A few months ago, I was on some music geek forum boards and one of the posters mentioned that he’d bought an audiophile download of Stan Getz’s Big Band Bossa Nova album, a 1962 recording that was arranged and conducted by a guy named Gary McFarland.
And then another poster chimed in about how this Gary McFarland fellow was once a HUGE presence on New York’s fledgling FM jazz stations in the mid-60s. How if it wasn’t music by McFarland under his own name they were playing something done in collaboration with the likes of Getz, Gábor Szabó, Gerry Mulligan, Johnny Hodges, John Lewis, Bob Brookmeyer, Lena Horne, Zoot Sims, Anita O’Day or Bill Evans. The guy’s point was that McFarland’s style of Latin-tinged orchestral jazz got lots and lots of radio airplay, at least in the New York/Long Island area, but then… you never heard from him again. The guy didn’t seem aware that McFarland had died young—a mysterious death at the age of 38 in 1971—until he read that very thread and discovered why the music stopped.
Gary McFarland was an impressive character, a charming, handsome, almost impossibly suave, ascot-wearing James Bond/Hugh Hefner/Dean Martin-like slickster with a great head of hair. McFarland was jokingly referred to by friends as an “adult prodigy” as he showed little interest in music until a stint in the armed services, after which he attended Berklee School of Music for a semester before moving to New York. He achieves some notice working with Gerry Mulligan, and with The Jazz Version of “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” album in 1961. From there his career as a composer/arranger sees a fairly meteoric rise before his life comes to a shocking end less than a decade later, just as he was moving in the direction of scoring motion pictures and Broadway.
Like many—no doubt most—of you reading this, I had never heard of Gary McFarland before, but I found the thread intriguing and clicked over to YouTube to see what I could find. There I found some delightful soft samba Beatles covers (”Get Back” “And I Love Her” “She Loves You” “A Hard Day’s Night” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) and “More” (see what I did there?) often featuring vibraphone and vocalised with “ba baya” style scat singing. (Apparently McFarland had a difficult time memorizing lyrics… problem solved!). I found his incredible song cycle, The October Suite performed with Steve Kuhn, and plenty of other things.
I also read an interview with Love’s Johnny Echols who indicated how much McFarland’s Soft Samba album influenced Da Capo and Forever Changes! (Listen to “Orange Skies” after you hear some of McFarland’s material, the “ba baya” influence becomes quite obvious!)
I’m one of the world’s consummate crate diggers… and a fanatical Arthur Lee fan… HOW had McFarland’s work escaped my notice?
In any case, my appetite whet, I set about immediately picking up any and every project I could nab that Gary McFarland had a hand in. The torrents trackers offered little help, Amazon didn’t have much either, most of McFarland’s work is still trapped in vinyl, but they did have… a documentary about him!
Continues after the jump…