Boyd signed them up, it didn't actually materialise."

Maxine acknowledges that it was not the younger musicians like Mike Osborne, John Surman, Alan Skidmore and Evan Parker who 'ignored' the group. As she points out, "I don't think that it was the young musicians who played with them were like that -perhaps the older musicians and the entrepreneurs and things like that. Certainly not the ones like John Surman and Evan Parker. They weren't like that at all. They were very enthusiastic."

Most of the people I have talked to understand McGregor's difficulties and frustrations. Indeed, as musicians pushing the boundaries they shared them. Far be it from me to deny Chris McGregor's experience. Maxine McGregor's biography, Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath (Bamberger Press), makes clear that Chris felt hurt by the lack of opportunities to play and felt that the group had never been accorded their due. That I find very sad.

The unfortunate thing is that others have followed producer and writer Joe Boyd's lead on this issue without question or research. To me, Boyd's comments in the sleeve notes for the recently released Up To Earth and in Maxine's book, are unqualified and too sweeping in their generalizations. Worse than that that they appear context-less. Though, to be fair to Boyd, he was the first person to get these musicians into the studio.

By 1967, things began to look up. McGregor and Pukwana were working regularly at The Old Place and Johnny and Louis were back from down the land of Tango. With Boyd's help Chris McGregor with the other four Blue Notes plus fellow South African Ronnie Beer on tenor recorded Very Urgent for Polydor, as the Chris McGregor Sextet. A little while later, Boyd recorded Up To Earth featuring the group, with Danny Thompson and Barre Phillips in place of the absent Johnny Dyani, and with the addition of saxophonists John Surman and Evan Parker. Unreleased until now, it's one of those missing links, the kind of document that helps reshape one's perspective of the music of the period. Also recorded at the time but only now released was a trio album with Chris McGregor, Barre Philips and Louis Moholo called Our Prayer.

But the biggest and most important step was McGregor's attempt to launch a big band. McGregor was a remarkable pianist with an amazing rhythmic feel. Yet, big bands were his first love and the canvas that best displayed his talents as a composer and arranger. John Surman remembers those early rehearsals with a bemused fondness.

"I remember distinctly that Chris was forming this big band and he got together a lot of the guys from Westy's band but he also phoned around a lot of the top session guys. You know -get a bit of a buzz going and get everyone down to The Old Place. They're milling around for a while, then Chris sits down at the piano and hammers out a riff and then shouts, 'Trumpets!' These guys are looking at each other and there's no music. He was going to teach these big band arrangements by ear. That came as a rather a nasty shock to some people, who all of a sudden were saying, 'Hang on. What's all this?' It sorted out the men from the boys, that did. It all changed radically after that."

Slowly but surely the band morphed into the Brotherhood of Breath. Evan Parker was another who played with the band then, although he left before they recorded their two albums for RCA—Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath and Brotherhood. By the time they got into the studio, other musical commitments in Europe had pulled Evan away. He was to return later in what turned out to be one of the band's most active periods.

"Chris started to do this ten-piece band with me and John Surman added in. We did two weeks at the new Ronnie's when they were trying to run the room upstairs as a separate venture for slightly more adventurous music. Everybody was following what was going on at The Old Place and Little Theatre Club and I think they wanted to see if they could start something there with a similar kind of policy. That was effectively the band that did that thing that came out called Up To Earth, although quite how representative it is of what we were doing in the club I can't remember. Then, in due course, Chris established the Brotherhood of Breath and I was in the first version of that. After a few rehearsals, we did the initial concert at the Notre Dame Hall and Jon Hendricks sat in. I don't know if anybody has ever written that down anywhere but he wrote some words for a tune of Dudu's called "The Bride" and sang that. Everybody was very keen to be supportive because that was in effect a fund-raiser for the ANC. Then I remember a gig on Haverstock hill and a few others after that."

Though it was clearly hard to keep such a large ensemble together, Chris and Maxine McGregor did remarkably well with help from John Jack, fellow South African Harry Miller (the band's bassist) and his partner Hazel and one or two others. Both the RCA records are fine examples of the band's work but those who caught them live often suggest that the band in full cry was an entirely different beast. The clutch of live recordings that followed, and in particular Live at Willisau (Ogun), with its fabulous Niklaus Troxler cover, and Eclipse at Dawn (Cuneiform) recorded in 1971 in Berlin, perhaps do most to convey the spirit of this orchestra. They were certainly not an easy band to record and could be a nightmare for the guy on the mixing desk, as Evan Parker explained,

"It was a hard band to record. Nobody played on mike or anything. There was a lot of excitement on stage, so it was very difficult to capture that by a recording engineer.

