Gary Mcfarland was born in 1933. He became one of the more significant contributors to orchestral jazz during the early ‘60s, and also distinguished himself as a witty composer, vibrant arranger and communicative vibes player. An “adult prodigy” as Gene Lees accurately noted, McFarland was an ingenious composer whose music could reveal shades of complex emotional subtlety and clever childlike simplicity.
While in the army, he became interested in jazz and attempted to play trumpet, trombone and piano. In 1955, he took up playing the vibes, displaying a quick ability for interesting writing, and obtained a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music. He spent one semester there and with the encouragement of pianist John Lewis, concentrated on large-band arrangement of his own compositions. McFarland wrote his first big bad arrangements for the Herb Pomeroy orchestra. In 1963, he made a significant recording “The Gary McFarland Orchestra-featuring Bill Evans”; and in the same year, McFarland’s orchestra recorded on Verve records “Big Band Bossa Nova,” featuring Stan Getz. He also arranged and conducted all the titles in the album, including four of his own composition. This classic album is still available on CD. It was John Lewis who later played and recorded Gary McFarland’s arrangements of his own compositions in 1964. Here Lewis paints a tonal landscape with textures and layers to McFarland’s flowing melodic lines that he refers to as “tone colors.” The albums personal included Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Phil Woods, Jim Hall and Gunther Schuller. It was originally recorded on Atlantic, and is now available on Collectable Records (Essence) CD 6605. McFarland also managed to find the time to stage his own ballet, “Reflections in the Park” in 1964.
Besides John Lewis, who was one of McFarland’s main supporters, he obtained early notoriety and success working with Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges, Bob Brookmeyer and Anita O’Day, among others. In 1964, McFarland recorded the controversial album “Soft Samba.” Its commercial success, however, allowed him to form his own performing group featuring Gabor Szabo on guitar, Eddie Gomez on bass, Joe Cocuzzo on drums, and recent Berklee graduate Sadao Watanabe. The group toured clubs across America during the summer of 1965, and recorded an album 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. He later teamed up with Gabor Szabo, Cal Tjader and Mcfarland’s manager to form the Skye Recording label in 1968.
By late 1971, McFarland was working hard toward making a name for himself in Broadway and film, two areas he had hoped to explore in greater depth. But on the afternoon on November 2, while with a friend in a New York City bar, he ingested a drink into which methadone had been poured. He suffered a fatal heart attack and died instantly at the St. Vincent Hospital that day.
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