Galt MacDermot: Heir to Hair
by Stanley Dance
Down Beat Magazine -  November 1970

Long before he wrote the scores for “Hair” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona” Galt MacDermot had made his mark in popular music.  His “African Waltz” had been a big hit in Europe when first recorded by the English bandleader, Johnny Dankworth, and became even bigger when Cannonball Adderley turned his attention to it here.  Yet this brought more fame to the performers that to the composer, and between that time and the international success of “Hair” MacDermot worked with steady determination but scant recognition.

When he moved to New York in 1964, a dozen or more of his compositions had been recorded by Denis Preston, a London producer for whom I had made a series of albums by American jazz musicians.  Then as now, there was profound discontent in Europe with the kind of jazz American companies preferred to record and, more especially promote.  MacDermot and I soon found that we shared a common interest – Duke Ellington.  He came to Ellington’s record dates with me, and I made some very inadequate attempts to assist him in what is so accurately described as “the music business”.

Success has not changed him in the least.  He still dresses with careless informality and, although he claims to own one, his is rarely seen behind a tie.  He still lives with his family on Staten Island in the same house he originally moved into; the only difference being that he now has owns another next door and uses it as a studio.  Calm, good-looking, humorous, unassertive, modest in speech and manner, but firm in his musical beliefs, he is totally unlike the kind of character one expects to encounter on Broadway.  Seven years after I first met him, I learned indirectly that not only had his father been Canadian High Commissioner to South Africa, but also Ambassador to both Greece and Israel.

“African Waltz” was originally part of an operatic score MacDermot composed, more or less as an exercise on the foundation of Joyce Cary’s African novel, “Mister Johnson”.  The success of this instrumental was so encouraging that he decided to devote more time to composing and less to performing.  What was, for him, a significant breakthrough, nevertheless remained puzzling.

“I’d been trying to peddle my music for years,” he said, “and I didn’t know why this worked.  It seemed like a fluke. “Are they kidding me?” I asked myself.  “Why do they buy the record?” I honestly believe that people like what I call a jazz feeling, but the difficulty is to get it into a form they can accept.  They don’t really like jazz as jazz anymore, because it has too many overtones of time and style.  But “African Waltz” had a certain thing, a black feel, and I figured maybe that was it.

“I had been in South Africa four years, and I really soaked up African music.  That’s what Hair is – African music.  I wrote a lot of pseudo-African tunes while I was down there, some of which like Chaka and Ma Africa, were later recorded in London.  It sometimes seems as though everything I learned about music I learned either from Ellington or from the Africans, the way they do music.  When Hair went to Broadway, I didn’t think the people were going to be able to stand all that relentless rhythm.  And I don’t know what made the show a success, but I think Gerry Ragni’s and Jim Rado’s approach to the flag, dope, sex – was really extraordinary.  If you saw the show early, when it was really fresh, everything seemed crazy, odd, and different from what you’d run into before.”

MacDermot was born and raised in Canada, but when his father was appointed High Commissioner to South Africa he had enrolled at the University of Capetown, where he majored and got his degree in music. When he returned to Canada, after marrying a Dutch-born music student, he had a living to earn.  One of his first jobs was in a church, the income from which he characteristically supplemented by playing in a dancehall.  How did he feel about the impact of Gospel music on contemporary American music?

“I played organ for seven years in that Baptist church in Montreal, so I know all about their tunes.  Of course, we played them pretty straight up there!  They’re so sweet, and the sentiment is always the same – optimistic, clean, and humorless.  Even black Gospel music doesn’t have all the elements, unlike jazz which had the soul, and the fervor – and wasn’t without humor.

