born on 5/11/1931 in Kingston, Jamaica
died on 7/3/1971 in London, England, United Kingdom
Harold McNair (5 November 1931 in Kingston, Jamaica 7 March 1971 in Maida Vale, North London) was a renowned saxophonist and flautist.
McNair started out at the Alpha Boys School under the tutelage of Victor Tulloch, whilst playing with Joe Harriott (a lifelong friend who considered McNair his de facto younger brother), Wilton 'Bogey' Gaynair, and Baba Motta's band. He spent the first decade of his musical career in The Bahamas, where he used the name "Little G" for recordings and live performances. His early Bahamian recordings were mostly in Caribbean musical styles rather than jazz, in which he sang and played both alto and tenor saxophone. He also played a calypso singer in the 1958 film Island Women. In 1960, he went to Miami to record his first album, a mixture of jazz and calypso numbers entitled Bahama Bash. It was around this time that he began playing the flute, which would eventually become his signature instrument. Initially he had some lessons in New York, but he was largely self taught. He departed for Europe later in 1960.
McNair in Europe
Like many other West Indian jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Harriott, Dizzy Reece and Harry Beckett), McNair moved to Britain. However, before arriving in London, he toured Europe with Quincy Jones and worked on film and TV scores in Paris. Once in London, he quickly gained a reputation as a formidable player on flute, alto and tenor saxophone, leading to a regular gig at Ronnie Scott's nightclub.
His playing drew the admiration of bass player Charles Mingus, who was in London to shoot the 1961 motion picture All Night Long. McNair was part of a quartet Mingus formed to rehearse with during his stay in Britain. However, the band never performed in front of a paying audience, due to a ban imposed by the Musicians' Union on US musicians in British nightclubs. A recording of the band exists, playing the earliest recorded version of the now famous Mingus composition "Peggy's Blue Skylight", but it has never been released, despite featuring in the movie itself. The Musician's Union ban was lifted later in 1961, leading to a residency by US tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims at Ronnie Scott's club. Ironically, McNair's own quartet were also on the bill, resulting in two of his performances appearing on the album made to commemorate the gigs, Zoot Live at Ronnie Scott's. Around the same time, he also recorded with the drummer Tony Crombie and the percussionist Jack Costanzo.
McNair briefly returned to The Bahamas, where he cut his first all jazz LP Up in the Air with Harold McNair, before settling back in London permanently. His first UK album as a leader, Affectionate Fink, was made for the fledgling Island Records in 1965. The session saw him team up with Ornette Coleman's then current rhythm section of David Izenzon (bass) and Charles Moffett (drums), for a set of standards played with hard swinging intensity. McNair equally featured his tenor sax and flute on this session, delivering virtuoso performances on both. His next (self titled) album, cut for RCA in 1968, was another classic and featured probably his most famous composition, "The Hipster", which has become a perennial fixture on the playlists at jazz clubs and was included on Gilles Peterson's recent Impressed Vol. 2 compilation of 1960s British jazz.
His next album was 1970's Flute and Nut (RCA), which featured big band and string arrangements by John Cameron. This was quickly followed up in the same year by The Fence, which moved in the direction of jazz fusion. Another self-titled album was issued posthumously by the B&C label in 1972, which mixed tracks from the 1968 RCA album with later, unreleased recordings. Notable recorded works as a jazz sideman included sessions with the jazz-rock/big band ensemble Ginger Baker's Air Force and John Cameron's Off Centre. He also recorded with visiting Americans including vocalists Jon Hendricks and Blossom Dearie, drummer Philly Joe Jones and saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis.
Albums as bandleader:
- Bacchanal At Chez Paul Meers, Carib LP 2004 1958 - two tracks only As Bandleader [Peanuts Taylor & Orchestra LP]
- as Little G, Bahama Bash, Top Rank 1960
- Zoot Sims et al., Zoot Live at Ronnie Scott's, Fontana 1961 - two tracks only (with Terry Shannon, Jeff Clyne, Phil Seamen)
- Up in the Air with Harold McNair, Bahamian Rhythms 1964
- Affectionate Fink, Island 1965 (with Alan Branscombe, David Izenzon, Charles Moffett)
- Harold McNair, RCA 1968 (with Bill Le Sage, Spike Heatley, Tony Carr)
- Flute and Nut, RCA 1970 (with John Cameron)
- The Fence, B&C 1970 (with Keith Tippett, Ric Grech, Terry Cox, Danny Thompson, Tony Carr, Colin Green, Alan Branscombe) - reissued on CD in 2007 by Hux Records
- Harold McNair, B&C 1972
- Alpha Boys' School Music in Education, Trojan 2006 (CD!) - one track only (perhaps taken from Harold McNair?)
