5 November 1931|
7 March 1971 (aged 39)|
Maida Vale, London
McNair was born in Kingston, Jamaica. He started out at the Alpha Boys School under the tutelage of Vincent Tulloch, while playing with Joe Harriott (a lifelong friend who considered McNair his de facto younger brother), Wilton "Bogey" Gaynair, and Baba Motta's band. He spent the first decade of his musical career in The Bahamas, where he used the name "Little G" for recordings and live performances. His early Bahamian recordings were mostly in Caribbean musical styles rather than jazz, in which he sang and played both alto and tenor saxophone. He also played a calypso singer in the 1958 film Island Women. In 1960, he went to Miami to record his first album, a mixture of jazz and calypso numbers entitled Bahama Bash. It was around this time that he began playing the flute, which would eventually become his signature instrument. Initially he had some lessons in New York, but he was largely self-taught. He departed for Europe later in 1960.
Like many other West Indian jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Joe Harriott, Dizzy Reece and Harry Beckett), McNair moved to Britain. However, before arriving in London, he toured Europe with Quincy Jones and worked on film and TV scores in Paris. Once in London, he quickly gained a reputation as a formidable player on flute, alto and tenor saxophone, leading to a regular gig at Ronnie Scott's nightclub.
His playing drew the admiration of bass player Charles Mingus, who was in London to shoot the 1961 motion picture All Night Long. McNair was part of a quartet Mingus formed to rehearse with during his stay in Britain. However, the band never performed in front of a paying audience, due to a ban imposed by the Musicians' Union on US musicians in British nightclubs. A recording of the band exists, playing the earliest recorded version of the now famous Mingus composition "Peggy's Blue Skylight", but it has never been released, despite featuring in the movie itself. The Musician's Union ban was lifted later in 1961, leading to a residency by US tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims at Ronnie Scott's club. Ironically, McNair's own quartet were also on the bill, resulting in two of his performances appearing on the album made to commemorate the gigs, Zoot Live at Ronnie Scott's. Around the same time, he also recorded with the drummer Tony Crombie and the percussionist Jack Costanzo.
McNair briefly returned to The Bahamas, where he cut his first all-jazz album, Up in the Air with Harold McNair, before settling back in London permanently. His first UK album as a leader, Affectionate Fink, was made for the fledgling Island Records in 1965. The session saw him team up with Ornette Coleman's then current rhythm section of David Izenzon (bass) and Charles Moffett (drums), for a set of standards played with hard swinging intensity. McNair equally featured his tenor sax and flute on this session, delivering virtuoso performances on both. His next (self-titled) album, cut for RCA in 1968, recorded at the recently opened Trident Studios was another classic and featured probably his most famous composition, "The Hipster", which has become a perennial fixture on the playlists at jazz clubs and was included on Gilles Peterson's recent Impressed Vol. 2 compilation of 1960s British jazz.
His next album was 1970's Flute and Nut (RCA), which featured big band and string arrangements by John Cameron. This was quickly followed up in the same year by The Fence, which moved in the direction of jazz fusion. Another self-titled album was issued posthumously in 1972 by the B&C label, which mixed tracks from the 1968 RCA album with later, unreleased recordings. Notable recorded works as a jazz sideman included sessions with the jazz-rock/big band ensemble Ginger Baker's Air Force and John Cameron's Off Centre. He also recorded with visiting Americans including vocalists Jon Hendricks and Blossom Dearie, drummer Philly Joe Jones and saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis.
Albums as bandleader:
- Bacchanal At Chez Paul Meers (Carib LP, 2004; 1958); two tracks only as bandleader [Peanuts Taylor & Orchestra LP]
- as Little G, Bahama Bash (Top Rank, 1960)
- Zoot Sims et al., Zoot Live at Ronnie Scott's (Fontana, 1961); two tracks only (with Terry Shannon, Jeff Clyne, Phil Seamen)
- Up in the Air with Harold McNair (Bahamian Rhythms, 1964)
- Affectionate Fink (Island, 1965); with Alan Branscombe, David Izenzon, Charles Moffett
- Harold McNair (RCA, 1968); with Bill Le Sage, Spike Heatley, Tony Carr
- Flute and Nut, RCA 1970 (with John Cameron)
- The Fence (B&C, 1970); with Keith Tippett, Ric Grech, Terry Cox, Danny Thompson, Tony Carr, Colin Green, Alan Branscombe (reissued on CD in 2007 by Hux Records)
- Harold McNair (B&C, 1972)
- Alpha Boys' School Music in Education (Trojan 2006) (CD!); one track only (perhaps taken from Harold McNair?)
