[Dixielandjazz] R.I.P. Charlie McNair
ROBERT R. CALDER
serapion at btinternet.com
Thu Dec 20 09:22:10 PST 2012
Newspaper Obituary: from THE SCOTSMAN
Charlie McNair, delicatessen owner, jazz trumpeter and band leader
Published on Wednesday 19 December 2012 00:00
Born: 16 January, 1932, in Edinburgh. Died: 8 December, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 80.
IN Charlie McNair, who died on 8 December at the age of 80 after a long illness, the Edinburgh jazz community has lost not only one of its longest serving jazz band leaders but also one of its greatest and best loved characters.
Charlie attended the Royal High School of Edinburgh in the 1940s, a time in that school when it would have been difficult to avoid being aware of jazz.
The 1940s had seen a world-wide surge of interest in the jazz styles of the 1920s, a movement that came to be known as the Revival, and the Royal High School had been at the heart of Scottish Revivalism.
Given remarkable impetus by the excellence of a number of great players in the making, including Sandy Brown, Al Fairweather, Dave Paxton and Stan Greig, the school jazz enthusiasts were to become known in jazz circles as the Royal High School Gang.
Charlie, although a year or two younger than the group above, lost no time in becoming caught up in the movement and, having gone along to hear the local bands at the Edinburgh Jazz Club in Riego Street, he soon managed to get hold of a second-hand trumpet and was on his way. Like so many jazz enthusiasts of the time, Charlie was mostly self taught on his chosen instrument and, while this may be thought to be a laborious method of learning, in my view it also had a lot to do with players developing a personal style and sound. Charlie was no exception and he was soon ready to make a
start in a band.
Charlie being a man of indomitable enthusiasm and cheerfulness and a born entertainer, it was inevitable that he would become a band leader and, by the mid-1950s, he had put his first band together. With only the single exception of the late Archie “Old Bailey” Sinclair, whom I would consider Charlie’s equal, I never came across another with such a gift for establishing a rapport with his audience.
Charlie had an original and very rapid wit and a totally relaxed manner, which made him a natural front man for a band.
He was razor sharp on those half chances for extemporised humour that pass most of us by and kept up a constant and irresistible banter with the crowd.
The story is told of an occasion when hardly anyone had turned up to a gig in a remote village hall. When the time came to begin playing, only five people were there, sitting in a solemn row along the wall opposite the band stand. At the end of the first tune, Charlie got hold of the microphone and reassured them: “The doctor will see you shortly.”
Charlie had a caricaturist’s quick eye for detail and the ability to persuade others to see what he could see and most members of his bands (all of whom were male) would find themselves with one of Charlie’s highly inventive nicknames, including Ethel, Biffo the Bear, King of the Morningside Tongs and Doris Day.
With his many and varied talents, by the end of the 1950s, Charlie had established himself as Master of Ceremonies at Edinburgh’s famous jazz spot, the West End Cafe in Shandwick Place. There, he exerted his considerable charm on
many well-known visiting jazz musicians, inviting them to drop in to play with the local bands.
Over the next five decades, the Charlie McNair Jazz Band was a fixture around the Edinburgh and Scottish jazz
scene, frequently managing to keep a residency going when few other bands could.
Always a man to whom communication with his audience mattered most, Charlie was perfectly prepared to make changes as time moved on, the band at times embracing Dixieland, mainstream and even quite modern styles and sometimes all of these at the same time.
The jazz trumpeter and Scotsman journalist Alastair Clarke wrote in 1972:
“The band is tough, rumbustious, versatile – capable of leapfrogging the years from trad to groovy, riff-borne rock-and-soul without apparently causing any bewilderment among the audience or themselves.”
Of Charlie himself, Alastair said that he “typifies the eclecticism of the band, blowing in a breezy hotch-potch of styles that somehow manages to accommodate comfortably New Orleans, Dixieland, Mainstream, bop and Blood Sweat and Tears. His singing covers an equally broad area, from Big Bill Broonzy to Frank Sinatra.”
Charlie McNair was a man who never sold his followers short. At times, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, his resident weekly gigs attracted enormous numbers of followers, many of them students who accorded him a genuine and affectionate cult status.
His enthusiasm would frequently lead him, sometimes to the despair of his exhausted bandsmen, to play away beyond the official stopping time. On the rare occasions when the band started a little late, Charlie would assure the crowd that they need not be concerned; they would simply play everything a little bit faster until they had caught up!
Men like Charlie McNair, even in the jazz world where characters abound, do not come around often and are to be cherished when they do appear. Sadly, Charlie’s jazz career ended earlier than it should when his health broke down in the early years of this century; yet, even now, those who knew him and played with him, and there were many, will still swap Charlie stories whenever they get together.
Gifted, versatile, vastly entertaining, endlessly charming and completely unforgettable, Charlie McNair will remain a much-loved legend of Edinburgh and Scottish jazz as long as the music is played. He is survived by his wife Irene, daughter Nikki, son Callum, who keeps the family musical tradition alive, and his five grandchildren.
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