Gary McFarland

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Column: I Am Crazy For Records

The Short, Sad Story of Gary McFarland
by Joey Sweeney

Legend has it, the first set of vibes Gary McFarland ever bought matched the olive drab Army uniform he was wearing at the time. After trying his hand at the trumpet, piano and trombone, the dark green vibraphone he spotted at the PX caught his eye and he figured, "Why the hell not?" Five years later-after completing a scholarship at Berklee School of Music and the resulting praise that he was an "adult prodigy"-he was heading up his own orchestra, that would eventually back Stan Getz, Anita O'Day and Bill Evans. McFarland was a California boy who looked perpetually young and bemused, and his is a precious Cinderella story, the kind that almost never happens to jazz players, who by and large view the phrase "overnight success" as not just an oxymoron, but one that carries tremendous distaste.

In 1961, he backed up Anita O'Day on All the Sad Young Men, a sublime album of big-band standards, with McFarland's cheeky-but never gimmicky-arrangements showing a sense of fun and wit that would mark his first big achievement later the same year, The Jazz Version of 'How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.'

At 27, McFarland had arrived. In the event that anyone in the jazz world was in need of confirmation on that one, he was hand-picked to do the writing and arranging for the follow-up to Stan Getz's Jazz Samba. The resulting album, Big Band Bossa Nova, was McFarland's first major stab (other than a bossa nova record the same year with trombonist and mentor Bob Brookmeyer) at what was then a full-blown bossa nova craze. As he had with every other form he approached, he took to this music with an aplomb that belied his years.

"These guys were like gods back then; it was just amazing how much coverage they got," says Douglas Payne. Payne is something of a Gary McFarland scholar. Along with Gabor Szabo, Shirley Scott, Lalo Schifrin and a few others, McFarland is one of a handful of people who, for a brief time, tried to meld samba and bossa nova with American jazz and pop; Payne-a fan's fan-discovered them in the mid-'80s and has been doing everything to get the word out ever since. "And then, they were gone, they were dead, nobody could find their records." 

But before that, McFarland tapped into bossa nova on a much deeper level than most of his contemporaries; there was something sad-eyed and just a little drunk in the chord progressions that McFarland had been trying to articulate in his own arrangements for years. And while McFarland made no effort to hide how much he was infatuated with the cocktail life-thereby playing up the schmalztier sides of bossa nova-he also found something meaningful in the music. For him, bossa nova-as well as the pop mutations he could bring to it- was the music of his soul, the perfect blend of darkness and light.

But in 1964-as far as jazz critics were concerned-Gary McFarland joined the lesser ranks of the bachelor pad set, with Soft Samba, an album of pop tunes-four of which were Beatles songs, thereby making McFarland one of the first jazz artists to take on their music. Arranged with a Latin flair and featuring McFarland's trademark soft-spoken vocalese, it was one of his most popular records. But his embrace of pop cost him serious jazz cred, and he'd spend the rest of his life weighing whether or not that was something worth getting back.

It's here, however, that Payne says McFarland started in earnest the work that would become his legacy. Indeed, Latin Lounge-the McFarland best-of compilation that Payne put together last year for a German affiliate of Verve records-begins at this very point. 

"The thing about Gary," says Payne, "was that he always wrote for people-he wrote for the specific musician, very much like Duke Ellington." On Soft Samba, McFarland stepped out on vocals and vibes and for the first time on record, and wrote specifically for his toughest customer-himself. That the record was a hit, however modest, was all the encouragement he needed.

McFarland's follow-up was a more fleshed-out version of Soft Samba. The In Sound found McFarland stretching the limits of bossa nova and jazz even further into pop and jazz. The resulting music was lush, sensual, fun and-like all McFarland's best stuff-deeply melancholy, all at once. Again, McFarland wooed a pop audience, and the jazzbos winced, ever fretful that this chiseled guy in the ascot was polluting their music with pop idioms.

"From Soft Samba on," says Payne, "the gist of the reviews was, 'How could this guy who made such great music do crap like this?'" Increasingly impervious to the jazz cognoscenti, McFarland knew he was on the right path. Along with guitarist Gabor Szabo-an old Berklee buddy who McFarland reunited with on The In Sound-he left Verve and formed Skye Records, a loose collective that could easily be deemed The House That The In Sound Built. (Although McFarland and Szabo's Simpatico was an equally indicative parting shot with Verve; it featured the pair scandalously
humming pop songs to each other.)

With Skye, McFarland would produce the likes of Szabo, Cal Tjader, Armando Peraza and Grady Tate-as well as his own increasingly groovy compositions. Finally, in 1968, McFarland was vindicated when he recorded America the Beautiful, a jazz symphony that for one last time, dazzled the critics. He continued to produce and record until 1971.

And then, he died. Just like that. On November, 3, 1971, Gary McFarland was, for reasons that still obscure his family and the law, poisoned. Along with his friend, writer David Burnett, McFarland ingested a fatal dose of methadone, which somehow did not belong to him and yet was poured into their drinks. Both were dead
within hours.

And that was it. Because of McFarland's alienation from a wide critical base and, one suspects, eventually Verve, he's never gotten the re-issue treatment even some of his lesser contemporaries have. Japanese reissues of The In Sound and Soft Samba are out there, Latin Lounge is available on German import, and good luck finding anything else.

That's a shame-McFarland's music dates itself, sure, but the sentimental qualities of his best work, along with the risky concoction of Latin and pop music, make for a peculiar, time-worn treasure. It is easy listening in the truest sense-he's easy to listen to.

It's no wonder Stereolab checks him and his records now fetch decent money on was a man who understood hip, with an effortless, breezy charm and a wry smile.

The aforementioned stories-the olive drab vibraphone, the meteoric rise to fame, the mysterious death-are pretty much where the Gary McFarland legend begins and ends. In between, his was a career punctuated by things that jazz musicians, for better or worse, generally don't do: learn fast, play to the crowd and leave a gorgeous corpse.

You can find more information on Gary McFarland-as well as a host of other forgotten jazz favorites-on Douglas Payne's website.

Joey's Top 5 of the Moment
1. The new, musclebound Illeana Douglas (as seen on VH-1's The List)
2. Arto Lindsay, Prize (Righteous Babe)
3. The Inquirer's "no less than three stars for local bands" policy
4. Japancakes, If I Could See Dallas (Kindercore)
5. Quincy Jones, Big Band Bossa Nova (Verve Re-Issue)

From the Philadelphia Weekly, October 21-27, 1999. Reproduced with permission.