“Most of the guys in the band come from England and the rest of them come from South Africa – which is a wonderful place to come from…” Ronnie Scott chortles as way of introduction for Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath. The crowd knowingly laughs along while Scott enthusiastically introduces the band – a who’s who of South African and English jazz. The joy and excitement nearly eclipses the truly unfunny nature of the joke. 1971 was a very bad time to be in South Africa.
It had been a mere seven years since McGregor and his fellow members of The Blue Notes had left South Africa for exile, the fate of so many intellectuals and artists of the era. Moving to Europe not only invigorated their work, it quite simply allowed them to continue to play what they wanted to who they wanted.
Within a few years McGregor, along with Blue Notes members Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo (incredible solo and collaborative recorded artists in their own right) had formed the Brotherhood of Breath. A hodge podge of free jazz, big band and township music (that of segregated musicians in early Apartheid), the group added nearly a dozen English members to round out their version of a big band. McGregor, who was white, played the part of Duke Ellington while his trans-national and racially mixed band played to packed halls across Europe. Their success and collaboration, like that of so many other South Africans during those times, flew in defiance and in spite of the oppressive Apartheid regime back home.
Taking to the stage at the Berlin Jazzfest, the group seamlessly weaves its influences into large numbers. By turns Afro-pop, bebop and calypso, the group reaches towards the wildest extremes of free jazz only to coalesce in Gershwin-esque swings. On “Nick Tete,” (written by Pukwana) the group waltzes through the closest thing it creates to a standard jazz tune. The horns swirl and solo over one another, by turns “free” and perfectly composed. Moholo pounds out a tom heavy groove while Harry Miller (another white Afrikaner, who cut some chops with Manfred Mann) lays down a driving bass line, together forming the core from which the rest of the band can take any whims it wishes.
“Nick Tete” segues into “Restless” which is about as “free” as jazz was getting in the 70s. Its title sums up the sensation jazz purists get about free jazz, but the group utilizes the piece to show off its high-caliber. There isn’t a moment of the track that isn’t a solo of some kind – in particular, trumpeters Harry Beckett and Marc Charig pound and stab away, equally adept at improvisation and forming the foundation that allows the piece to hold together.
The mix of styles presented over the hour of performance can allow listeners to forget that these styles were direct responses to political environments. Township music was a reflection of forced segregation within South Africa, just as jazz was for African-Americans. Free jazz was a response to the constraints and expectations of composed jazz, both musically and culturally. Bebop was a response to the big band years (and its primarily white audience). Just playing music together – black-white, African-Afrikaner, European-African – was a response to a world that was still too easily distracted and disinterested in the brutal National Party regime of South Africa and its British colonial influence.
Eclipse At Dawn is the melding of personal and musical histories. Many of those in exile found welcoming and receptive audiences across Europe, both in the Western and Eastern Blocs. Those listeners had a great tolerance for the diverse sounds and styles presented to them. More importantly, they had a great tolerance for the diversity and value of the musicians themselves. But most importantly, they gave them a place to play, a place to be safe, and a place to be free, in all definitions. words / b kramer
Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath :: Nick Tete
Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath :: Restless