What makes jazz South African? Let’s talk about lineage…

Nationality, I wrote last week, is just a piece of paper. Identity is something far more intricate, involving the complex histories, perceptions and emotions that arise from membership of a social category, and how those histories, perceptions and emotions are expressed. That’s true whoever has defined the category – most nationalities in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, still stubbornly rest on divisions (“borders”) drawn by the old colonialists.

So, in the context of the current intense focus on ‘South African’ music, can we help bemused station controllers, producers, and compilers decide what is the genuine article even when the record label may not?

Three recordings have landed in my mail in the past month that begin to suggest answers. Wisdom of the Elders (brownwood recordings, https://shabakaandtheancestors.bandcamp.com/album/wisdom-of-elders ); Skyjack (https://soundcloud.com/skyjack-skyjack ); and McCoy Mrubata Live at the Bird’s Eye (https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/mccoymrubata1 ). The first comprises compositions by London-based tenorman Shabaka Hutchings; the band he leads, The Ancestors, comprises eight players born or resident here. Skyjack is a South African/Swiss collaboration: Cooper, pianist Kyle Shepherd and drummer Kesivan Naidoo plus saxophonist Marc Stucki and Andreas Tschopp on trombone. Mrubata is, of course, South African, but his 13 collaborators in trio, quintet and nonet are all Swiss-based.

Shabaka And The Ancestors_ALBUM ARTWORK.jpg

Hutchings has become a regular visitor to South Africa, hooking up musically first with trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni and, through him with the other Ancestors: altoist Mthunzi Mvubu; pianist Nduduzo Makathini; bassist Ariel Zamonsky; drummer Tumi Mogorosi; and percussionist Gontse Makhene – plus, for this outing, vocalist Siya Mthembu, perhaps best known for work with TBMO. Hutchings’ connection with South African jazz goes back further, however; he talks of finding jazz inspiration in a copy of Bheki Mseleku’s Celebration, picked up initially on the strength of its (American) rhythm section names.

Long before even that, though, South Africa was actually helping to shape the modern jazz sound of London. The pioneers were Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo and the other Blue Notes. Others followed, including bassists Harry Miller and Ernest Motlhe, guitarist Lucky Ranku, percussionist Thebe Lepere, and later Mseleku and many more. Their influence on UK musicians such as Trevor Watts and Mike Westbrook and their bands (and audiences) was huge, and collaborations created a vocabulary and syntax that infused the whole modern British jazz scene. Later, along with the voices of many other elders from Coltrane and Ellington to the great Joe Harriot, Shake Keane and Rico Rodriguez, that language was breathed in and once more transformed by the new generation of Jazz Warriors, including Steve Williamson, Courtney Pine, Orphy Robinson and Gary Crosby. Their heirs include Jason Yarde, Soweto Kinch…and now Shabaka Hutchings. It’s not that any of these players necessarily sound like those who went before – or even like one another: they don’t. But there’s a lineage and a spirit there, and it matters.

Jazz Warriors
Back in the day: London’s original Jazz Warriors

So when I listen to Wisdom of the Elders, I hear London as well as South Africa, but a London that’s been BlueNoted, Brotherhooded, Speared and Warriored for so long that South Africa is part of its jazz DNA. (Before the Blue Notes, you never heard those joyous dissolves into free on London’s scene.) That history, as well as strong personal connections and human empathy in the now, is how Hutchings can write so beautifully for his South African collaborators. His compositions perfectly enfold the bluesy sonority and antiphony of Mthembu’s voice, the understated intricacy of Mogorosi’s drums, and the hymnal chords of Makathini’s piano. Mlangeni, his longest collaborator, plays trumpet with the contained energy of a tightly-wound spring; Hutchings’ writing and arrangement clears ample space for that energy to compress, uncoil and pop.

The compositions are also rich with other, older sounds of Africa. There are polyphonies and polyrhythms, sharp, urgent shouts and even some beautifully managed hocketing where, just as in tshikhona, a succession of single notes from individual players unwinds to create a complete, intriguing storyline. For me, the standout track is The Sea, but you’d be cheating yourself if you didn’t hear the whole album. And then go and see them live, because, like all great improvised music, it’ll be different next time.

