Drumming the Jazz Scene

The new vinyl edition of Trapeze, 40 years after its first release, brings drummer Noel McGhie back under the spot light and to the studio. The 71 year-old Jamaican musician, who played with the greatest jazzmen, beats again the drum of the 1970s’ Parisian Free jazz scene.

Noel McGhie (Noel McGhie’s Myspace picture)

Like a trapeze artist, Noel McGhie has always walked the line between different spaces, between jazz and other musics. Leaving Jamaica in 1962, before it became the independent country of reggae. Leaving England before rock and roll took total power of the musical scene. He arrived in France, his childhood dream country, in the 70’s just in time to be free. Free to perform, free to express his musical soul, free to be part of the Free jazz movement. Free to record an album that was not free jazz. Today, 40 years after his first record, he swings into another musical space.

Drummer of Jazz legends
Chop.Chop.The beating sound from the kitchen echoes the drums and the time when Noel McGhie was a cook in England, one of the odd jobs he held put food on the table when music couldn’t. He started learning by doing, playing blues, soul and jazz in England.“At 20 years old, I wasn’t playing just for fun, I started to play to have a career
His career took another step when he accidentally met with a French Jazz pianist who had initiated the Free Jazz movement in France: “First time I played in France was in 1971, with some students of Nanterre University, François Tusques was there. He heard me playing and asked me to go on tour with him. I toured for 3 months” McGhie simply explains. When he decided to settle in France, Noel McGhie met and worked with musicians who were already there and with those who were just passing through for concerts. Noel McGhie accompanied most of the 1970’s figures of Free jazz such as Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Bobby Few, and Frank Wright. Always open to musical adventures he collaborated with singers of different influences. Famous French protest singer Colette Magny, South African singer Miriam Makeba and American gospel singer Marion Williams, all chose the sounds of McGhie’s drums.

Jazz’s second home
When McGhie arrived in France in 1970’s jazz musicians from all over the world were attracted to Paris, especially African American musicians or singers. The French jazz scene was freer than American one. Indeed, even though Harlem -and the New Orleans before that- was still considered the mecca of African American culture and therefore jazz music, the living conditions of most African American musicians there were too difficult there at the time. “Growing up in the 60’s, racism was crazy out there. It was apartheid,” he remembers.“France did not have the same racial problems especially regarding music.” American musicians struggling in their own country found a haven in Paris, with a better artistic status and better living conditions.  McGhie worked with those who found in France a second home. The West-Indian drummer also noticed that the French jazz audience, in need of new sounds, was receptive to the new development of jazz coming from the other side of the Atlantic.

French Free Jazz  
The African American feeling of rebellion, from which Free jazz was born, was found in Paris in the late 1960’s, especially with the Mai 68’s student revolution. “Free jazz was anarchy in the music, there was no order, no discipline” McGhie explains « and it was perfect for the disturbed context in France. » Free jazz was revolutionary as it broke the rules that people used to know in music and traditional jazz.“The evolution of jazz led it to become a more cerebral music, not only made for dance” McGhies says. Francois Tusques was at the head of the development the French free Jazz and influenced many French musicians. McGhie remembers “when I arrived in France there were a few French jazz musicians, but not enough to monopolize the jazz scene” Very quickly as jazz became more popular, jazz schools started to open and it shaped the new French jazz scene.

Portrait de Noël McGhie by Bernard Rancillac, 1973 (© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais)


Iconic figure
In his living room the shelves are full of vinyls and on one of them stands a postcard reproduction of Bernard Raccillac’s painting, Noel Mcghie’s portrait. Showing me the postcard Noel says “my portrait was on a show in Centre Pompidou, in Paris.” Grabbing a vinyl he adds “he made it from a photograph taken by Philippe Gras in Paris, during the studio recording of Steve Lacy album, The Gap.” Owned by Centre Pompidou, but stored in their warehouse, the painting was shown in Milan for an exhibition in 2013. When Matisse associated jazz music to images of circus in his series Jazz, Rancillac in 1973 chose Noel Mcghie with his drums.
Nowadays, the drummer’s face is more visible on social networks. Thanks to the new vinyl edition of the album by Noel McGhie and the Space Spies, Trapeze, new fans post photos of the album cover on Instagram. A fan wrote “this is a lovingly crafted reissue of this ‘holy grail’ item. In my opinion, tenuously described as ‘spiritual jazz’ in some circles but a splendid listen nonetheless.” A phenomenon that the artist is not aware of, but can explain: “The reason why Trapeze has been reedited 4 times now, is simply because it was conceived during the Free jazz era but it was not free jazz at all. It was a brilliant idea.” In 1975, when Trapeze was released, a Jazz legend had the same kind of idea. “I was very influenced by Miles Davis, and he recorded an album at the same time which wasn’t free jazz either.” Indeed, Davis’s jazz fusion album Get it up was released  in 1974 and his jazz rock live double album Pangaea and Agharta,  in 76. Even though Trapeze was one of the first jazz-funk-fusion album made in France, Miles Davis “won the battle,” says McGhie.

Back to the roots
If Noel McGhie had stayed in Jamaica he would never have become a jazz drummer but the Caribbean sounds of his youth are now calling him back. Drums were indeed his life’s beat. He would dance after the cricket game to the sound of salsa and jazz played by the live band. “Every time the drummer would hit the base drum, the sound would echo right into my heart,” he remembers. Later in England, a friend showed him his black box with a trumpet inside. He was looking for a drummer, and McGhie took the job. “I still think today that this man saved my life,” says the drummer. The rest was a combination of work, discipline and feelings.
Today, Noel McGhie is ready to make a new album because he says “I only make an album when I know I have a great idea. I need to be sure that it will be a killer before I go to the studio on my name”. The drummer prefers to wait for the release before sharing more about this project but asserts that “only someone from the Caribbean can really understand where it is coming from.” A record that could combined Caribbean’s vibes from his childhood like calypso, mento or even reggae with jazz rhythms that he masters. A new album that might remind us the endless and open possibility of jazz music, and that Noel McGhie, even though adopted by the French jazz scene from the beginning, remains a Jamaican drummer, rich of a great deal of musical experiences.

Laetitia Daluz

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