A few years ago, I recorded a CD called “Clarinet Swing”. Scott Yanow was kind enough to listen to it, and had this to say:
“This album definitely lives up to its title. Daniel McBrearty, a middle aged clarinettist from Belgium, was motivated to record Clarinet Swing after visiting and playing in New Orleans in 2011.”
Thankfully the review was positive, but Scott’s bluntly accurate description of me did make me laugh!
Most music websites have a serious sounding bio, written by an imaginary third person, listing the achievements of the artist. (OK, I have one too.) But I thought it would also be good if the “middle aged clarinettist from Belgium” tried to explain why he does what he does.
The fact is, playing jazz music has helped me enormously. So – I think it’s good if I try and explain how. Perhaps, somewhere, a younger version of me is reading. I hope so. Anyway, here goes. I’ll start at the beginning.
My First Taste Of Jazz
I came from a difficult place, family-wise. I lived with foster parents until I was about six. My natural mother left when I was a few months old. It was in that very kind and loving family that I first remember hearing jazz.
I remember sitting on the carpet, surrounded by my foster family. They were wonderful people, and my mum, Betty Thomas, was from a musical family. I think her dad played in shows, and I remember him playing a banjo and singing. But my strongest memory is of Louis Armstrong, singing and playing trumpet on TV. Pops really touched something inside me, even though I was only about four – his warmth and clarity. I remember just wanting to hear more.
Later on, my sister and I lived again with our Dad, who had remarried. Jim McBrearty was an artist and sculptor, known in our Welsh village as “Mac”. I discovered jazz via the family record collection. Dad wasn’t a musician, but he had a great feeling for music. We had no TV, so the radio and the record player were important, especially as we lived deep in the country. I loved Louis, Ella, Nat Cole, Count Basie and so on, and nearly wore their records out. We also listened to a lot of classical stuff (I liked violin concertos) as well as the Dubliners, things like that. Good music.
At school, music education was for everyone. I was loaned a clarinet, and taught by an ex-Royal Marine bandsman called Jofre Swales. He owned the local music shop, and is still very well remembered back home. A great character, he introduced thousands of kids to music, organised many bands, and played every instrument you can think of (even the saw, and an ocarina which he had gotten on a trip to Russia). When he saw me trying hopelessly to copy Benny Goodman, he gave me a free private lesson and explained how chords were used by jazzmen. He had me playing Hey Jude, while he played guitar. (Later on I arranged that for piano and tenor sax, and played it at a school concert.)
So I had an open, practical, and quite eclectic introduction to music. But I wasn’t good at practicing! I just wanted to get up there and have fun. At times I was a lonely kid, I wasn’t good socially, and music was very important to me.
First gigs, military service, and a career
At age 14 or so I started to play with older professional musicians on clarinet and tenor sax – everything from blues-rock bands to standards at a working mens’ club. Inspired by that lesson with Jofre, I bought a guitar and began studying it. Harmony lessons at school also helped. But a university education in music was not to be.
Things were difficult at home. Dad’s second marriage didn’t go well, and we were not a happy family. We were also poor, as Dad’s business struggled. My elder sister left home when I was about 15, and at the age of 17, with good grades in physics and math, I did the same and joined the Royal Air Force as an electronics technician.
My military career only lasted three years, as I had a bad habit of taking holidays that were a bit too long. But the technical background eventually helped me find work in the UK’s audio electronics industry. Music was still there, but work took precedence. I wanted a house, a family – some stability.
But problems came – buying a house with a girlfriend, in the housing bubble of the late 1980’s, didn’t end well, and then I was dismissed from a job. Hard times came along.
Back to the music
One day, I found myself wondering why I had bothered struggling so hard for things that had only made me miserable. And why had I neglected music? My sax was still up there, on the top shelf. I took it down and opened the case, played a bit.
Then something funny happened. People I hadn’t heard of for years started looking me up, out of the blue, to come and play – jams, small gigs. I got some recording gear (my tech background helped) and started trying to make records. I still didn’t really know how much work I needed to do – but I was writing, playing and imagining music.
Hard knocks in London
A bit later, I moved to London and tried to connect with top level players. I would call up record producers, out of the blue, and tell them I was available for sessions! I guess I had nerve. Of course, I was nowhere near the level needed – as I found out when I was invited to try lead alto in a rehearsal band, and got my arse thoroughly kicked.