Skyjack-Cover-Kopie-1024x914.jpg On the surface, Skyjack promises something very different, as the eponymous debut album from a smaller assembly of Swiss and South African modernists. The nine tracks include two each from Cooper, Shepherd, Stucki and Tschopp, plus Naidoo’s Freedom Dance as a closer. And jazz written or played by South Africans is South African jazz, whatever the context or content of the music. To deny that, is to retreat into the kind of crude essentialism that, for example, declared black clarinettist Don Byron’s jazz modernism “white” simply because it did not employ the conventional markers of African-American blues and swing.

But in fact, there’s way more South African identity to this album than the nationality of three-fifths of the band. It’s upfront in Freedom Dance, a wonderfully clever weaving around an address by Nelson Mandela, where Naidoo’s fast, stormy drums not only make moving music, but capture and underline the cadence of the statesman’s speech and the patterns of his rhetoric. It’s less expected somewhere like Stucki’s waltz, Grandmère Dansant, where Shepherd’s straight outa Cape Town rolling left hand translocates the scene to a 1950s parlour in Kensington, before the rest of the band takes it travelling again. South Africa is present in the attack of Stucki’s sax, and in Tschopp’s trombone, irresistibly reminiscent of Radu Malfatti taking a solo in front of the chorusing Brotherhood of Breath horns. And it is jazz’s African lineage that gave us that set-up in the first place: a soloist stepping out from the line is the modern equivalent of the single voice rising out of the ring-shout, or the dancer winding in the centre of the ring.

Skyjack have been together since 2013, which explains the seamlessly empathetic sharing – and the way it works in both directions, because nobody plays the clichés of either South Africa or northern Europe. Their debut is a delight: by turns intense and thoughtful, and gently impressionistic (The Last Rainbow…) but always true to its heart.

McCoy Live.jpg McCoy Mrubata’s Live @ The Bird’s Eye, is the one of these three albums most likely to be seized on with feverish relief by producers wanting some new South African jazz that fits the quotas. In fact, it has the lowest proportion of South African nationality: the compositions are 100% Mrubata, but the players are 97% based in Europe. Nobody who didn’t know that would guess it from the sound; that a warmly grooving Maleen Sutter on bass, or a growling Wolfgang Zumpe on euphonium hadn’t at least learned their playing, if not been born, here.

That’s not merely because South African jazz both draws on and contributes to an international language, but also because of the skill of Mrubata as composer and leader and, on a couple of numbers, that of his longtime trombone partner, Jabu Magubane, as arranger. The double album collects together 20 of Mrubata’s favourite compositions and gives him the chance to explore them in three different formats: trio, quintet and nonet.

Like all live albums, this one benefits from the atmosphere provided by a receptive, appreciative audience, as well as the pin-sharp recording quality the Bird’s Eye can offer. All the playing is tight and skillful, and Mrubata sounds better than ever (his flute playing on Philani is so sweet it’s positively edible).

So many points of contact with the other two albums shine through. That warm but tough reed attack that Dudu Pukwana carried to London is back at home – even in Basel – in Mrubata’s hands. The cyclical groove of Hutchings’ Nguni is the feel that underpins Mrubata’s Entlombeni. The sweet, poignant waltz-time of Grandmère Dansant finds a reprise of nostalgic mood in Mrubata’s Mr & Mrs Adonis.

If a definitive album for McCoy as composer and player – an individual musician, as opposed to his various ‘and friends’ ensembles – was needed, this is probably it. But it’s more than that. Like the others I’ve discussed, it’s a defiant two-fingers to genre purity and obsessive taxonomising, whether from apartheid ideologues or today’s quota-counting compilers. Jazz is a world music, and South Africans stand proudly among the greats who have made it so.


Nationality is just a piece of paper – it’s 90% local time again.

The figures are starting to come in on the other side of the SABC’s 90% local drive: the TV re-programming instituted in July. ( http://www.channel24.co.za/TV/News/sabc3s-new-local-content-a-tv-ratings-flop-20160817 ) As predicted, SABC3 is leaking viewers like a broken kasi water main, which does not bode well for relationships with advertisers.

I’ve written in past columns about the problems with the implementation of the SABC music quotas, and in particular about the arbitrary decision-making and percentage chosen, and the absence of a long-term business strategy. Without attention to these, there won’t be any revenue for local musicians to claim.

Let’s turn now to a bigger question that covers music and other types of broadcast programming: what do we mean by ‘local’ – and is it automatically lekker simply by virtue of its local-ness?

100% Billboard No 1: Louise Carver

Music from the rest of Africa has almost disappeared from the SABC airwaves, so ‘local’ in this context is clearly defined as narrowly national. But how South African? A local artist recording with an American, such as Louise Carver and DJ Joe Bermudez? It may have reached the heights of the Billboard charts, but use that yardstick and it’s only 50% local…Some of Louis Moholo’s most astounding recordings were duos in collaboration with Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer. Sorry, only 50% again…Almost Ndikho Xaba’s entire exile output was made with a band of American collaborators, The Natives. Sorry, only 17%. Which simply proves how meaningless percentages are.

Let’s be charitable, though, and assume there is more than kneejerk narrow nationalism (or a need for budget savings on foreign-currency purchases) behind the quota rulings. Let’s assume there is a genuine desire to see the heights SA cultural products can reach showcased on the airwaves, or the

100% deceit & capitalist greed: SABC 3’s High Rollers

values our society ought to cherish conveyed. After all, Days of Our Lives with its deceit, sexism and rampant capitalist greed, hardly provided role models for the youth…So what do we get instead? In terms of music, predominantly old music from an exceedingly narrow playlist, repeated far too often; in terms of features, inane chatter, the fetishization of consumption, and exercises in thinly disguised product placement (or ‘aspirational lifestyle’, as SABC’s Kaiser Kganyago called it); and in terms of drama, South African soapies dominated by deceit, sexism and rampant capitalist greed.

(I know, that’s the nature of soapies. But is it really the only mirror we want to hold up to ourselves?)

There are exceptions, some of them surprising – Afternoon Express, for example, albeit riddled with product placement slots, is one of the few places where you might, on a Friday afternoon, catch an all too brief but reasonably smart conversation with a local musician, outside the world of pop trivia, who is actually happening now. (I’ve seen both Claude Cozens and Dyer père et fils there.) There are decent documentaries in the SABC archives, too, although they pall when repeated too often.

Other items are exceptions because they are even worse than the above. SABC still occasionally shows recycled apartheid-era

100% trashy, trivial programming

dramas, for example, where rebellious youths asking awkward political questions and ‘making trouble’ are the villains. Then there are the South African remakes of banal overseas concepts, such as the unspeakable Divas of Jozi – Real Housewives…but with the boring bits left in. None of that is lekker just because it’s local.

There is no doubt that increased local content quotas could be good for our creative industries: that’s never been the argument. There’s equally absolutely no doubt we are –right now – producing the international-level quality required: Kesivan and The Lights have already played Carnegie Hall; there’s Louise and her Billboard number one; Wouter Kellermann or LBM and their Grammies; Rehad Desai’s Emmy-winning doccie Miners Shot Down (which, curiously, we still haven’t seen on SABC).

kes car hall
100% world-class: Kesivan & the Lights take a bow at Carnegie Hall

Putting quality like that in place, on airwaves whose revenue will be able to support it, demands a long-term business strategy and investment. It also needs an understanding that the mandate of a public broadcaster (rather than the state broadcaster the SABC appears to think it is) is ‘to entertain, inform and educate’. Those last two entail opening the minds of viewers and listeners: certainly, to the great cultural products that were and are being created here – but also to what’s going on in the rest of the continent and the world. Jazz is a world music, and some of its genre-defining tracks, from yesterday and today, will always be 100% foreign, but still need to be heard. (By the SABC’s definition, Duke Ellington is definitely 100% foreign. Abdullah Ibrahim, by contrast, calls him “the elder of my village”.) Hip-hop, Rn’B and even deejaying are equally world musics now, to which we have given our own unique vision. Offering context for what we’re creating here is part of what an intelligent broadcaster needs to do to nurture intelligent audiences, as part of its public service. And that mission is necessary for music as much as for drama, features and news.

