Friday, October 7, 2011

Gary McFarland: Voyage of Discovery

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Gary McFarland was unknown at twenty-eight when he turned up at a 1961 rehearsal [of Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band] with two pieces, "Weep" and "Chug-gin'," profoundly influenced by Ellington and Strayhorn.

When he died tragically ten years later, his reputation had been sullied by several com­mercial projects. But the McFarland that Mulligan sent on his way was an impressive writer (he soon fulfilled his promise with The Jazz Version of How To Succeed in Business, Point of Departure, and The October Suite), with an ear for melody and the ability to layer rhythms in the wind sections.

Like Bob Brookmeyer and Thad Jones, McFarland extended El­lington's harmonic density, employing what the arranger and educator Rayburn Wright called "grinds"—major and minor seconds woven into the voicings.”
- Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz [p.362-363]


Any musician who is self-taught to any degree knows this as an almost universal truth: if you can hear it, you can find a way to play it.

I had to “unlearn” everything once I began taking drums lessons, because there is the right or correct way to execute music on the instrument; and then there is the way we learn to play when only the ear is the guide.

But I was a Jazz drummer before I became a technically proficient Jazz drummer. I just found a way to replicate on the instrument sounds that I heard while listening to records. 

And although I wasn’t in their league, many of the Jazz greats learned to play by ear and received technical training later in life or, in some cases, not at all.

This is also true of composer-arrangers.

As a teen-ager, Gil Evans listened to records at speeds slower than 78rpm’s to pick out sounds from the Louis Armstrong recordings that he treasured and then invented his own notation system to write arrangements before he had any sort of schooling in the art of orchestration.

This may account for the fact that Gil’s arrangements always seem to use unique combinations of instruments including tubas with flutes and rarely heard [in Jazz] reed instruments such as the oboe and English horn.

He was trying to replicate into music sounds that he heard in his head and these odd or unusual instruments were the best source to emulate his impressions.

He didn’t know what he couldn’t do, because he had no formal training to tell him otherwise.

Enter Gary McFarland.


Gary was initially self-taught both on vibraphone and as a composer arranger and, like Gil Evans, one of his heroes, he altered the course of composing, arranging and scoring Jazz while trying to replicate or notate in music what he heard in his head.

As Bob Brookmeyer, an unparalleled valve trombone player and one of the premier Jazz composer-arranger of our times said of Gary:

“… he didn’t know enough to be like anybody else. So he developed his own way of writing, and I was really interested in him because he was so individual.”

Pianist Steve Kuhn remarked of his collaboration with Gary in The October Suite, which was composed and arranged by McFarland:

“… how beautifully Gary’s writing for the strings and woodwinds came off when you consider he has not had much training in scoring for these instruments.”

In his liner notes to the recording, Nat Hentoff expanded on this thought when he observed:

“Clearly, in Gary’s case this lack of formal training freed him from pre-set conceptions of what could and could not be done and that’s why the results are so personal.”

“So personal” is a phrase that needs to be emphasized for although Gary would later go on to formal training with stints at the Lenox (Massachusetts) School of Jazz and the Berklee College of Music [in Boston], Gary’s music always retained an individual vitality and a singularity of sound which were no doubt reflections of his wanderings in the World of Musical Self-Discovery.

Bill Kirchner, composer-arranger, multi-reed player, educator and editor of The Oxford Companion to Jazz, wrote these insert notes to Gary McFarland’s The Jazz Version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and has kindly allowed us to reproduce them on these pages.

He, too, notes how Gary took his personal curiosity and determination of purpose and - with “a little help from his friends” - developed them into a musical world that was characteristically his own.



© -  Bill Kirchner: used with the author’s permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Here … [is one] of the finest big-band jazz recordings of the early 1960s, featuring the cream of New York studio jazz talent plus writing that is still astoundingly fresh and creative more than three decades later.  … The album, unavailable for many years, was the product of a studio system that has largely disappeared — one that enabled some of the best instrumentalists and composer/arrangers in jazz to create, with seemingly routine efficiency, a host of memo­rable recorded works.

The careers of … Gary McFarland and Bob Brookmeyer frequently intertwined in those days. In fact, Brookmeyer was responsible for McFarland's first impor­tant break in New York. Though only four years McFarland's senior, Brookmeyer, born in 1929, was at that time a far more experienced musician, having been in several big bands and a featured soloist during the mid-Fifties with the Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Jimmy Giuffre groups. Highly regarded as a valve trombonist, pianist (he recorded a piano-duet album with Bill Evans), and composer/arranger, Brookmeyer was an important presence on the New York scene. He had made substantial inroads as a studio musician, was straw boss of the newly formed Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band (CJB) and, in August 1961, formed a quintet with Clark Terry that lasted for five years.

McFarland, when he moved to New York, was a comparative novice; until his mid-twenties he had been a self-described "nickel-and-dime hedonist", a musical illiterate who, with well-timed encouragement from several sources (columnist Ralph Gleason, flutist Santiago Gonzalez, John Lewis, pianist/vibraphonist Buddy Montgomery, and Cal Tjader), taught him­self the vibraphone, learned to write music, and obtained scholarships to the Lenox (Massachusetts) School of Jazz and the Berklee College of Music. Though his stay at Berklee was brief, it enabled him to meet Herb Pomeroy, the trumpeter/arranger/educator who, apart from his teaching duties, led a fine professional big band; McFarland got impor­tant experience writing for this group. In September 1960 he moved to New York and met Brookmeyer at a social gathering.