But I did connect with other hopeful singers and musicians, many from London’s Caribbean community. The venue was a bar in East London, and, alto sax in hand, and calling myself DanMcB, I became a regular band member. The musical repertoire was reggae, soul, funk and a little jazz. Every gig was an exercise in thinking on the spot, as you had no idea what would happen next. It was great fun.
I learned a lot. Musically, the edges were sometimes rough – but the energy was out of this world. Often, I walked out of there soaked in sweat and as happy as it is possible to be. Some people from that scene went on to have good careers, and I made some good friends.
I went to see Jimmy Hastings for a few lessons – a very respected session player, the type that plays and reads everything. He was very kind, and he got me working on scales and long notes. I was so embarrassed at the state of my playing that I only went a few times. But he helped me.
My recording experiments continued, and eventually in 1996 I put out a debut CD called “DanMcB”. It was a four track affair of original tunes, with a mixture of synthesised backings, live instruments. I played alto sax.
Listening back now, it is very dated. But I worked hard at it. I wanted it to be perfect. My musician friends helped me. The writing wasn’t bad, and it was an achievement to produce an indy CD back then. It got some good reviews, a bit of airplay, and I did a live interview for BBC Radio Wales.
I was always interested in songwriting. I would have liked to sing too, but I was scared. But I scribbled a lot of melodies and lyrics, and studied songs I liked, trying to figure out how they worked.
But, something was missing for me. After all that work on recording, I was nowhere near where I wanted to be as a live player. I felt like a bit of a fake.
France, London, Belgium
In the late 90’s, still in London, I worked as a tech in a university, and part time doing electronics for Royal Opera House. I had another rough patch.
I used to go through heavy depression, and I didn’t know why. I felt very isolated, especially after another relationship didn’t work out. They were rough times emotionally, and I struggled along day to day, for months at a time. I did hypnotherapy, psychotherapy, things like that, trying to work out why. One day, a friend told me that I needed to sort myself out, make some changes, do something. I’m grateful to her for that.
In 1997, I headed for France with just a rucksack and saxophone. In Toulouse, I met a guitarist and we travelled together, playing street music. I still felt rootless – as they say, you can’t get away from yourself – and I went back to London, and started freelancing for ROH.
I still didn’t really understand why I felt like I did. An old school friend got me into Tai Chi and Qigong, which helped. There I met my ex-wife, Sofie. She is from Belgium, and we moved here when my first daughter, Beatrice, was born. That was a few months after Dad died, in 2000.
I became a career guy here in Antwerp. I ended up doing that for 10 years or so, working with computers, taking care of my family. I practiced sax in the evenings, and went to jam sessions in Brussels sometimes. I was really trying to learn to play jazz now. Again, I was very lucky with people. I met and played with some great players – Eric Vermeulen, Sal La Rocca, Mimi Vanderame, and others. Paolo Radoni, a wonderful jazz guitarist who passed away tragically a few years back, became a good friend, and encouraged me, especially to continue with clarinet.
But I was still very lacking in confidence.
Magic swing in New Orleans
Again, I started going downhill. I hated office work. My marriage suffered, and eventually we decided to part ways. We have two daughters, Bea and Anna, and of course it was hard on them – but we did it as well as possible. It worked out pretty well in the end. I adore my daughters, and they have given me so much.
But, for a while, I was again in a very difficult place, doubting myself, and feeling very alone. I stopped playing sax during the divorce – although, once again, strangely, the moment I moved out – people started calling me, and music gently eased her way back into my life.
I wasn’t playing jazz. I was back into songwriting. I started trying to sing, and did a few gigs as a singer-songwriter, took some voice lessons, made some recordings. It all felt a bit wooden, but I wanted to try it. Singing is so different from playing an instrument – very personal and exposed.
I started working with a singer I met – writing and playing guitar. Musically we were not really in the same place, but we went to New Orleans on a trip, and also to Nashville and Memphis – to Reverend Al Green’s church. That was really something. But it was in New Orleans that I rediscovered that jazz claimed me back.
We were in a cafe on Oak Street, and this guy, Charles, was playing piano. My friend told me to get my clarinet out, but I didn’t feel confident. But she spoke to Charles so I had to. And it was great. Tunes came back to me. I saw people tap their feet and smile. It made me so happy, and I thought : “oh my – I really missed this!” And I wondered what happen if I would actually put some time into this.
