Johnny Fourie – a detailed biography first published in Rootz Magazine 2002
By Jonathan Crossley
“Johnny Fourie is one of the greatest guitar players of our epoque”
John McLaughlin, 21st June 2002.
When still at school, and studying classical guitar, I expressed a desire to study under Johnny Fourie. I brought this up with my guitar teacher of the time, who expressed certain preconceptions surrounding Fouries teaching, and other unrelated idiosyncrasies. A second and later attempt with another teacher also met a similar response.
I finally began lessons with Fourie in 1998, and over the past years have discovered that this gentle, caring and above all honest man is definitely the subject of many urban legends. Hopefully, this article will arouse some new interest, and perhaps put a few truths on record.
Johnny Fourie was born Jan Carel Fourie in the Postmansburg district of Hay in the Western Cape on the eighteenth of May 1937. His earliest recollections are of his father going to fight in the Second World War, and of growing up on a farm with his grandparents. He remembers already having expressed the desire to play the guitar by the age of four but his mother was unable to purchase one for him. His parents separated when he was six years old and his mother moved the small family to the east-rand town of Benoni where she worked as a seamstress. She also played the accordion and encouraged Fouries musical development by purchasing a guitar.
It was while living in Benoni that Fourie was introduced to American films. On Saturdays he would slip into the movie house, and watch films for the better part of the day. Through these films Fourie was introduced to country music, as well as many of the great swing ballads and show tunes that would become part of his staple repertoire. But his first real listening experience of jazz came in 1949, with a radio show by the George Shearing quintet. In fact this show made such an impression on Fourie that he still recalls the personnel; George Sherring on piano, Chuck Wayne on guitar, Marjorie Haymes on vibraphone, Vernel Fournier on drums and Denzil Best on bass. The very next day Fourie was at the local bicycle shop, where he could buy 78 shellac records, and got his hands on this recording, which he then took home and set about mastering every nook and cranny of the disc.
He delved into many recordings over the next few years, and absorbed recordings by Barney Kessel, Oscar Moore, Johnny Smith and Mundell Lowe, to name but a few. By the age of fourteen he had already decided to turn professional and managed to mislead his mother into allowing him to enrol at the Benoni engineering college with the real intent of quitting later. After three months at the college he found a way out, and moved to Brixton Johannesburg to embark on his professional career.
His early professional endeavours saw him moving in the boermusiek circles, between bands run by Nico Carstens, Jurie Ferreira and Hendric Susan as well as a number of sessions for Gallo records for the likes of the Manhattan Brothers and Sam Sklair. The gigs consisted of popular boeremusiek numbers of the day but Fouries heart was already in jazz and he was fired on more than one occasion for playing what his ears told him to. This love for jazz was to draw him to London, and recognition. In 1961 Fourie got a gig playing on a boat en route to London; there was a three-day stop over in London, after which he flew back overland to Johannesburg. He says What I saw in Soho forced me to leave in November on a boat destined for London with my wife a baby and about two hundred rand
His first gig in London was with an Eastern European violinist who needed a guitar player for a restaurant gig, The Blue Boar Inn, where Fourie had to dress in a Robin Hood style outfit while supporting this Gypsy violinist! Fortunately it wasnt long before Fourie was able to leave this gig. Through a South African friend, who was a roadie for the Ray Ellington Quartet, it came to Fouries attention that there might be a guitar position available in this quartet, as their current guitarist was problematic. Although Ellington liked Fouries guitar style, he didnt get the job at first, because he couldnt read the charts. When the replacement guitarist proved unreliable, Ellingtons piano player persuaded him to try to use Fourie by offering him the opportunity to memorise the music.
Playing with the Ellington band proved to be the turning point in Fouries career. By touring around the United Kingdom for two years, Fouries playing ability was recognised by the jazz public, as well as the press. The recognition that Fourie received through his performances with the Ray Ellington group brought his playing to the attention of Ronnie Scott, owner and manager of the famous London based jazz club, The Ronnie Scott Club. Scott approached Fourie to take up a residency there, and Fourie was offered the post for five nights per week. Interestingly John McLaughlin, who was a close friend of Fouries, took over the guitar post in Ellingtons group and Fourie was responsible for teaching McLaughlin the groups specific arrangements. McLaughlin says I was working with a Rhythm and Blues band, which I was not very enthusiastic about and Johnny did not like his job at the time, so we just traded jobs.
