International Jazz Day – South Africa can host it with talent to spare

Saturday (April 30th) is the Fifth International Jazz Day, celebrated worldwide and with a flagship gala concert hosted by Barack Obama at the White House. If you check the map ( ) you’ll see satisfying clusters of jazz-themed events springing up all over the globe, with Latin America particularly well represented.

South Africa is bidding for Johannesburg to host a future International Jazz Day, so it is disappointing to see only three events flagged on the map for here: in Gauteng, Durban and Cape Town (plus more flags in Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and southern African neighbours). That may simply be a consequence of the structure of the map, because Gauteng alone has a healthy half-dozen gigs scheduled: a lecture and a concert in Tshwane on April 27th; three days of activities including an exhibition by Percy Mabandu at the Soweto Lifestyle Centre on April 27-30; with a Picnic in the Park at Mogale City, lectures and album launches – from McCoy Mrubata and Yonela Mnana – at the Market Theatre, and a closing concert with those same two artists at the Orbit ( ), all on April 30th.

In Durban, the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at UKZN will host discussions and performances around the theme of the solidarity that shared jazz appreciation can build – very appropriate, given the proud history the city (and particularly the Rainbow club) was home to during the era of anti-apartheid struggle. Bucking the trend by showcasing international rather than local repertoire, the Crypt in Cape Town hosts a tribute to Louis Armstrong.

More horns than an Oscar: the SAMA

This jazz week coincides with the announcement of contenders for the 22nd South African Music Awards. The awards have had a chequered history, particularly for jazz – in part, because neither rigid musical categories nor competition for rankings really reflect the ethos of the genre. Some of that is reflected in this year’s nominee list. However, at least when the overdressed twittering classes gather in Durban in June to see the awards presented, the jazz names – whoever wins – will genuinely represent the kind of music jazz lovers here know, acknowledge and listen to.

Marcus Wyatt and the ZAR Jazz Orchestra have three nominations for One Night in the Sun( ): for best group, best engineering, and jazz album of the year. The absurdity of categories is illustrated by Wyatt’s competition in that first category, which includes Big Nuz – on what equally relevant criteria could judges compare those two? However, it would be nice to see a big band carry something home. As well as the superb quality of that particular outing, big bands are expensive to support and host, and an award might encourage more sponsorship for such projects in future.

Marcus Wyatt and Siya Makuzeni: One Night in the Sun

Difficult judging lies ahead in the ‘Best Classical/Instrumental’ category too. Flautist Wouter Kellerman and guitarist Guy Buttery contend there with two classical ensembles, the Cape Consort and the KZN Philharmonic, and with the thoughtful, searching – and, in my book, at least, an affiliate of the broad church of jazz –  Deep SouthHeartland from Deep South (Dave Ledbetter and Ronan Skillen.
As for the Best Jazz Album nominees, alongside One Night in the Sun, there’s Nduduzo Makhathini’s Listening to the Ground (which, if it wins alongside Big Nuz and the KZNPO, will make a host-pleasing KZN trifecta for an event which has spent the past year seeking a hospitable, long-term, new home…). Bassist Benjamin Jephta’s quintet release, the gently evocative Homeland has deservedly received a great deal of radio airplay; trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni’s Amandla Freedom Ensemble Bhekisizwe plays from the writing and arrangement of a fresh, arresting composer’s voice, and pianist Bokani Dyer’s dazzlingly diverse World Music has spread its reputation wide, currently getting airplay on several US jazz stations, thanks partly to the networking power of Cape Town’s Alljazzradio and Eric Allen. ( ).

Benjamin Jephta

The list comprises most, (though not all) of what’s been on my South African playlist in the past year. I would happily celebrate a victory from any of those named, because whoever wins they have expended more than enough creativity, originality and hard work to deserve it. More to the point this week, the combined playing, band leadership and compositional talent of all these nominees comprises more than enough world-class  jazz gold to make an International Jazz Day based in Johannesburg an event to remember.

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