Swing is really special. It has something free and joyous, that gets you out of yourself. It can be healing. I think it’s special, almost in a shamanic way. The combination of those beautiful songs that they wrote back then and that rhythm. It’s infectious.
So then I started meeting people. Still in New Orleans, I met an Italian guitarist, Alessandro, my great friend – he got me into the European gypsy jazz scene. I went to his place in Milan later on, and met more great people, even got invited to go to Sicily and play.
Back in Belgium, I was unemployed. The American company I’d worked for, they closed our office, and I decided it was time to focus on music. This was before that first visit to New Orleans. So when I got back, with all this positive energy, I finally accepted that this magical music that had kept coming back to me since childhood, must have something special for me. So perhaps it was time to stop running from it.
A year or so after, we did “Clarinet Swing”. On it, jazz standards are mixed with originals. “A Swing For Paolo” is for my friend and mentor Paolo Radoni, who passed away in 2007. I’d like him to know I finally got what he was trying to tell me. I wish I could see him again and play some songs.
As an autodidact, I’ve always been insecure about my playing. The young players now, they study at college and they play so well! So it was great for me to take time to get into clarinet and tenor, and to try and improve my foundation. I took a few lessons, and tried to adapt classical technique into my style.
(By the way, I couldn’t be happier with what I see happening, where younger musicians are concerned. If you told me, 15 years ago, that they would be playing standards and swinging, I’d have laughed in disbelief. Back then, playing that way was really out of style.)
The funny thing is that since I accepted music, I began getting better. The therapy and so on helped, but most of all so did music. I can’t tell you how much.
Eventually, I did find out why I had suffered – and that seemed to change it. Of course, it was to do with my childhood, and that was a journey. I learned about trauma, PTSD, and how even things I can’t consciously remember, especially being abandoned by my mother, affected me.
There can always be pain in life – but inner torment, feeling that you don’t deserve to live – noone should feel that. It damages you and holds you back. But noone can tell you, no matter how much they love you and want to help. You have to somehow find it out yourself. Trauma is heavy – you are triggered, and you go from being a positive person to a terrified and helpless. You don’t know why, and you can’t stop it by force of will, though you try. In fact that makes it worse. That’s scary and it can be devastating, and you think it is your fault. You feel like a defective human.
But the mind is amazing, as is our capacity to heal. And music can work magic, by giving a respite from emotional pain, and a way to express things that cannot be said with words. Probably, back in pre-history, we sang and made rhythms, before we could even speak. It’s primal, pure emotional language. And if your mind is trying to heal deep trauma, it can really help.
And playing music teaches valuable things. Discipline, the value of routine, how hard things can be achieved in small parts, how to handle people, how to listen and say your own part – so many things. And collective improvisation – this music we call jazz – is special in that way. At a high level, it is a model of how human society can be.
But, when you work out what is going on inside, it’s like solving a puzzle. Then you notice how many damaged, suffering people there are. But today, there is a lot of awareness about what causes these things. There is hope.
A Song For The Road Ahead
A second, longer visit to New Orleans, in 2012, built my confidence. I played with the city’s finest. My proudest moment was sitting in with Tim Laughlin, and then being invited to go play on one of the paddle steamers by his amazing pianist, David Boedinghaus. I also met and did a few gigs with legendary drummer Freddie Flambeaux Staehle, and sat in with the Treme Brass Band, and many of the younger groups on Frenchman, such as Meschaya Lake and Aurora Nealand.
Coming back, I became a regular on the Belgian scene. I had a quartet with bluesman Ilya Scotch for a while, and I was a founder member of The Blue Heathens Jazz Band, a young group playing traditional jazz.
After writing and arranging three songs for The Blue Heathens debut album, I left to form The Moochers. We did a mini-tour of Wales, in 2016, and I began to explore my singer-songwriter side alongside our jazz repertoire. It worked very well.
I am still fascinated by songs. They are like bubbles of human experience. I love the Great American Songbook and traditional melodies, like the Irish songs I heard as a kid. Songs are the framework for improvising musicians. They take it past the ‘play this scale on this chord’ thing. Songs are about melody and lyricism – what Stravinsky called ‘the poetics of music’.
John Coltrane said : ‘When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups’.
That’s it, really. You can’t do more than that, or put it any better. Few, perhaps noone, can approach what he achieved, but perhaps we can all do our small part. Music is about community, and connecting people, and I think that, today, is more important and relevant than it ever was.