100% genre-defining elder: Duke Ellington

Cultural cross-fertilisation is vital too. In the past few weeks, I’ve received three unarguably South African (and very different) jazz albums all so knockout gorgeous that I’m still hunting adequate words to write about them: McCoy Mrubata’s Live @The Bird’s Eye (92.3% Swiss playing; 100% South African compositions); Shane Cooper’s Skyjack (40% Swiss); and Shabaka Hutchings’ The Wisdom of Elders (12.5% British). Nationality is just a piece of paper. Next week, this page will get back to talking about the music…

100% original playing: Sisonke Xonti

But before that, come to the Orbit on Sunday August 28 at 6pm. (http://www.theorbit.co.za. ) We’ll be discussing this quota thang for an hour or so, with guests including Don Laka, Brenda Sisane, Dave Alexander from Sheer Publishing Africa, Prof Salim Washington, hopefully a representative from ICASA too, and Percy Mabandu chairing. The debate will be followed by another hour or so of music from Sisonke Xonti and Iyonde. It should be a lively conversation, and it’ll be even better with your voice and ideas as part of it.

Who should teach jazz in South Africa?

It’s nice to have readers. Not only do they get the metrics up, but often they suggest challenging new themes for me to write about.

Now one – a South African student overseas – has raised a long-overdue question. While #RhodesMustFall extensively explored the general question of white ideological domination of South African universities, the campaign hasn’t, as far as I know, situated the question specifically in the music faculties. My correspondent asks: “Why is it that at the three major jazz institutions in South Africa – UCT, Wits and UKZN – combined, a majority of the lecturers teaching jazz (a black-originated music) are white? And in every one of these places, the drum teachers are white, so people come from other parts of the world to learn South African rhythms from…”


It’s a fair question, but a big one, and probably best disaggregated and its components discussed separately. It interrogates the nature of universities and their definitions of who is a scholar; whether a music genre can be said to ‘belong’ to any particular group – and whether race is the only ground on which university jazz faculties could be perceived as exclusionary. So this is quite a long read…


Universities: open doors or close-mesh filters?

It’s worth pointing out that universities have always, and almost by definition, exhibited exclusionary behaviour. The claim is that the exclusions have purely meritocratic grounds – “We want only the brightest and best” –­ but that has not always been the case, not since Sokrates mentored the sons of free Athenians, while their slaves carried their scroll-cases.

Class, religion, race, language, gender…universities have historically found a myriad of grounds – formal and informal – to filter from among the equally able those their establishments have defined as “our kind of people”. The more unequal the society, and the less efficient the counterbalancing mechanisms such as scholarships and grants, the smaller the chances are of those who are not “our kind of people” even making it to the filtering-gates. Network studies calls this preference for “our kind of people” homophily, and we’ll return to it later.

It starts at undergraduate level and the career-path of a researcher and teacher in higher education is impeded by even more filters.

Some of those are, indeed, meritocratic. Whatever his or her subject matter, from architecture to zoology (and including jazz), a scholar must achieve a doctorate, undertake research, publish in accredited journals and generally be acknowledged by his or her peers to have made an original contribution to knowledge in the field.

The contextual enabling factors, however, still demand resources as well as merit. It’s a lonely, poorly-paid path that can take close to a decade. It’s hard for an aspiring scholar with difficult home circumstances such as needy relatives or an unsupportive partner. It’s harder for scholars based at an under-resourced institution with small postgraduate cohorts, where heavy practical teaching responsibilities leave little time for research and publishing. It’s much harder in a field where there is constant tension between very different but equally legitimate definitions of ‘original contribution’ – between, for example, actually blowing original solos, and analysing other people doing it.

Much respect, then, to those jazz faculty members from whatever background who’ve made it into university teaching.

