Bernie McGann

McGann McGann


(Terra Nova)


Issue 25: Joe Harriott, Forgotten Father of European Free Jazz

By John Corbett

How unfair, the “great men” approach to cultural history. It condenses trends and tendencies into single names and complex webs of interrelation into cursory place markers in a chronological Rolodex. In this highly rational universe, everything evolves through simple cause and effect: new ideas are introduced by a single figure; others come to try the new concept on for size; some reject it; some embrace it, either varying it or imitating it outright, until the next big thing comes along. Culture is reduced to successive exclamations of “Eureka!”–the history of ideas as pearls on time’s string.

Nothing in American culture so thoroughly debunks this awful linearity as jazz. The real stuff of jazz is interactive, relational, communicative, and social, its products often improvised, fleeting, open-ended and time bound. It’s recursive, looking deep back into its past, and futuristic, skipping ahead several steps on the time line. And players are constantly stealing from one another–you might call it “learning”–making ownership of an idea a mighty tenuous claim. Simplistic “lone ranger” and “march of progress” platitudes don’t mesh with the jazz aesthetic, yet to few other art forms are they so consistently applied. In the very first sentence of his biography of Ornette Coleman, John Litweiler engages in this kind of historical telescoping: “There are four artists whose music and presence were major turning points in the course of jazz history: Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman.”

Pow! Four great men. So much for Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis (who “simply extended the evolution of the bop era into its final stages”). So much for Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, or an outcat like Thelonious Monk. Litweiler goes on to argue for the position of Ornette in a very limited register of movers and shakers, insisting that the particular perspective on jazz offered by the alto saxophonist was singular and significant enough to place him in their ranks. Incredibly, this is still daring on Litweiler’s part–in the ever more conservative jazz community Coleman’s place in the pantheon is not yet a given. But the sweeping generalization still stings.

There’s no question in my mind about Coleman’s significance or singularity. His influence on players from Sonny Rollins to Roscoe Mitchell is undeniable, and he had a profound impact on the shape of jazz to come, not so much by inventing free jazz (the bulk of which was worked out by other figures) as by exploring the music we might now more strictly speak of as freebop (also sometimes referred to as “postbop,” though in my opinion the profusion of “posts” in art categories makes the term too vague to be useful). Bebop derived its melodic lines from the standard-issue harmonies it cannibalized from pop–the much-favored changes from “I Got Rhythm,” for example–but Coleman and associates emphasized linear melodies without directly relating them to a conventional functional harmonic framework. (Don’t let anyone tell you his music is “atonal”; listen to one of his records a few times and you’ll be able to whistle the melodies, sure sign of a tonal center or two.) The rhythm section continued to build on bop’s time-oriented tradition, unlike subsequent free-jazz rhythm teams (Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray, Alan Silva and Milford Graves, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali), which completely interrogated the roles of the bass and drums. Lay the free over the bop and you’ve got a recipe for melodic exploration driven by swing. That’s what allows Coleman to be Lincoln Center’s token out musician, the only one Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis still feel comfortable calling “jazz.”

Coleman’s blithe creativity certainly inspired many young players and his approach to the saxophone no doubt produced a horde of rip-offs for every subsequent player with something original to say. But independent of Coleman, other inventive folks were coming up with similar solutions to the artistic, formal, and expressive challenges that emerged in jazz in the mid-50s. He wasn’t the only one to machete his way through the mounting chords in search of a less centrally planned jazz schema. It didn’t take a genius to see that the music was shifting, and more than one genius helped push it along. So perhaps it’s not so much that Coleman is solely responsible for the change–Litweiler’s “turning point”–as that he suitably represents a point in the course of jazz history when things were changing.

Coleman is the freebop figurehead, but in the late 50s and early 60s other players were growing restless, too–Sun Ra and tenor saxist Joe Daley, to name just two from right here in Chicago. The late Hal Russell, who drummed with Daley, once told me explicitly that in 1959, when both Daley’s group and Coleman’s jettisoned their pianists and began to tinker with the conventions, none of Daley’s players had yet heard Coleman’s music. On “Red Cross,” a track recorded five years earlier in Sweden by drummer Roy Haynes and alto saxist Sahib Shihab, Shihab blows pure harmolodics past the virtually inaudible piano and bass as Haynes anticipates future percussionists’ more expansive use of space. And around then, somewhere half a world away from American and European shores, a young Bernie McGann was firing up his own alto saxophone.

Ornettocentrism is the latent topic of the 25th issue of the fine British magazine Rubberneck. Editor Chris Blackford has dedicated the issue in its entirety to Joe Harriott, whom he labels the “forgotten father of European free jazz.” Harriott, an alto (and sometimes baritone) saxophonist who was born in Jamaica and died in 1974, began playing what he called “free form” and “abstract” jazz experiments in London at roughly the same time Coleman was making his initial recordings, around 1958. Like anyone–but particularly alto saxist bandleaders–messing around with the formal protocol of jazz at that time, Harriott was quickly compared to Coleman and usually wound up tagged as an imitator. In fact, Harriott’s Free Form was recorded in 1960, begging the question of how immediately Coleman’s Something Else!!!!, released late in ’59, could have been received and digested by even the keenest English follower–which Harriott reportedly was not. In Rubberneck writer Jack Cooke recalls: “It seems to me beyond doubt, particularly if you add in Joe’s complete indifference to what was happening in the USA, that his ‘abstract jazz’ was a wholly original conception. He resented any assumption that it was anything else.”