“Quite a lot of jazz came from the practices of the Gospel groups – that sense of soloing against the beat, of pulling back and getting ahead.  Sometimes on the radio, in switching around, I’d hear what sounded like a fantastic trumpet note, and it would turn out to be Aretha Franklin or somebody.  I like Gospel music, but the trouble is that it gets boring.  It has that religious overtone, and it never gets away from that because of the songs they’re doing.  It’s not that the performers can’t do anything else.  We had a couple of singers in Hair who had come out of the church.  It was rather like meeting Catholics who have dropped their religion.  They never really lose it, but always have the idea that Satan is looking over their shoulder, and it affects their freedom.  They’re not as free.  And, again, I think that was what was so fantastic about jazz; the freedom or it.”

Wasn’t Aretha Franklin, perhaps, the exception that proved the rule, the artist who could escape the confines?

“Aretha escaped them somehow, managed to free herself from the inhibition. She sings nice songs, not really – or not only - Gospel songs.  You can always hear the Gospel background, and there’s nothing wrong with that in itself.  What’s wrong is the limitation of sentiment.”

The transitions from jazz to rhythm and blues, and then to rock, had seemed to result in a far less sensitive rhythmic motivation.  What about swing, that emphasis or that impulse?

“During the ‘50’s, in Montreal, I heard black groups that came from the U.S. and they were practicing early forms of rock and roll.  They didn’t swing in the way that we know, but occasionally they would.  They’d get high as kites and every once in a while they’d start to swing. They were in their 20’s, and I thought I heard the beginning of a new jazz in what they were doing.  I’d go down to the Newport Jazz Festival and wonder why they didn’t get some of the groups I heard in Montreal?  Then the whole thing died.  In the best of those groups, their trumpet players weren’t really soloing.  They were concentrating on the beat, all the time, and maybe that’s why it didn’t get creative.”

“But for a while I found more of the feeling that had been in jazz in rock and roll.  Today – and I’ve been listening to the radio a bit – there’s nothing.  I mean, I can’t hear anything.  It just isn’t as inventive as it was.  In any case, there’s a basic difference between its aim and that of jazz.  Jazz tries to create a tension, a dramatic tension, like Cootie Williams does.  Rock and roll is trying to hit it right on, the way Africans do.  It’s all right on in African music, where everybody’s doing a different rhythm around a fundamental rhythm, and the conflict makes the kind of tension you’ve go in jazz.  But it’s not like the way Erroll Garner puts the tension between his hands, nor the way a jazzman will do it against a rhythm section.  That isn’t African.  I don’t know where that came from it’s more American.”

“When you hear rock and roll groups nowadays playing what is called a fusion between jazz and rock, all you are getting is people playing the changes, and there’s n tension, none of that drama, and none of the complexity of African music.  There’s not even the enthusiasm of rock groups when they used to get on one little note and milk it for all it was worth.  I loved that!”

After “African Waltz” and a couple of years in London, MacDermot decided to try New York, where music publishers and recording company executives were baffled by him.

“There was,” his friend Nat Shapiro has said, “no pre-existing slot in which they could conceivably deposit this musical maverick.  Undeterred but with his sense of humor intact and his imagination as free as ever, Galt continued to try to interest anyone – anyone at all – in his music, while earning his living playing rock and roll piano at recording sessions.”

Shapiro’s office was one of the places he had developed a habit of dropping into, “looking for things to do” and the opportunity for intelligent conversation.  How had that come about?

“Most of the people you ran into around New York, you just couldn’t talk to ‘em.  I discovered Nat had written that book with Nat Hentoff (Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya), and when we began to talk about Ellington, he turned out to be a real jazz fan.  Then we got into it and I played him a few things I’d written, and he was interested.”

Early in 1967 Shapiro gave him the script of “Hair” to read and introduced him to its authors, Gerry Ragni and Jim Rado. Enthused, MacDermot set off for his Staten Island home to return 48 hours later with eight completed songs!