Jazz recordings as sideman:
- Quincy Jones Big Band, Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series, Vol. 1: Lausanne 1960 (TCB, 1960)
- Tony Crombie, Whole Lotta Tony (Ember, 1961)
- Jack Costanzo, Equation in Rhythm (Fontana, 1962), credited as "Little Jesus"
- Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Oh Gee: Live in Manchester (Jasmine, 1967)
- Philly Joe Jones, Trailways Express (Black Lion, 1968), with Peter King, Kenny Wheeler
- John Cameron, Off Centre (Deram, 1969)
- Blossom Dearie, That's Just the Way I Want to Be (Fontana, 1970)
- Jon Hendricks, Live (Fontana, 1970)
- Ginger Baker's Air Force, Ginger Baker's Air Force (Polydor, 1970), with Steve Winwood, Rick Grech, Denny Laine, Chris Wood, Graham Bond
McNair's unique phrasing on the flute in particular led to great demand for his services among non-jazz musicians, especially during the late 1960s as the British jazz scene went through some tough times. His flute was heavily featured on the soundtrack for Ken Loach's 1969 film Kes, with music written by regular McNair collaborator John Cameron. Another notable soundtrack contribution was his tenor saxophone on the original 1962 soundtrack theme from Dr. No.
His best-known sideman role came via his regular participation (with Cameron) on Donovan's mid-to-late 1960s recording sessions, and as a member of Donovan's touring band. McNair arranged the hit single "There Is a Mountain" (1967) and played the flute riff. Donovan's live album Donovan in Concert features McNair's flute and tenor extensively and demonstrates some of his finest recorded work.
Session musician credits
- Donovan, Fairytale (Pye, 1965)
- Donovan, Sunshine Superman (Epic, 1966)
- Donovan, Mellow Yellow (Epic, 1967)
- Donovan, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden (Pye, 1967)
- The Picadilly Line, The Huge World of Emily Small (CBS, 1967)
- Lionel Bart, Isn't This Where We Came In? (Deram, 1968)
- Donovan, Donovan in Concert (Pye, 1968)
- Donovan, Hurdy Gurdy Man (Epic, 1968)
- Steamhammer, Steamhammer (CBS, 1969)
- Davy Graham, Large as Life and Twice as Natural (Decca, 1968)
- John Cameron, Kes: Original Sound Track (Trunk, recorded 1968, released 2001)
- John Martyn, The Tumbler (Island, 1968)
- Don Partridge, Don Partridge (Columbia, 1968)
- Syd Dale – Flamboyant Themes – Vol. III (KPM, 1968)
- Syd Dale – Chorus And Orchestra (KPM, 1969)
- Brian Bennett – Illustrated London Noise (Columbia, 1969)
- Donovan, Barabajagal (1969)
- Kathe Green, Run the Length of Your Wildness (Deram, 1969)
- Al Jones, Alun Ashworth Jones, Parlophone 1969
- Magna Carta, Magna Carta (Mercury, 1969)
- Marc Brierley, Hello (CBS, June 1969)
- Nick Drake – Bryter Layter (Island, 1970)
- CCS, CCS (Rak, 1970)
- Peter Collins, Peter Collins First Album (Decca Nova, 1970)
- Rosetta Hightower, Hightower (CBS, 1970)
- Johnny Harris, Movements (Warner Brothers, 1970)
- Cressida, Asylum (Vertigo, 1971)
- Caetano Veloso, Caetano Veloso (Philips, 1971)
- Alexis Korner, Bootleg Him (1972)
- CCS, CCS II (Rak, 1972)
- Seven Ages of Man, Seven Ages of Man (Rediffusion, 1972)
- Harold McNair at AllMusic
- Harold McNair discography at Discogs
- Harold McNair discography by David H. Taylor
- Alpha Boys School alumni
- Jamaica Observer article on Jamaican jazz musicians, including Harold McNair.
- "Died On This Date (March 7, 1971) Harold McNair / Jazz Flute Great", The Music's Over.
- Official John Martyn website