Christopher McGregor was born on 24 December 1936 in Somerset West in the Western Cape. He grew up in Blythswood in the Transkei (now a part of the Eastern Cape) where his father was a principal at a school founded by the Scottish Missionary Society. Since there were few white people around, he became exposed to Xhosa culture and music. During World War II, his father joined the Navy and Chris moved to stay with his mother in Cape Town. It was during his stay in Cape Town that he took his first piano lessons. He also became exposed to the music of the army marching around.
On his return to the Transkei, he continued his musical education in uMthatha where he became exposed to mbaqanga and kwela styles of music. Sometimes Macgregror joined groups of dance bands made of coloured people and participated in their events. Subsequently, he established a vocal group with friends from uMthatha high school. All the exposure in uMthatha and Cape Town greatly influenced his future musical style.
In 1956 McGregor won a scholarship to the University of Cape Town’s College of Music to study music where upon admission he focused his studies on composition. During this period he listened to Abdullah Ibrahim who played at the Ambassadors School of dancing in Woodstock. He also came into contact with Bela Bartok, Arnold Schoenberg, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, and the live music of local jazz musicians Cecil Barnard and others. He contributed to Nick Drake’s album where he performed a piano solo for his song Poor boy. He became influenced and began playing Jazz in a university group. McGregor also played alongside David Galloway at a private function for the Mandela Treason Trail Fund.
In the late 50s McGregor played the piano in the “Cup and Saucers” Nkanuka, and also linked up with other artists like Christopher Ngcukana, Martin Mgijima and David Galloway amongst others. He performed particularly with Cup and Saucers in Langa, Simonstown, Atholone and Gugulethu. McGregor then established his groups The Blue Notes, and in 1959 the band was invited to play for the launch of the Langa Women’s Cultural Group. The event featured other artists that included Nikele Moyake and Dudu Pukwana. At the end of the event, Pukwana remained in Cape Town and joined the McGregor’s group.
In 1961 McGregor stopped attending the College of Music as he felt constrained and disconnected from what he was taught and what he experienced around the Cape Town music scene. During this period he played at the Vortex Club in Long Street where he worked together with met Stanley Glasser. Glasser composed the music for the musical Mr Paljas which played at the Labia Theatre in Cape Town in 1962. That same year, McGregor took a septet to the Catsle Larger Jazz Festival in Soweto, Jabavu. At the end of the festival, he spent time in Johannesburg playing in various places, and teaching at Dorkay house.
The Blue Notes became very successful despite the apartheid laws of the country at the time which forbade mixed race groups and mixed race performances. The band’s members kept changing as members left and were replaced by new ones. Alongside the Blue Notes, McGregor found another group, The Castle Lager Big band which comprised of seventeen members including Dudu Pukwana. The band produced an album titled: Jazz: The African Sound.
McGregor and the Blue Notes eventually left South Africa for better prospects overseas on 24 July 1964. After performing in France at the Antibes Juan les Pins jazz festival and Zurich, the group eventually settled in London. After the group disbanded, McGregor formed yet an even bigger group, the Brothers of Breath in 1969. He invited his long time band mate Pukwana and other former Blue Notes to join the group. The Brothers’ self-titled album received critical acclaim and positive reviews. It was compared to works by miles Davis and Don Cherry.
McGregor was also involved in the musical as theatre band leader and pianist. The theatre band consisted of Dudu Pukwana and Nick Peterson - alto sax, Cornelius Kumalo - baritone sax and clarinet, Denis Mpali - trumpet, Blyth Mbityana - trombone, Joe Mal - bass and Columbus Joya - drums.
After the Brothers of Breath disbanded McGregor left England for the French country side where he pursued a solo career and released three albums. Throughout his career, McGregor worked with some of the best names in Jazz music.
McGregor died in exile on 26 May 1990 in Ager, France. One of McGregor’s fellow student and friend, Bruce Arnott, wrote in the in the University of Cape Town’s alumni Magazine:
"I am no musicologist, but I believe that Chris was working toward a synthesis of South African black traditional music and the wonderfully evolved black American contribution to jazz."
Dave Dargie in his book Xhosa Music, describes McGregor as a musician that produced complex music. McGregor was married to Maxine Macgeregor. Maxine has written a book documenting the life of her late husband and his band titled: Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath.