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The day the piano went silent

Updated on May 26, 2015
The silent piano. Chris's beloved Bosendorfer at the Moulin in May 1990
The silent piano. Chris's beloved Bosendorfer at the Moulin in May 1990

Musician and visionary

Exactly 20 years ago today my brother, jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, arranger, and visionary, left us after a painful struggle with cancer. He was older than me by almost exactly seven years. His name was Chris McGregor and he and his musicians between them put out some of the most amazing jazz, in trio, small group, and big band formats.

Chris was much more than a musician, though. He really was a visionary. Even the name of his big band, the Brotherhood of Breath, spoke about his vision. He was passionately committed to freedom, not only in the music, but in his home country of South Africa, which he left with his small group, the Blue Notes, in 1964, when apartheid was tightening its grip on the bodies and minds of the people.

Chris in the Transkei in 1970
Chris in the Transkei in 1970

Facing his death

I have written about him elsewhere so would just like to add here a paragraph from an article on him by renowned British jazz journalist Graham Lock, from his book Chasing the Vibration (1994). Lock interviewed Chris in September 1984.

“Chris McGregor looks more hippy sage than African. A tall, stocky, cheerful man with humorous eyes and a ready smile, his most distinctive features are a long grey beard and even longer grey hair worn in a ponytail that hangs all the way down to his ample waist. But African he is.”

Chris's widow, Maxine, wrote a book of her life with Chris. This was published in the US by Bamberger Books of Flint, Michigan, in 1995, and was called Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath, and subtitled “My Life with a South African Jazz Pioneer.”

Maxine wrote of Chris's philosophy of life:

“Because he was able to really accept life in its entirety, to accept all that came his way, to let go and not set such store on results (a philosophy of 'Whatever happens is the story'), Chris was able to take his life – and death – with a lightness, an expansiveness and a sense of humour that led to peace.”

And she wrote of her own experience of Chris's death:

“Certainly facing his death with him – because he seemed so much like a prolongation of myself – was identical to facing my own death, something that I had always avoided doing even with the deaths of my parents. It was an indescribable experience that has made me fear death no longer – Chris was making jokes ten minutes before he died – and gave me the courage not to hold myself back from life. For if you no longer fear death what is there to fear?”

Joan in the road and the Moulin in the background
Joan in the road and the Moulin in the background
Our mother and father in the centre, on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary, 1985. Chris in the middle at the back,
Our mother and father in the centre, on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary, 1985. Chris in the middle at the back,
Maxine in 1985
Maxine in 1985
The wake in the garden of the Moulin, June 1990
The wake in the garden of the Moulin, June 1990

The day he died

The day Chris died my then wife Joan and I were about to fly to France to be with him and his family. We realised that the situation was serious. We had been in daily telephonic contact with Maxine and she and Chris knew of our plans to come to them.

The 26th May 1990 was also our father's birthday and so that morning we were getting ready to celebrate with him before flying out that evening when the call came from Maxine to say that Chris had just left us. To say we were shattered would be a vast understatement. I had spoken to Chris just a few evenings before and he had said, in his usual funny way, “I've been to the angels and they told me they weren't ready for me yet.”

In the interview with Lock Chris spoke of his inspiration, what kept him going: “I guess you have to approach it with your instincts, just grab hold of whatever's coming and follow it through.

“Really, that's all. That is a musician's work. It's a great life, too. I wouldn't edit my story at all. When I think back there's nothing I regret, nothing that seems to me to have been wrong or off-key.

“You have to be 50 years old to realise, though. That's maybe something there is to regret, that we get too soon old and too late smart.”

We went to France, to the Moulin de Madone, where Chris and Maxine had lived since 1973 in the South West, where we all tried to support each other in our grief and loss. Wherever we looked there were reminders of that great spirit who had lived there, and who had made such great music, and brought so much joy to others with that music.

And I was grateful to have known him, to have called him, in blood and in spirit, my brother.

This little poem is by way of my tribute to him, my remembrance of his African-ness, so it is written somewhat in the style of a traditional Xhosa praise poem and using, in typical call and response style, two little phrases from two Xhosa songs, Thula Sana (Sleep my Child) and Thula Sizwe (Be still, My People).

