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Straight No Chaser - A Jazz Show

Welcome to Straight No Chaser, the Award-winning Podcast hosted by Jeffrey Siegel

Jul 13, 2015

Some significant jazz artists have had tragically short careers. Charlie Parker was gone at the age of 34; Billie Holiday at 44. Lee Morgan has been mentioned a number of times recently on this blog as someone who died far too young – 34 years old – but his fifteen years were so jam-packed with classic sides as a leader and sideman that it hardly seems so.  Gary McFarland, a significant force in the jazz world in the 1960s, died in 1971 just after his 38th birthday, the victim of a poisoning. His career lasted just a little over ten years but the music for which he was responsible, as performer, arranger, producer, and label owner, is timeless. And yet for some reason he has slipped from our consciousness.

Considered an “adult prodigy” by former Downbeat magazine editor Gene Lees, Gary did not start any formal studies until he was in his late twenties. After winning a Downbeat scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in 1959, McFarland spent just one semester of study there before moving to New York City. Through his connection with trombonist/composer Bob Brookmeyer, McFarland wrote his first professional arrangements for Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band.

McFarland would go on to be one of the most important jazz forces of the 1960’s with his compositions, arrangements, recordings, and film and stage scores. He was also a prolific producer and part owner of the SKYE record label along with Cal Tjader and Gabor Szabo. McFarland was also one of the first jazz musicians to include pop and rock material in his recordings and performances. One recording, America the Beautiful: An Account of Its Disappearance, combined elements of jazz, rock and orchestral writing that proved to be a seminal work from that changing pre-fusion period.

The Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble is dedicated to the preservation of his music. Percussionist Michael Benedict has studied, performed and recorded McFarland’s music ever since meeting Gail McFarland, Gary’s widow, in 1979. Michael and Gail were married for twenty-five years until Gail’s death in 2007. Michael and his stepdaughter, Kerry McFarland, continue to promote Gary’s music to this day.

Circulation: The Music of Gary McFarlane, the first recording by the Legacy Ensemble, focuses on McFarland’s most recorded material as well as more obscure, unrecorded selections. Benedict leads the group on drums and is backed by a crackerjack group: Bruce Barth (who also did the arrangements) on piano, Joe Locke on vibes, Sharel Cassity on saxophones, and Mike Lawrence on bass.

Those who want to learn and hear more can catch the Legacy Ensemble at The Madison Theatre in Albany New York on July 14th, along with a screening of the documentary This is Gary McFarland, directed by Kristian St. Clair. The film features interviews with Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Steve Kuhn, Airto Moreira and many more, as well as rare music performances by Bill Evans, Stan Getz and the Gary McFarland Orchestra.

I recently spoke with Michael Benedict about the CD, the concert and film, and especially about the life and music of Gary McFarlane. Podcast 490 is our conversation, featuring music from McFarland himsef (“Last Rites for the Promised Land”). the Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble (“Dragonhead”, “Summer Day” and “Why Are You Blue”); and Benedict’s band Bopitude ("Three and One") featuring baritone sax star Gary Smulyan.