I became a member of the Ronnie Scott’s jazz club when I was 23 and for some reason, I always dreamed of appearing on that famous stage one day. The fact that I can’t play any instrument beyond bashing the life out of a set of drums and getting a passable ‘Pink Panther’ theme tune out of an Alto Sax, for some reason didn’t quell this ambition.
Well, they say ‘visualise and it will happen’ and sure enough it did, when I was invited to take part in a Q&A at the club in support of a film I produced on UK jazzer Tubby Hayes called ‘A Man in a Hurry.’
Asking the questions that day was Zoe Howe and one of the last questions from the audience as she was wrapping the session up was from a gent who asked if there was a chance of a film being made one day on one of Tubby’s contemporaries, namely Harold McNair. I said I’d love to but these are hard films to finance as they are judged as niche subjects. It was then that the person asking the question revealed that he was Harold’s nephew and we all applauded, and rightly so.
In truth, I came late to the world of McNair and it was the track ‘The Hipster’ that tipped it for me, I’m guessing in the late 90s. It is simply a tour de force and marvellous work. While then reading up on Harold, I discovered that in fact, I had heard him earlier than I thought, as he was the flautist on the soundtrack to the film ‘Kes,’ another of my all-time favourite bits of work.
So, time to fill in the gaps.
He was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1931 and was taught to play the alto and tenor saxophone by the legendary Vincent Tulloch at the Alpha Boys School, an institute that gave ‘unattached youth’ a chance in life. Harold’s first musical work upon leaving there was in the Bahamas where he played and sang, mainly in the popular Calypso idiom of the time, under the stage name of ‘Little G.’
His first album was ‘Bahamian Bash’ recorded in Miami. Whilst there that he began to add jazz to his repertoire and he also picked up the flute for the first time, on which he was mainly self-taught.
Soon he was off to Europe. First, he worked with Quincy Jones in his ‘Birth of a Band’ orchestra on tour and then picked up TV and film soundtrack work in Paris. Next stop was London and there he quickly made his musical reputation alongside his fellow countrymen, Dizzy Reece, Harry Becket and Joe Harriott.
He appeared on the soundtrack of the James Bond film ‘Dr. No’ in 1962 and then caught the ear of the legendary US bass player Charles Mingus and recorded and appeared with not only Mingus, but also Zoot Sims, Jack Costanzo and drummer Tony Crombie.
In reality, the popularity of jazz was already on the wane in the UK, as ‘pop’ music took complete control of the airwaves and the live scene. Due to this, he returned to the Bahamas to record, but he was soon back for his first UK album ‘Affectionate Fink’ recorded for Island Records in 1965. He also worked regularly with singer Donovan.
1968 sees the release of eponymous ‘Harold McNair’ album on RCA, which contains the track ‘The Hipster’ with Bill le Sage in the line up.
It was recorded at Trident Studios, in the heart of Soho.
1969 sees his work on the soundtrack for ‘Kes’ under the leadership of John Cameron at Olympic Studios.
‘ It might be the plaintive simplicity of Harold McNair’s solo flute, or perhaps it’s because the film itself is such a beautiful work, but I know I get as much satisfaction from this score as from anything else I’ve ever written.” John Cameron.
They team up again in 1970 for the album ‘Flute and Nut’ with Harold looking very much the cool dude (he was a fine dresser) on the cover, and then ‘The Fence’ which picked up on the prevailing jazz fusion sound with Steve Winwood on the organ.
McNair continued to appear and record with a succession of big names on the music scene, such as Blossom Dearie, John Martyn, Jon Hendricks, Alexis Korner and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis.
And then it was all over. At the age of just 39, he died from lung cancer in the March of 1971.
Over the last few years, his name has popped up more and more and his recorded output is certainly collectable.
The aforementioned track ‘The Hipster ‘ has appeared on the compilations ‘Impressed – Volume 2’, put together by Gilles Peterson and Tony Higgins and then again more recently on the album ‘Jazz on The Corner’ featuring selections from the head of the Acid Jazz record label, Eddie Piller and actor Martin Freeman.
And personally, when I put together a ‘Brit Jazz’ tee for the company Gama Clothing a few years back, I decided Harold had to be on there alongside fellow ‘British’ greats, Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, Phil Seamen, and Joe Harriott.
Simply, it was my way of saying thank you.
The Mumper of SE5