“They wanted a rock and roll score. They knew the Rolling Stones, whom I didn’t like at all, and the Beatles, whom I did like.  They didn’t like country music, which I love, and they weren’t too familiar with rhythm and blues.  I tried to get more of what I liked into the score, even if it didn’t always apply to city life.  Then a lot of the songs in “Hair” where imitations of what pop groups were doing.  The parodying of some of the popular styles was one of its humorous aspects.  But at the same time, I wanted to get a genuine feeling – a jazz feeling actually – because the freedom of the show was what I have always considered jazz to be about. Exuberance, that is and tension, and a kind of suffering.  But I didn’t want it to be a swing thing.  I wanted to make it with the kind of rhythms you hear now.”

“It came off better than I had hoped. Nobody was keener than I to do it, but nobody could convince me it would work.  It was really wacky.  Oddly enough the only tune I rewrote was Aquarius.  They handed me the lyrics and I had just a day to write it, so I came up with a very pretentious, Rodgers and Hammerstein type song.  We all knew it wasn’t right, but we managed to get over the audition, and by then I was already thinking of a different kind of feeling for it.  The approach to the words had been wrong.  The words were what the kids were saying then, and since they had to sing them you couldn’t laugh at the words.  I think the reason the record hit was in the tail end of it –Let the sunshine in.”

MacDermot still loves to play.  He played piano in the “Hair” band for a time, and he occasionally does concerts with three of it’s members, mainly for kicks.  These musicians are Idris Muhammad, a brilliant modern drummer from New Orleans who has been extensively recorded; Jimmy Lewis, a bassist who was with Count Basie in the early 50’s; and Charlie Brown, a relative youngster who plays beautiful country guitar”.  Because all four knew it, and because it is what their audiences want, their repertoire mostly consists of the “Hair” music.  MacDermot does not consider himself a jazz musician but he enjoys those times when the four of them, with their differences of conception, achieve what is primarily a jazz blend.

For his other great success, “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” he also played piano at first in the pit, and he remains very enthusiastic about the 14-piece band assembled for the show.  It included such well-known musicians as Thad Jones, Dicky Harris, Everett Barksdale, Billy Nichols and Pretty Purdie, and their potential can be heard throughout, the original cast album (ABC BCSU-1001), not least in the two instrumental tracks on the final side, “Dragon’s Music” and “Where’s North?”  Playing, however, tends to affect MacDermot’s ability to write.

“One reason is because I like a lot of sleep.  I normally go to bed around 9:30 and get up about 7:30.  Duke Ellington seems to be able to play and write.  I suppose if I established a real, life-long habit of doing it, but I put all the music into the playing, and then after a time I find I get a little stale on the tunes.  I have to find some kind of happy medium between playing and writing.

I go to hear Ellington whenever I can, and the last time he was at the Rainbow Grill I really heard some music coming from him and his guys.  The Chinese piece from the Afro-Eurasian Eclipse was very interesting, but what impressed me most was Ellington’s own playing, because he was finding things that night.  Then they did a number with just the three tenor saxophones, and they all got into a mish-mash at the end. The rhythm section cut out and there were those three guys blowing away, and Duke egging them on.  They didn’t take it seriously, but it was and example of an idea evolves from a situation.  I know of no one other than Duke who presents jazz in such a successful way.  He has been doing it for years, and his personality carries it.  He’s simply the best.  Although there ‘s no question about that, it wouldn’t necessarily insure that he would always be able to sell his music.  Yet he has managed to do so.  I’ve read all the books about him, and watched the way he’s done it, the way he keeps it going.  Keeps those guys… He’s truly extraordinary.

“It’s more of a problem than most people realize for a musician to make a living in music.  You can use a show like Hair.  The show covers up the music.  If there’s music there, the people who want music like it, but meanwhile there’s something for them to watch.  People don’t understand pure music.  They can understand dance music, but that’s really a cop-out if you go to a dancehall and just play dance music.  When Ellington plays a dance, he always takes time out to present something artistic.