The day the piano went silent

The day the piano went silent

thula sana

the day the piano stopped singing

thula sana

the day your fingers stopped dancing

thula sana

that day our hearts went quiet

thula sizwe


Now the piano song is stilled

thula sana

And our hearts are stilled with pain

thula sana

We long to hear that song again

thula sana

The way our ears were filled

thula sizwe


The way our ears were filled

thula sana

With the song of the beating heart

thula sana

But now that heart is stilled

thula sana

The heart that gave us love

thula sizwe


O brother of mine, I miss you so

thula sana

My sister is weeping also

thula sana

Your songs are still in our hearts

thula sana

And their rhythms still mark our paths

thula sizwe


The hills and valleys of our youth

thula sana

Are waiting for the song's rebirth

thula sana

And the wind blowing over the hills

thula sana

Still cries out your name to the earth

thula sizwe.


You left us before we were ready

thula sana

Before we knew how to sing

thula sana

But now in our sadness we sing

thula sana

And the people will join our song

thula sizwe

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010

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    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 6 years ago from TEXAS

      Intensely beautiful and so personal. I lost a beautiful, talented sister, her 3 little boys and her husband tragically in a car/train accident when she was only 35 and I was only 21. It was traumatizing. So I can feel some of your sense of loss, Tony. Your poem of remembrance is lovely.

    • George J Hardy profile image

      George J Hardy 6 years ago from Southern New Jersey

      A wonderful tribute and honor for others to hear his story and that of his family.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Beautiful, and very touching. Your life was enhanced by someone very special. You will meet agan.

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 6 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

      Thanks, Tony....very touching.

    • green tea-cher profile image

      green tea-cher 6 years ago

      Your friendship and love come out loud and clear, and although your loss was great, it is evident that your friend still lives on. Beautiful poem.

    • valeriebelew profile image

      valeriebelew 6 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

      This reminded me of my father who also played the piano, among other instruments. He loved the piano, I believe the most. I hope wherever he is, he knows just how missed he is. Beautiful message here. (: v

    • profile image

       6 years ago

      Beautiful tribute - your poem squeezes the heart.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Nellieanna - thanks so much. Your loss must have been traumatic, to say the least. What a dreadful thing to happen.

      George - thanks so much. He was so special and my words feel so inadequate to me.

      Christopher - his presence and his music enhanced my life immeasurably. He is with us still in the wonderful music he left behind.

      Alek - thanks for dropping by again and commenting. Your support is really appreciated.

      Teacher - thank you. Yes, he lives on in his music and his family and the wonderful love he spread all around.

      Valerie - thank you for your kind words. I'm sure your father knows.

      Thanks everyone for dropping by and reading. I appreciate your visits very much indeed.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • ocbill profile image

      ocbill 6 years ago from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice

      Music is one of the best gifts we have been dealt with. To have a sibling become great at it is even more of a gift. Top that off with being a great human being makes it a gift that is immeasurable. I have always loved jazz; especially the piano and sax. I am glad his music continues.

      best regards,

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Bill - he was a great musician and a great human being also, and I will always feel extraordinarily blessed to have been his brother!

      Thanks for commenting so thoughtfully.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 6 years ago

      Thank you Tony! I hope you and your family will be reunited some day and maybe I can hang out and listen to your brother as well! Thank you Sir!

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Micky, I appreciate your comment very much indeed! You don't have to wait to listen to Chris - check him out on eMusic!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • marijanareynders profile image

      marijanareynders 6 years ago from Toodyay, Western Australia

      Tony, how sad to have farewelled your brother long before any of you were ready. Somehow, his own words are so positive and comforting, something we should all be able to say one day: "It's a great life, too. I wouldn't edit my story at all. When I think back there's nothing I regret, nothing that seems to me to have been wrong or off-key."

      How privileged to have had him as a brother ... you and your family will always be able to dance and walk to his music. And what a beautiful tribute your poem is ... I can hear the beat and the words, I am from Africa, after all. RIP Chris ...

    • kirstein.peter53 profile image

      kirstein.peter53 6 years ago from Maseru

      A wonderful tribute to Chris. I'm sorry that I only knew of him and didn't actually know him personally! Yet somehow through his music I felt as though I knew him as a person.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Marijana - thank you. I still tear up when I think of him at times like this!

      Pete - well, he is one of the family, isn't he? We somehow have ties, even though we might not have met hysically.

