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McFarland, Gary

Composer, arranger and vibes player Gary McFarland earned comparisons to Duke Ellington and Benny Carter, although he only spent about a dozen years in music. He was one of the first Americans to embrace Brazilian bossa nova, and one of the few to work with the style's master, Antonio Carlos Jobim. He later fell in love with pop music, particularly the Beatles, and was one of the first to successfully fuse rock with jazz.

              Gary McFarland, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Born October 23, 1933, in Los Angeles, California, Gary McFarland moved with his family to Grants Pass, Oregon, where he spent his formative years. There was no hint that the young McFarland would go on to a career in music. It wasn’t until he was in the Army that he even became interested in jazz. He attempted to play trumpet, trombone and piano and, finally in 1955 settled on playing the vibes.

Displaying an ability to write interesting music quickly, he obtained a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music. He spent one semester there in 1959, as well as two summers at the Lenox School of Jazz. With the encouragement of pianist John Lewis, he began to concentrate on large-band arrangements of his own compositions. He attained early notoriety and success through his unique compositions, such as “Weep,” which he wrote for the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band, and “Why Are You Blue” which he wrote for Ellington’s right-hand man, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges.

McFarland went on to several high-profile jobs as an arranger, crafting particularly memorable sessions for vocalist Anita O’Day and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. On O'Day'sAll The Sad Young Men, McFarland contributed his own “I Want To Sing A Song." For Getz, who was at the cusp of huge jazz stardom at the time, with Big Band Bossa Nova, McFarland evinced a particular talent for Brazil's bossa nova on his “Entre Amigos (Sympathy Between Friends)."

The success of these recordings prompted Verve producer Creed Taylor to give McFarland his first shot at a recording on his own in 1961, with The Jazz Version of “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.” While the record was part of the dying jazz-goes-Broadway fad, it turned out to be an ingenious musical statement, brimming with McFarland’s wit, unique voicings and spectacular contributions from such elite jazz players as Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Al Cohn, Phil Woods, Hank Jones, Jim Hall and Mel Lewis. It was also a fine introduction to McFarland’s ability to mesmerize with his vibes.

Related Links

•   The Dozens: Twelve Essential Gary McFarland Tracks by Bill Kirchner                                                

McFarland launched into a solo career, showing a diversity nearly as remarkable as his major influences - Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Gil Evans and Miles Davis. He wrote and arranged Essence (Atlantic) for MJQ pianist John Lewis, an early McFarland supporter. He wrote and performed on the stunning The Gary McFarland Orchestra (Verve), a superb album which featured pianist Bill Evans in a chamber jazz setting on songs such as “Reflections in the Park.” He also recorded Point of Departure for Impulse, a sextet session which features McFarland’s vibes with sax player Richie Kumuca and guitarist Jimmy Raney on tracks such as "Hello to the Season."

McFarland also worked at this time on albums by Orchestra USA, Gary Burton, Cal Tjader and trombonist J.J. Johnson, for whom he composed "Winter's Waif." In 1964, he staged a ballet version of Reflections in the Park with choreographer Donald MacKayle, and issued Soft Samba on Verve, a set of pop-rock covers featuring some of the earliest jazz covers of popular Beatles tunes. The controversial album featured pleasant samba-like rhythms enhanced by wordless vocals and whistling.

While Soft Samba attracted a sizable and appreciative audience, the jazz press and McFarland's early admirers were harshly dismissive. But its success allowed McFarland to form his first performing group, featuring fellow Berklee alum Gabor Szabo on guitar as well as recent Berklee graduate Sadao Watanabe, young bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Joe Cocuzzo. The band toured clubs across America during the summer of 1965 and recorded a second album for Verve which was similar but superior to Soft Samba, called The In Sound.Here, McFarland mixed his brand of pop vocalese with the substantial improvisational talents of unique accompanists, most notably Gabor Szabo.

The following year found McFarland devoting his talents to large-scale orchestras and jazz festival bands. A February 1966 performance at New York's Lincoln Center yielded the record Profiles for Impulse, which collected New York's finest jazz musicians and soloists including Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods, Gabor Szabo and Richard Davis.

McFarland went on that year to record an album of Beatlesque pop, Simpatico for Impulse, with Gabor Szabo. He also composed the soundtrack for the film Eye of the Devil, which starred David Niven and Deborah Kerr.

He also wrote and arranged The October Suite for Impulse, a spectacular chamber jazz suite which featured pianist Steve Kuhn on tunes such as ”Childhood Dreams,“ and “St. Tropez Shuffle.” He also recorded Waiting Game, a lovely orchestral album spotlighting Zoot Sims’s emotive and melancholy playing as can be heard on McFarland’s sad but dreamy “Does The Sun Really Shine On The Moon.“

McFarland then teamed with Gabor Szabo and Cal Tjader in 1968 to form the short-lived Skye Recordings label. While he recorded several albums of his own for the label, McFarland also acted as the label’s artistic director, producing nearly all of its 20 or so recordings, signing new acts, participating as an arranger or sideman on many of the dates and launching the solo careers of vocalist Grady Tate and Brazilian percussionist Airto.

In 1969, McFarland then recorded what was perhaps his most significant solo recording for the Skye label, the socially and politically charged album America the Beautiful. The music paints a portrait of confusion, disenchantment and anger and leaves an impression of sad resignation to a doomed fate – all without anyone ever uttering a word. The opening movement, “On This Site Shall Be Erected,” is most demonstrative of how perfectly McFarland sets out a nearly classical framework and journeys through jazz, rock and the blues to make his points.

The dissolution of the Skye label left McFarland out in the cold. He’d moved beyond jazz by this point, and his early admirers had abandoned him in his quest to explore new directions. During this time, McFarland recorded a pop album with Peter Smith, scored a low-budget film, beautifully sweetened a Steve Kuhn fusion album with strings, and worked on orchestrations for a long-forgotten Broadway musical.

It’s hard to tell where McFarland might have gone next when he happened to ingest a drink laced with liquid methadone at a New York City bar on November 2, 1971. He died almost immediately. There was never an investigation into the suspicious circumstances and it was never determined whether the incident was intentional or accidental. McFarland’s death at age 38 was simply attributed to a heart attack.

But despite this too-short career, he left an astounding amount of good music, some of which remains highly relevant to jazz to this day. McFarland had an ingenious way of mixing sophistication with simplicity, and no matter how one classifies his music, it is never less than lyrical and has remained surprisingly timeless in the four decades since his death.

In 2006, Kristian St. Clair directed This Is Gary McFarland, a film documenting “the jazz legend who should have been a pop star,” which features interviews with McFarland’s friends, family and musical associates who warmly recall his music and make a strong case for his enduring significance.

Select Discography

The Gary McFarland Orchestra – Special Guest Soloist: Bill Evans (Verve V/V6-8518)

Point of Departure (Impulse A-46)

Big Band Bossa Nova (Verve 825 771-2)

Soft Samba Strings (Verve V/V6-8682)

Waiting Game (Impulse A-9131)

The October Suite (Impulse A-9136)

America the Beautiful: An Account of Its Disappearance (Passport 1054 [2006 reissue])

Contributor: Doug Payne