Turn the lens on South African universities in general, and the record on racial transformation at postgraduate levels is spectacularly unimpressive. Despite a massive increase in black undergraduate enrolments since 1994, the first-degree graduation rate at the country’s 23 public universities reported by the Department of Higher Education in 2013 was around 15%; that for Masters students 20% and for Doctoral students 12%. White completion rates, the Council for Higher Education told a newspaper, were “on average 50% higher than African (black) rates (…) only 5% of African and coloured youth are succeeding in higher education (…) strongly influenced by the socio-economic background of individuals…” https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/aug/22/south-africa-universities-racially-skewed

It is from within that tiny 5% – across all subjects, including jazz – that potential university teachers of colour under current qualification requirements, have to come.


The impact of homophily

But there’s more to the story than an inadequate supply of candidates. A recent scholarly paper, Including Excluded Groups: the slow racial transformation of the South African university system, by Barnard, Cowan et al. (http://econpapers.wiwi.kit.edu/downloads/KITe_WP_89_modified.pdf ) points out that homophily can still limit the appointment of faculty of colour by white-dominated hiring committees, even in the presence of formal affirmative action measures. Appointing in one’s own (white) image has feedback effects, limiting the role models for aspiring scholars of colour considering an academic career, and contributing, as other studies cited have found, to a profoundly alienating environment. The study’s mathematical models suggest that even a small improvement in hiring practices could make a significant contribution to transformation, albeit within an inherently slow process and a resource-poor national context.

Mac McKenzie: organic intellectual

In a field such as jazz, however, perhaps the process need not always be quite so slow. From Gramsci through Foucault to Julia Kristeva and more, philosophers have interrogated and deconstructed the traditional perception of the intellectual as someone who creates high-order understanding that stands above affiliations to enhance a neutral body of universally valuable ‘knowledge’. We now acknowledge that scholars exist within, and operate in relation to, professions, institutions and ideologies. As well as the ‘traditional’, there are ‘organic’, ‘specific’ and ‘dissident’ intellectuals. Many black South African jazz players still living have already made significant original intellectual contributions over decades via musical technique, teaching, organisation, and imagination. They are already organic intellectuals from within jazz music. Why, then, is it so impossible to devise paths to professorship beyond the traditional for them?

Except, of course, that any hegemony invariably naturalises its own traditions as universal standards…


Does it matter if it’s black or white?

At this point, somebody often dismisses the transformation argument in relation to jazz education with a declaration that the music is “a universal language”. So long as they are skilled, enthusiastic and supportive, does it really matter whether the teachers are black, white or – a favourite kind of liberal addition – sky-blue purple? (Of course, such nonsense colours as sky-blue purple do not describe real people with histories and experiences that might be relevant to the argument.)

Jazz began its life as black music: in Africa and through the African-American experience. It was created by musicians with big ears. Everything from the European dances of the plantation masters in the American South, to the British military bugles and Scottish pentatonic hymns of colonialists in South Africa, to the very sounds of nature, got filtered through those ears and transformed into a unique sonic landscape. But as scholar Lewis Porter has said, being so creatively open to ideas from everywhere “doesn’t make [the music] non-black.”

The quote is from a column on the topic by one of my favourite jazz writers, Nat Hentoff (http://jazztimes.com/articles/18103isjazzblackmusic), and he goes on to quote Bird, Monk, John Lewis and others asserting that anybody who genuinely feels the music can play it, without barriers of origin. That’s certainly true, and heart-warming, and wonderful – but it is only part of the argument.

Music shows us a social and historical landscape as well as a sonic one, including how it is produced, received, taught and learned – and what exactly is taught and learned. If universities are to grow great jazz players who genuinely feel the music, they must take some of that on board too.

salim playing with scarf
Salim Washington

Salim Washington, American-born Professor of Music at UKZN, points out that a teaching approach that irons out much of the layered identity of jazz, teaching it simply “as a step-sister to Western Art Music”, loses a lot. “The conservatory method reigns supreme, with all its aesthetic and practical biases. The pedagogical method of the jazz bands, big bands, and black churches is completely ignored. The cultural values and philosophical underpinnings of the music are never discussed, let alone modelled and taught…the issue is: is black music being taught from a black perspective?”

That “step-sister to Western Art Music” idea has haunted South African jazz history. The ideologists of apartheid represented jazz successively as a Western music appealing to the basest instincts of ‘traditional’ Africans; then as something too sophisticated for them to grasp; and then as something they succeeded in only by “learning from whites”. We live within the tatters of our history, so the current school music curriculum sets up jazz as a parallel stream to Western classical music, with both wholly discrete from ‘traditional’ music. Such ideas may well waft around some departmental appointment boards too.