While working at Ronnie Scotts club Fourie was exposed to numerous famous musicians and groups, many of who were to be influential in the development of his style. Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Rene Thomas, Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, Roland Kirk and Sonny Rollins are just a few important names. Although Fourie became quite a name in the UK, he felt that times were changing and that players like Coltrane and Davis were changing the face of jazz. He became increasingly unhappy about his current musical position and decided to give up everything, return to South Africa, and spend time studying to expand his musical goals.
After a brief stint back in England in the late 1960s and then another brief time back in South Africa, Fourie went to New York in 1971 to play fusion. His search came from trying to find freedom, freedom within and without the structure, this was the search for the Holy Grail. Once in New York he made immediate contact with his old friend, John McLaughlin, and remembers going to the launch of McLaughlins album The Inner Mounting Flame at the famous club, My Fathers Place. McLaughlin was busy with his own band and he asked Fourie to stand in for him on the Charles Erland recording, Intensity. The album featured Charles Erland on organ, Hubert Laws on flute, Fourie on guitar and Billy Cobham on drums, as well as many other players. The pieces were long funk-based improvisatory works and called for Fouries new improvisation techniques as well as the use of his prized fuzz box. After this session Billy Cobham recommended Fourie to Clive Stevens for his group Atmospheres. John Abercrombie was leaving this band and Fourie took the post for roughly a twelve-month period performing at many famous jazz venues.
Although he was now set for a promising career, even auditioning for Chick Coreas second Return To Forever band, he only came to America on a three-month visitors visa and application for an extension was turned down. He continued to try and work illegally, but was eventually deported to South Africa in 1974.
The period since his return has been characterised by continuous growth through his involvement with a wide variety of bands, performing with many top South African artists. Of particular importance is the wide influence Johnny Fourie has had spreading the tradition of jazz guitar through working with many musicians, as well as taking younger musicians under his wing. A significant period was devoted to the development of the Johnny Fourie Band (1979-1985), featuring his son Sean Fourie on keys, Raymond Boschoff on drums and Chris Bekker on bass.
During the late 80s, Fourie performed in Carlo Mombellis group The Abstractions, playing complex and modern jazz inspired by the sounds of the German ECM label. Fourie feels this group was extremely important, both to him and to the South African jazz scene. While the JFB band had been free and uncompromising, this band took what they were learning to a new level. The heads of the works were often complex and detailed, while the improvisatory sections offered a lot of freedom to the soloist and were not limited in length.
Two things took up his focus in the 1990s. Firstly his new job as teacher at the Pretoria Technikon Jazz Department, and secondly the formation of the Short Attention Span Ensemble. This fusions group performed original works by Sean Fourie and Johnny, and played many festivals and events throughout South Africa, releasing their debut disc Fingerprints of the Gods in 1997. The band featured Johnny, Sean, Barry van Zyl, Trevor don Jeany, and British saxophonist Dave OHiggans. But the majority of his energies over the past number of years have gone into his students, and it is in these students that his legacy will live on.
Fourie has never really received the amount of attention he deserves. He was never politically outspoken, and has no interest in being so. While he never approved of the systems in place his protest was a quiet one, working with all the musicians from all the backgrounds that would play with him. The list is endless; Allan Kwela, Errol Dyers, Bob Mintzer, Cyril Mgubane, Nico Carstens, Johnny Boschoff, Robert Payne, Bob Zotolla, Carlo Mombelli, Barney Rashabane, Groove Holmes, Avzal Ismail, Wessel van Rensburg, Gilbey Karno, Jack van Pohl and many, many more. His focus has always been the music, the advancement of it, taking our sounds to the next generation, and above all: playing, playing, playing jazz!
Thanks to Jonathan Crossley and Roots Magazine http://www.uhurucom.co.za/rootz.htm