Invited soon thereafter to Brookmeyer's West Village apartment, McFarland brought the score to one of his compositions, "Weep". As Brookmeyer recalls, the newcomer was "a complete original". He told McFarland to bring the piece to a CJB rehearsal; within a year, the band recorded "Weep" and "Chuggin"' and, later on, three other McFarland compositions. Creed Taylor, the new head of Verve Records, took an interest in McFarland, and the erstwhile fledgling became one of the most important new writ­ing talents in New York. "I used to look at his scores and try to figure out how they got to sound that way, because they looked wrong on paper," says Brookmeyer. "He apparently hadn't had a whole lot of history of any kind, and he didn't know enough to be like anybody else. So he developed his own way of writing, and I was really interested in him because he was so individual."

McFarland himself credited Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans and, most of all, Miles Davis as his biggest influences, and though one can hear all of them in his writing, one primarily hears a musician with a very personal melodic gift and a unique sense of orchestral color and texture. (I once had the opportunity to examine the scores to McFarland's October Suite, written in 1966 for pianist Steve Kuhn, and was amazed at how simple the individual parts were, consid­ering how dense they sounded cumulatively.)


McFarland's first album as a leader was a jazz adaptation of the score of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the hit satirical Broadway show with words and music by Frank Loesser. Though the original score had exceptional moments (I Believe in You in particular), it was hardly as fertile musically as My Fair Lady. That McFarland succeeded in fashioning from this material one of the most memorable "jazz versions of" — an overworked genre in the late Fifties and early Sixties — is a trib­ute to his resourcefulness. Not the least of his talents was the ability to put together a crack all-star band and write perceptively for its squad of soloists. …”

Bill wasn’t kidding about putting together “a crack all-star band” as Gary assembled the likes of Doc Severinsen, Bernie Glow and Clark Terry and Herb Pomeroy in the trumpet section, Bob Brookmeyer, Willie Dennis and Billy Byers in the trombone section, a reed section made up of Ed Wasserman, Phil Woods, Al Cohn, Oliver Nelson and Sol Schlinger, Hank Jones on piano either Jim Hall or Kenny Burrell on guitar, George Duvivier or Joe Benjamin on bass and Mel Lewis or Osie Johnson on drums for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

It must have been immensely satisfying for Gary to take his “voyage of discovery” as a Jazz composer-arranger into the New York studios with a band comprised of the likes of these musicians.

All of it beginning with the idealism and a passion of youth and the desire to do it.

Gary died under tragic circumstance in 1971 at the young age of thirty-eight [38].


We always wondered what might have happened if Gary McFarland had crossed paths with Stan Kenton during the 1960’s?

In our recently published feature on composer arranger Pete Rugolo, Bill Russo, who followed Pete in the role of chief arranger with the Kenton band, reflected: “Stan's encouragement of his arrangers was powerful and convinc­ing—he got people to do things they might not otherwise have done. He always tried to get the best out of people and frequently succeeded.”

Pete Rugolo shared: "I guess that an arranger's idea of paradise is some place where he can write anything he wants to and still manage to make a living. That's why I felt like I was walking through the pearly gates when, fresh from the army, I went to work with Stan Kenton. Not only could I arrange the way I wanted to, but I could even compose originals and know they'd be heard. To make the situation more unbelievable, Stan never said 'Don't do it this way' or 'Don't do it that way.' He was willing to try anything so long as he felt the writer really meant what he was saying.”

What with Stan’s life-long interest in extended, symphonic-like compositions continuing with his Neophonic Orchestra in the mid-1960’s as well as his movement to more rock-inflected Jazz as a result of the young musicians then coming on the Kenton band who were comfortable with both Jazz and Rock, Gary McFarland’s adroit handling of Jazz suites inflected with aspects of Rock might have made for an interesting pairing.

Kenton and McFarland may have been to the Kenton band of the 1970’s what Kenton and Rugolo were to the band’s musical style in the 1940’s. Alas, it was not to be as Gary died at the beginning of the decade and Kenton would pass before the end of it.

One can perhaps get an idea of what such a McFarland-Kenton pairing might have sounded like by listening to the excerpt that forms the audio track to the following video tribute to Gary.


My favorite among Gary’s extended compositions, the full suite is in six-parts and is entitled America The Beautiful: An Account of its Disappearance [DCC Jazz DJZ-615]. The work is still available both as a CD and as an Mp3 download.

The title is reflective of the fledgling ecology movement which was gathering momentum in the USA in the 1960’s thanks to the work of authors such as Rachel Carson and Marya Mannes and biologist Paul Ehrlich.

The music on the video is from the Second Movement which is entitled 80 Miles An Hour Through Beer-Can County.

The work begins quietly with horns and strings in dissonance before a strong rhythmic riffs kicks in around 2:00 minutes. These rhythmic pulsations suspend at 3:05 minutes when Warren Berhhardt’s solo piano enters to beautifully state the movement’s main melody before the rock portion engages at about 4:40 minutes.

The guitar solo is by Eric Gayle, Chuck Rainey is the bassist with Bernard Perdie is on drums. George Ricci plays the cello solo, the violin concertmaster is Gene Orloff and the oboe part which brings the movement to a close is played by Romeo Penque.

Also heard in the piece are tuba played by Harvey Phillips, the French Horns of Ray Alonge and Jimmy Buffington and a trumpet section made up of Bernie Glow, Ernie Royay, Marvin Stamm and Snooky Young.

The loss of Gary McFarland at the ridiculously young age of 38 has to be one of the Jazz World’s greatest tragedies.  I would have liked to hear what other music he would have created during his personal, voyage of discovery.