“Some nights that I’ve been to hear him, he wouldn’t play much, but there were always guys who sounded nice, although maybe nothing special actually happened.  Other nights, I’ve seen him when he never left the piano, never even bothered to talk much.  It was all happening at the piano.  Those were the really good nights, but you can’t rely on them always.  He has to have something else, a routine, that is part of the business of working every night.  It probably isn’t necessary for him to work all the time, but I know he likes to, because it is his way of keeping in touch with music. That’s hard to do.  I know, because for recording sessions I have to keep digging up things, just to keep going, to play, to make music.”

Despite their obvious differences, did he feel that both “Hair” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona” had the same basic jazz intent?

“Although it has that fine band, “Two Gentlemen of Verona” is not so much of a jazz show.  It’s not after freedom but humor, John Guare, who did the lyrics, is a very funny and clever guy, so the music tried to be, too!  And it’s very ethnic, what I’d call a ghetto show.  Because it falls into divisions I wrote Puerto Rican, Afro-Cuban and West Indian music, as well as parodies of old-fashioned Broadway songs.”

The two New York successes were only a part of this prolific composer’s output.  What happened when he went to London in 1969?

“I teamed up with an underground poet named Bill Dumeresque for a musical called, Who the Murderer Was.  It was rather a weird situation – murder with songs.  We had four singers, like a Greek chorus.  Dumeresque does beautiful lyrics that are somewhat depressing, but to me they’re humorous, too.  All the songs were written specially for the show, but it didn’t click.”

“The following year we tried another play with songs, Isabel’s a Jezebel.  It was partly successful at the Mercury Theatre, but not when it moved to the West End.  It was, very strong and far-out, almost like Becket, but without Becket’s appeal.  It was just like a soap opera – about abortion and the relationship between a man and women – and the songs, about life and love, possibly seemed irrelevant.  The critics hated it and were offended by our doing it.  I think they were probably justified.  Although it was interesting in a psychological way, it was not entertaining, the theater critics will say you are not doing what you should.  You are supposed to make people think, but it’s hard to know how far you can go in commercial theater. People read the newspapers to find out whether thy should go to a play or not, and in this case the critics honestly didn’t think they should.”

During 1971, MacDermot wrote “Ghetto Suite,” which consisted of songs and poems by Harlem and Bronx schoolchildren set to his music.  He also wrote a mass.

“It was no big theatrical even – just a setting of the Anglican service.  I would like people to do it.  In my daughter’s school, in fact, the kids all know and sing it.  It’s like a hymn, one long hymn, and that was the idea of it.  In addition, I’ve been writing a wind quartet for my wife, who used to play clarinet in an orchestra.  It’s a nice thing for a composer to do, and it’s fun.  I wrote a few such things when I was going to school, and I do the arrangements for the shows I write, but doing this a altogether different from writing for a 14-piece band where you have a rhythm section to carry it and you sue the brass to fill.  This is completely carried by itself.  It’s fanciful composing, but it has a little of that African feeling.  The rhythms are West Indian, and every time I play piano it tends to have that West Indian lope.  The heavily African beat is much more in West Indian music than it ever was in jazz.  The guys in the quintet are classical, however, very Juilliard-type guys!”

Alongside all these activities, he has for a considerable time been making records as Fergus McRoy, a pseudonym for a Nova Scotian folksinger.

“ I have a record company of my own, and I’ve made several albums.  A guy in Canada has been trying to sell them, without much success, and arrangements are being made for their distribution here on the Kilmarnock label.  The first batch will include Ghetto Suite, a couple of film soundtracks, the original cast recording of Isabel’s a Jezebel, Two of McRoy’s sets, a rock album, and so on.  My name isn’t really known and I haven’t bothered about promotion, for that way I stay free of the business end of things.  Because I write all the time, I’ve written hundreds of songs, and I like making records.  Fergus McRoy, this character I’ve created, provide me with a way of using them.  I suppose a few people might be interested, but the record business is very much tied up with promotion, and promotion is so boring, tiresome and demoralizing that you’d rather quit than put up with it all.  Except that you don’t want to quit the business of music.”