To track out a more precise Harriott genealogy one would have to look back at the bands of Charles Mingus, which contained an imposing cast of forward-blowing saxophonists like Jackie McLean, Hal McKusick, Lee Konitz, John LaPorta, J.R. Monterose, Shafi Hadi, Joe Maini, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Yusef Lateef, Roland Kirk, and, starting in that magical year 1959, Eric Dolphy. Coleman dispensed with the piano after his first record, but, like Mingus, Harriott hung on to it, and one of his accomplishments is to have found a way to make adventuresome freebop quartet constructions that released the pianist from the conventional role of laying down harmonies for others to solo over.

In biology, this might be attributed to something called convergent evolution, the idea that organisms with absolutely different primitive ancestors respond to the same environmental pressures by developing similar adaptive features–a moth and a bird sporting the same camouflage pattern, for instance. Convergent evolution isn’t unheard of in the history of ideas. Consider Leibniz and Newton’s near-simultaneous discovery of calculus. Their respective roads brought them from separate worlds to the same notion. So while Coleman may have been extricating Charlie Parker’s mercurial lines from the prison of formulaic chord sequences and Harriott may have been looking closely at the formal abstractions uncovered in Mingus’s Jazz Workshop, various inherent and environmental factors may have led them to strikingly similar adaptations.

If, in the big American tally book, all freebop beasties must relate back to Coleman, how then Bernie McGann? Starting in the mid-50s emulating Paul Desmond in Sydney, Australia, McGann developed his own maverick style, getting banned from clubs and kicked out of groups (just like Coleman) and eventually exiling himself to a little outback village south of Sydney called Bundeena, where he was a postman for most of the 70s. McGann, too, was compared to Coleman, and like Daley and Harriott he insisted that he’d come up with his way of playing before hearing Coleman’s records, which may well have taken even longer to find their way down under.

“McGann had already established himself in the very early 1960s as a highly original voice,” reports McGann’s drummer of 40 years, John Pochee, in John Clare’s Bodgie Dada & the Cult of Cool: Australian Jazz Since 1945 (University of New South Wales Press, 1995). “Not everyone understood it. They specially didn’t understand where it was coming from. I have tapes of that stuff and you’d be amazed to hear what McGann and [pianist Dave] McRae were doing together.”

These days, the 60-year-old McGann is enjoying an international surge in interest in his music. Two recent records, licensed from their Australian label by the Californian Terra Nova company, offer an excellent entree into his personal version of freebop. McGann McGann sits his alto alongside James Greening’s lithe trombone; along with a look back at his delivery days called “Mail” and a version of Monk’s “Ask Me Now,” it features one of McGann’s earliest compositions, a pert, soulful nod to trumpeter Clifford Brown called “Brownsville,” and “Lazy Days,” a Steve Lacy-ish vehicle from the mid-60s. In fact, besides a vocal tone and a penchant for lilting melodic lines, McGann has very little in common with Coleman stylistically. The Aussie has a bigger, fatter sound, more tenorlike, and his phrasing tends to dive directly into the piece’s aggressive rhythms rather than float over them. A more apt description might compare McGann to Sonny Rollins–his fragmented shapes at the tail of “Brownsville” certainly have the Newk feel.

But McGann’s without a doubt an original voice. With tenor saxophonist Sandy Evans contributing five of nine compositions, McGann’s Playground also has a classic freebop air about it; dynamic support is provided on both records by bassist Lloyd Swanton, who’s played with the saxophonist for the last 15 years, and Pochee. The rhythm section handles mean tempo changes with aplomb, adding Latin touches to McGann’s burning “Southerly Buster” and punchy accents to his odd waltz “Sergei’s Dance.” Evans’s “Snap” dissects a melody the way Monk’s “Evidence” did the standard “Just You, Just Me.” The themes to her buoyant “Skedaddleology” and cowboy blues “One for the Road” recall Coleman much more willfully than anything McGann does on either record.

Freebop–a point of convergent evolution, not the result of a single visionary’s long day’s journey into flight. No doubt there are linear aspects to cultural history, as responsive artists react to the innovations of genius types. But if it were all that simple, we could resort to statistical historiography, which, based on the sheer number of imitators–flocks and flocks of soprano saxophonists blowing derivative “sheets of sound”–would certainly lead us to conclude that John Coltrane, not Ornette Coleman, was the most influential saxophonist of their generation. Jazz is peopled by personal stylists crafting their own special sounds; it’s far more interesting to appreciate the variety, not the singularity, of its practitioners. “Great men” accounts give props to the most forceful voices, but they often do so by eliminating the sense of spectrum that is the music’s birthright. Maybe it’s a pain to remember all those names, but it’s much more satisfying than taking the past of least resistance.

McGann will make his Chicago debut at the Chicago Jazz Festival Sunday; he’ll stick around for a Unity Temple show September 4 and an in-store performance at the Jazz Record Mart next Friday, September 5. Rubberneck is available from 21 Denham Drive, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG22 6LT, England.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bernie McGann trio photo/ various album covers.