Jazz recordings as sideman:
- Quincy Jones Big Band, Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series, Vol. 1: Lausanne 1960, TCB 1960
- Tony Crombie, Whole Lotta Tony, Ember 1961
- Jack Costanzo, Equation in Rhythm, Fontana 1962 (credited as 'Little Jesus')
- Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Oh Gee: Live in Manchester, Jasmine 1967
- Philly Joe Jones, Mo' Joe - aka Trailways Express, Black Lion 1968, with Peter King, Kenny Wheeler
- John Cameron, Off Centre, Deram 1969
- Blossom Dearie, That's Just the Way I Want to Be, Fontana 1970
- Jon Hendricks, Live, Fontana 1970
- Ginger Baker's Air Force, Ginger Baker's Air Force, Polydor 1970, with Steve Winwood, Rick Grech, Denny Laine, Chris Wood, Graham Bond
McNair's unique phrasing on the flute in particular led to great demand for his services among non-jazz musicians, especially during the late 1960s as the British jazz scene went through some tough times. His flute was heavily featured on the soundtrack for Ken Loach's film Kes, with music written by regular McNair collaborator John Cameron. Another notable soundtrack contribution was his tenor saxophone on the original 1962 soundtrack theme from Dr. No.
His best-known sideman role came via his regular participation (with Cameron) on Donovan's mid-to-late 1960s recording sessions, and as a member of Donovan's touring band. McNair arranged the hit single "There Is a Mountain" (1967) and played the flute riff. Donovan's live album Donovan in Concert features McNair's flute and tenor extensively and demonstrates some of his finest recorded work.
Throughout the late 1960s he also played on many other jazz inflected folk music and progressive rock albums, including John Martyn's The Tumbler and Davy Graham's Large as Life and Twice as Natural.
Session musician credits
- Donovan, Fairytale Pye 1965
- Donovan, Sunshine Superman, Epic 1966
- Donovan, Mellow Yellow, Epic 1967
- Donovan, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden, Pye 1967
- The Picadilly Line, The Huge World Of Emily Small, CBS 1967
- Lionel Bart, Isn't This Where We Came In?, Deram 1968
- Donovan, Donovan in Concert, Pye 1968
- Donovan, Hurdy Gurdy Man, Epic 1968
- Steamhammer, Steamhammer, CBS 1969
- Davy Graham, Large as Life and Twice as Natural, Decca 1968
- John Cameron, Kes: Original Sound Track, Trunk rec. 1968 rel. 2001
- John Martyn, The Tumbler, Island 1968
- Don Partridge, Don Partridge, Columbia 1968
- Syd Dale - Flamboyant Themes - Vol. III, KPM 1968
- Syd Dale - Chorus And Orchestra, KPM 1969
- Brian Bennett - Illustrated London Noise, Columbia 1969
- Donovan, Barabajagal, 1969
- Al Jones, Alun Ashworth Jones, Parlophone 1969
- Magna Carta, Magna Carta, Mercury 1969
- Marc Brierley, Hello, CBS June 1969
- CCS, CCS, Rak 1970
- Peter Collins, Peter Collins First Album, Decca Nova 1970
- Rosetta Hightower, Hightower, CBS 1970
- Johnny Harris, Movements, Warner Brothers 1970
- Cressida, Asylum, Vertigo 1971
- Caetano Veloso, Caetano Veloso, Philips 1971
- Alexis Korner, Bootleg Him, 1972
- CCS, CCS II, Rak 1972
- Seven Ages of Man, Seven Ages of Man, Rediffusion 1972
Death and legacy
McNair died of lung cancer in March 1971, at the age of 39. Until The Fence was reissued on CD by Hux Records in 2007, none of the recordings made under his own name had been reissued on CD, limiting the awareness of his outstanding musicianship. Nevertheless, he has inspired great admiration among those who have been lucky enough to hear his music, his reputation being especially high among flautists. For transcriptions of his flute solos on "Indecision", "Lord of the Reedy River" and "The Cottage" (from the "Harold McNair" RCA 1968 LP) go to Jazz Flute Transcriptions where these can be downloaded for free.
- Harold McNair at All Music Guide
- Alpha Boys School alumni
- Jamaica Observer article on Jamaican jazz musicians, including Harold McNair
- Official John Martyn website