“I think the record industry has had a serious effect on young people, in making them think there’s only one way to write.  When I was growing up, I wanted to write symphonies and operas, and then I wanted to have a band like Duke Ellington’s. There where all kinds of things I wanted to do.  I liked in a dream world, and because I didn’t know the realities of anything, there were all kinds of interesting possibilities.  But nowadays the only thing you can hear is a hit record, or Muzak which you don’t really listen to.  So it’s hard to say how kids’ tastes are formed now.  When I was young, one or two of us used to go to the store every day to find out about the new records. Our son, who’s 14, listens to the radio for hours, and sometimes he tapes half a record he want to hear again.  But not jazz, nor the other kind of records I grew up with, the fantastic kind we used to call “race” records.  I don’t hear anything like them any more, except really commercial versions.  Where is the counterpart of Joe Turner, the young guy like him?”

“As I said earlier, I don’t feel much is happening in pop music, but you tend to say this every six months, that there’s nothing happening, and the next thing you know something happens that you like.  But everything gets exploited so heavily.  I like country music, but I can hardly take the county records I hear now.  The same with rhythm and blues.  You don’t hear new ideas.  People are afraid of ideas.  They want to get that funky feeling – and I like that - but if there’s no idea you can’t go far.”

“You can identify the source of nearly everything played by the young jazz guys coming up.  They’re not original.  An Erroll Garner can’t happen anywhere but here, although for some reason it doesn’t seem to have been happening recently.  I think the reason may be economic, or the fact that the hit record is all anyone aims for.  That used to not be so when I played in a dancehall, when we made, the people dance.  There was a whole different way of playing, when you worked on the rhythm, and over a period of time something would happen.  Now the kids don’t get work until they have a hit record, and then they don’t know what it is they’re trying for.”

“As for jazz every being an expression of some kind of political or ideological belief – I don’t think politics is worthy of a musician’s consideration at all.  It’s like tax – collecting.  Of course, money is important to you, but it’s not interesting.  Music is so much more important.  I’m always astonished when I hear musicians talking about politics, just like they talk about their cars.”

MacDermot’s career has obviously been anything but boring.  To attempt to predict its future course would be decidedly foolish, but all those who were delighted by the freshness of the approach to “Two Gentleman of Verona” will scarcely be surprised to know that more Shakespeare with his music is in the offing.  After he finished “Hair,” he went back to producer Joseph Papp ready to write and an opera.  They had discussed this before, and Papp now suggested the relatively little known “Troilus and Cressida.”

“There’s terrific poetry in it, and little speeches which make nice songs.  When I had finished it Papp didn’t know how to deal with it either, I rather wanted to drop it.  But there is some music I like in it, and I’m thinking of making a record of it.  One of the problems was whether it should or should not be in suits of armor.  I felt it ought to be in the clothes people wear now.  The fact that Shakespeare’s not easy to understand was another difficulty, especially since all of it, in this case, would be sung. Tom O’Horgan wants to do a Broadway version of it, but I can’t imagine people going to a Broadway theater and understanding it.  He believes, and I partly agree, that if you keep the eye delighted and the ear amused, it will be acceptable enough.  It is, after all, a simple story about a guy and a girl falling love, but it’s not a mass thing in the same sense as “Superstar!”

MacDermot has also written a musical about outer space called “Via Galactica,” which Nat Shapiro wanted to produce.

I’ve written another show with Gerry Ragni called Dude.  It’s about American life, the same kind of thing as Hair.  Ragni has the extraordinary view of things.  He sees them differently.  He is in his mid-thirties, a very interesting guy who writes in a strange way.  He has a jazz mentality, and, instead of lyrics, he lists ideas.  They are not in song form and you have to do the best you can.  That’s how Hair was done.”

Both shows are due on Broadway this season.

Copyright Downbeat Magazine.

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