Parker is not alone in questioning the value of some of the posthumous releases, as he explained, "There must be a lot of tapes around and some of them are of nights that don't necessarily need to be recalled. Some of them are of nights that deserve to be remembered and let's hope that the good tapes keep emerging because I'm sure there's plenty of stuff out there. The radio recordings are better. The others are semi-official recordings at best with mikes on tables in clubs. And the quality of editing is not perhaps what Chris would have done."

Fans are best guided initially to the official Ogun releases, as well as those albums produced by Joe Boyd for Polydor and RCA. The latter have been beautifully packaged and reissued or released for the first time by Fledg'ling Records. However, the Brotherhood recordings issued by Cunieform also deserve attention, most notably Eclipse at Dawn, while Bremen to Bridgwater and Travelling Somewhere have more than their share of great moments of explosive playing from the band, even if sound quality is less than perfect. One can certainly understand the reservations of those such as Hazel Miller and Evan Parker, given the nature of their involvement with the band and closeness to Chris McGregor and Louis Moholo. Nevertheless, these musicians were so very special that fans may justifiably be willing to make allowances in order to hear the music.

In fact, it wasn't until Country Cooking recorded for Virgin in 1987 with an entirely new Brotherhood of Breath that McGregor made an album that he was entirely happy with. Sadly unavailable on CD, vinyl copies do turn up and I'll leave readers to decide whether it is the equal of the original band. As Evan Parker notes the band that lasted (with one or two changes) from 1969/70 to 1977 was an amazing collection of larger-than-life musical personalities.

"They were pretty strong individuals. You had to somehow learn what you were in order to be among them. It was not a place for shrinking violets. Everybody knew what they stood for and what they wanted and they got on with it and you could stand there watching in amazement or you could try and make sense and join in. It was pretty clear that they had come through an ordeal to play together. They came from a police state where it was illegal for them to play together and they had managed to survive all that. All the little issues that came up in travelling around Europe were nothing to them. They weren't scared of anything. They were living life very full. It was exciting to be with them."

The story didn't stop there. All of the members of the group developed and worked on a range of projects. Dudu Pukwana had the 'Afro-Rock' group Assagai with Louis and Mongs and others. He then ran the very popular Spear and Zila groups. Bassist Harry Miller had the excellent Isipingo, while Johnny Dyani worked with his own and other groups recording for the Danish Steeplechase label. Perhaps, Louis' groups convey best of the essence of The Blue Notes and the Brotherhood. His Spirits Rejoice and Viva La Black recordings for Ogun are absolutely exceptional. Yet, whatever they did individually or together sounded in some way like The Blue Notes. As Maxine McGregor says, "It was a very strong spirit. It permeated all their groups."

You can hear it too in Danish guitarist Pierre Dorge's bands, in Italian saxophonist Carlo Actis Dato's groups and, in particular, in Loose Tubes, in Alan Skidmore's Ubizo and in the work of Andy Sheppard and (one-time BoB member) Annie Whitehead. I hear echoes too in Robert Wyatt's music and certainly it's there in inspiration for Keith Tippett. As for the wonderful Dedication Orchestra and the two albums they made, its hard to convey adequately the sheer, pure joy they managed to express. That spirit is most certainly there. If Chris McGregor could only have seen that. In fact, if they could all only have seen their legacy fulfilled.

Let's not dwell here on the deaths of Chris, Mongs, Johnny, Dudu and Harry Miller. For now let's celebrate their lives. Now back in South Africa, Louis Moholo-Moholo looks over their struggles with a mixture of emotions.

"It's such a pity that they never realised their dream of coming to a free South Africa, as I have. I sometimes have a little cry because of my fellow musicians who were trying so hard to liberate South Africa as well. What effort they gave, it helped to liberate South Africa. They never realised their dreams. So, it is so sad for me. We are free now in South Africa and I fought for that and I'm sad now that in a way because when I go to the sea and I'm on the shore and you know how the sea can talk back to you and I think of Dudu and Johnny and Chris McGregor and Mongs and they never saw their dream come true. And a little tear comes out."

This is an amended version of an article originally published in Jazzwise Magazine.

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