      Thanks for dropping by, good people.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 6 years ago from UK

      What a touching story Tony. And I loved the names Brotherhood of Breath and Blue Notes. What lovely names for a musical band. I think I understand your pain and leave you to it until the right time provides the salve. May he rest in peace.

    • profile image

      chasingcars 6 years ago

      Beautiful elegy. Beauty of soul seems to run in your family. As Mother Teresa said, "Holiness grows fast where there is kindness. I have never heard of kind souls going astray. The world is lost for want of sweetness and kindness."

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      DG - thank you, my good friend. Chris was pretty well known in jazz circles in UK so if you have any jazz fiend friends they might well have heard of him. Hope you are keeping well there, friend.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Chasing Cars - thanks for your very kind words. I appreciate the thoughtful comment very much.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 6 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Thanks for sharing your brother. His music and memories live on in you.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Ethel - thanks so much. Your comment is much appreciated

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • manthy profile image

      Mark 6 years ago from Alabama,USA

      Being a musician myself I can appreciate this heartfelt hub very much and the Poem was awesome, thanks for sharing his story with us.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Manthy - I really appreciate your dropping by and commenting. It means a lot to me.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 6 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Tony, such a beautiful story, not to have any fear of death

      must surely come from inner faith, knowing there is a better

      place for all people who love God.

      Thank You for sharing his life with us.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Exploring - thank you. I really appreciate your comment and yes, Chris was such a deep person in many ways.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • billy sidhu profile image

      billy sidhu 6 years ago

      What a great way to have lived life- and then to leave it on such a happy note- our deepest condolences. Am sure he has read and felt your beautiful poem too.

    • nextstopjupiter profile image

      nextstopjupiter 6 years ago from here, there and everywhere

      Thank you, Tony, for this hub, a great tribute to your brother. I met him in 1986 at the Leipzig Jazz Festival where he played a wonderful solo concert, your hub brought also back some memories.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image

      Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      Beautiful tribute, thanks for sharing.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Billy - thank you for your kindness. His presence certainly blessed us.

      Bernd - thank you. I am working with a local record company to bring out a tribute album with some previously unreleased stuff. Will let you know when it comes out.

      Coolmon - thanks for you kind words.

      Thanks all for the visits and the comments. Love you all!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • amillar profile image

      amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

      It's hard losing family; the world seems never the same again, but he obviously knew how to live life when he had it.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Amillar - thanks for the thoughtful comment. He certainly knew how to live and his music lives on!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • lctodd1947 profile image

      lctodd1947 6 years ago from USA

      This was a wonderful tribute to your brother. I am sure you will forever miss him. Such an awful disease. Thank you for sharing this hub with us and giving us a share in your grief. God Bless.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Lctodd - thanks so much for your kind comment. Much appreciated.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • profile image

      Chris 6 years ago

      Thank you Tony for sharing and enriching - I join you in the eternal song - peace and love - Chris A

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Mr Albertyn - thanks so much for the visit and the kind wishes.

      Love and peace to you, sir!

      Tony

    • Pam Roberson profile image

      Pam Roberson 6 years ago from Virginia

      This is very lovely and quite touching Tony. And you mention something that is so very true...perhaps it is at around age 50 that many people start to reflect and realize that life is speeding by too fast and it's time to look back and see if there are any regrets.

      Thank you for sharing this fabulous tribute to your brother, and thank you for bringing out such a universal truth that we all have to face at some point in life. Your poem is beautiful. :)

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 6 years ago from India

      Your poem is so moving, Tony. And what a wonderful tribute to your brother - your hub is a symphony of love and caring!

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Pam - thanks for the thoughtful comment. Life often seems to be too fast and we don't pay attention enough to the important things.

      Shalini - thanks for the very kind words.

