Monthly Archives: October 2007

And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Over the past couple of days, death seems to have featured. Not my death, I am pleased to say, but in my thoughts, and in the media.

I went to see “And When Did You Last See Your Father?” last night, where death did seem to feature rather prominently.

But also, a lot of people seem to be dying. On the way home, I listened to a programme about Ned Sherrin, who would have been more or less contemporary with my father. And I read that Ronnie Hazlehurst had died, too. (Ronnie Hazlehurst wrote jingles and music for tv shows. He wrote the onomatopoeic music for Blankety Blank. Actually, I think he stole it from Thelonious Monk – the tune and rhythm is the same as the first part of Straight No Chaser; I always loved the idea that [at one time] avant garde jazz was used to introduce a rather tepid game show.)

And perhaps I am getting to an age when names I have grown up with – such as Sherrin’s – are, frankly, dying. Lots of jazz musicians seem to have died recently: Joe Zawinul, for instance, and Mike Osborne.

I was playing some of Osborne’s music earlier, and I may even be listening to him play now: I am playing the Brotherhood of Breath on my iPod (because I can’t find the CD), and he played on some (maybe all?) of their records.

I started playing the Brotherhood of breath tonight largely because it is a while since I had listened to them. They were a South African/British big band, lead by ex-pat South African Chris McGregor, and his compatriots who were the Blue Notes: a mixed race band, they weren’t allowed to play in South Africa, so they moved to Europe, where they became part of the London jazz scene.

My father was a huge fan of the Brotherhood’s anarchic form of rhythmic jazz. He took us – my brother, my mother and myself, together with lots of family friends – Jimmy was there, maybe David too – to see them play in the garden of the V&A in the summer or autumn of 1974. I remember it distinctly. I hated it. It was a warm summer, but late in the evening it got very cold. I was miserable. I didn’t understand the music – the raucous free-for-all, the lack of discipline. I wanted them to be quiet, so I could go home to bed. This was meant to be a treat, but I would rather have been home in bed.

Later, when I was a student, when I was discovering I liked jazz for myself, I asked my father to make a tape for me: my flat was throwing a party – a cocktail party I think it was – and we wanted some jazz as (omg) background music. It was a good tape – it had some Ellington, some Satchmo, some Blakey. The first track started with just the drums, a fast, pounding rhythm, and then piano and bass came in; and then the trombones, and then the full band. It was by the Brotherhood of Breath, a tune called MRA. It was brilliant; I was sold.

Several years later, McGregor reformed the Brotherhood of Breath with some of the original musicians, but mostly young kids from yet another British jazz revival. (Wait long enough and one will come along.) Steve Williamson was in the line up, and Annie Whitehead; Jim Dvorak (who was one of the leading lights of the “tribute band”, the Dedication Orchestra) and others. As a family, we went back to see the band play the Royal Festival hall – not the same band, perhaps, as that late summer evening fourteen years before, but the same leader, and the same tunes. They were good – not as exciting as the records of the original band can be (although they could also be irritating and unlistenable too as they go off into free-form tangents); but good.

Many of the original Blue Notes had died –Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani. As each one died, the remaining members made an album dedicated to them.

Blue Notes for Johnny was the last present I gave my father; perhaps not wholly appropriate for someone dying of cancer, but by then we had learned a way to talk, through jazz.

And that Brotherhood of Breath at the RFH was the last jazz gig my father went to.