      Thanks both of you for dropping by, reading and leaving such great comments. I really appreciate it.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • mulberry1 profile image

      mulberry1 6 years ago

      What a beautiful tribute to your brother. Very touching! Talent clearly runs in the family.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Christine - thanks so much for your kind comment. I really appreciate it!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

      This is an amazing tribute. Your poem at the end is quite touching. The way your brother faced death with courage and even a sense of humor speaks volumes about what kind of person he was. Thank you for this piece. I am moved by it. I love music and I love musicians.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      James - thanks so much for sropping by and commenting. I really do appreciate it very much indeed! He was a very special person and I really do miss him still.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • jandee profile image

      jandee 6 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

      Hello Tony, I spend most of my time in south west france and this very month is jazz time there ! My brother spent his last months there before going back to jersey to die and how sad hearing him say to his 14 year old son "well,I am pleased with you son ! my jobs finished now". His name was John and never in my life had I heard him serious.His humerous nature kept many going... Hearing your story about Chris brought back memories from 4 years ago-still fresh.A good example to us all your story of Chris and his musical spirit and when I hear the piano in jazz I will surely think of Chris,

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Jandee - thanks for your wonderful comment which I most sincerely appreciate. Thanks also for sharing that lovely anecdote about your brother John. He was clearly a special person.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • equealla profile image

      equealla 6 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      Dear Tony, as I was reading I was swept with all kinds of different emotions. I lost pets and grandparents. That hurts. I've never lost a brother or sister. That must be beyond the endurable, especially when pre-mature. But I only started identifying with Chris, after you told us he had no fear of death. I drowned 26 years ago. I crossed over and saw the real life. We are living on the upside-down-side of reality on this side. I could not feel sad that Chris left, because he knew the truth. But then.. you knocked me down with your poem. A whole new perspective of death entered my mind. The ones departing has no interest to return too soon. The ones behind mourn their own loneliness, awaiting their own departure. But the winds and the hills and the valleys is neither going nor coming. The cosmos itself is hurting the most. Who will replace Leonardo da Vince, who will sing the song of the piper. Will it be Hitler who replace the melody with saluuts and battle cries. Will the H2O force be the chisel of the new artist, changing the future. I need time to absorb all of this.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Equealla - thanks so much for this interesting and thoughtful comment. I am really fascinated by your story and ouwld love to hear more!

      Thanks for dropping by, reading and commenting.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • equealla profile image

      equealla 6 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      Dear Tony, perhaps I will write a hub about near death. I can also confirm the deliberate conscious decision to leave life in the right circumstances. Dying is our own choice. If I do this, I would kindly ask if I can make reference to this hub of yours. After all, you have the credit. Because of your poem I have grown in my own understanding.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Equealla - thanks so much for coming back again! Your comment means a lot to me. You may of course make reference to this Hub if you wish to.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • profile image

      Gromit 6 years ago

      Merci Tony pour cet émouvant hommage a votre frère.

      La musique de Chris et du Brotherhood m'accompagne depuis tellement d'années....

      Cordialement.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Merci beaucoup pour votre observation! Je suis tres reconnaissant pour votre visite.

      Je desir l'amour et la paix a vous!

      Votre ami Tony.

      (and excuse my poor French, please!)

    • ericsomething profile image

      Eric Pulsifer 6 years ago from Charleston, SC and Riverside, CA

      I knew of Chris, particularly of his struggles fielding mixed bands back then and his exile But I really haven't listened to his music. Listening to him with Brotherhood (via YouTube) as I reread this Hub. A wonderful tribute. Definitely a man who transcends his music.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Eric - thanks so much for the comment, for stopping by and for reading! It always amazes me how many people from so many different places have been touched in some ways by Chris and his music.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • profile image

      Bill Bamberger 6 years ago

      Tony, I'm the publisher of Maxine's book. I just chanced on this today, and it was nice to read the remembrances and to see pictures of CMcG that I hadn't seen. Of all the books I've published Maxine's may be the one I am most proud of having enabled. Take care, Bill B.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Bill - I am so delighted that you came by here! What an honour for me, sir! Of course I know who you are and have the book. Thanks for the very kind words.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • profile image

      Claude 6 years ago

      Chris'Music is still alive in my heart. I produced a Concert with Chris, Ernest Mothle, Charles Tyler and Jean Jacques Corriger in my Cinéma In Ste Foy la Grande in 1985 And it's the event I am the most proud of. Chris is a model of human being with all his generosity and joie de vivre. The BoB was the way I tackle with jazz and I will be always reconnaissant for Chris ans his alumny for their great music.

      Thank you for your poem

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Merci, Claude, je suis tres reconnaissant pour votre visite!

      I really enjoy hearing from people who are fans of Chris and his music.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • blackreign2012 profile image

      blackreign2012 5 years ago

      This piece was absolutely beautiful. Such a heartfelt tribute. I absolutely love this. ty so much for sharing ~hugs~

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