The question of who should teach drum rhythms underlines these issues even more emphatically. As Washington observes: “The drum is a sacred instrument. It is the conductor of black popular music and of jazz: the instrument that black jazz musicians invented. Its invention is also connected to its function in the rhythm section – another invention of black jazz musicians. As such, the most sublime aspects of the music are most often created with the drums. It’s a problem if the instructors of the music simply see it as another instrument with which to gain technical proficiency.”

We’ve already seen from the research that the alienation often felt by students of colour in white-dominated jazz faculties can deter potential scholars. But the debate should not be about whether Professor X is a racist (fire him!) or Professor Y is a good person (promote her). It’s about ensuring that university jazz teaching conveys the full richness of the intellectual capital of jazz, and, in this country, of the South African jazz tradition too. That – given the current impoverished demographics of South African music faculties – means we need more jazz teachers of colour.


And who else is missing?

Look at the personnel of South African jazz departments, however, and another characteristic quickly becomes apparent. Not only are the faces predominantly white, they are equally predominantly male –even more heavily so when vocal practice lecturers are removed. We still suffer the continuing – and international – assumption that “women instrumentalists… still have to prove that they have the “balls” to be authentic jazzmakers. Oh, there are interesting features, sometimes sections, in jazz magazines on women in jazz, but the attitude is often that of noblesse oblige, like making sure there are enough blacks on television sitcoms.” That’s Hentoff again (http://jazztimes.com/articles/19661-a-thrilling-big-jazz-band ), drawing just the right parallel. For many, very similar, reasons it matters just as much that jazz faculties often present as boys’ clubs, as well as white clubs. It erases parts of the history, and filters potential diversity from the future. Historian Linda Dahl, in her 1984 book Stormy Weather (https://www.amazon.com/Stormy-Weather-Music-Lives-Century/dp/B00AK3IT3W ), put it like this:

“…Full of masculine metaphors, the sense of fraternity or of a male club is 
everywhere evoked [in jazz]…the qualities needed to get ahead in the jazz world were
held to be ‘masculine’ prerogatives: aggressive self-confidence on the 
bandstand, displaying one’s chops, or sheer blowing power; single-minded 
attention to career moves, including frequent absences from home and family.
Then too, there was the ‘manly’ ability to deal with funky and often dangerous
 playing atmospheres…A woman musician determined 
not to be deterred … often paid penalties designed to put her in her 
place – the loss of respectability being high on the list, as well as
disapproval, ridicule and sometimes ostracism…The assumption about women in jazz was that there weren’t any, because jazz was 
by definition a male music. Therefore, women could not play it. Therefore, they 
did not do so”

Shannon mowday
South African reed player and teacher (but in Scandinavia) Shannon Mowday

We already know from research that women perform better academically when other female role models are present. CHE figures, again, (http://www.che.ac.za/focus_areas/higher_education_data/2013/participation) demonstrate a fall-off in female participation at the postgraduate level that begins the path to teaching posts. Where students of colour experience alienation, exclusion and racism, female jazz students experience alienation, exclusion and sexism (See, for example, Dr Ariel Alexander’s findings from her 2011 research at http://www.jazzedmagazine.com/2693/articles/guest-editorial/guest-editorial-where-are-the-girls/ ). Aspiring black female jazz scholars encounter both.


And so..?

One of my scarier findings in researching this piece was that SA university jazz departments look somewhat more representative of the country than certain other subject areas. Nevertheless, their limited diversity has consequences very similar to those in any other un-transformed part of higher education. Homophilic appointments perpetuate the old demographics. Black and female students find too few role models. The scarcity of postgrads of colour means those who make it that far are trapped by heavy teaching and supervision loads, which hampers their ability to publish and progress further towards heading up their departments.


The resulting music will not be everything it could be . As Washington observes: “I have encountered black students doing the most offensive cornball shit because somebody told them that was how to swing – Lord have mercy!” Or, as reviewer Richard Brody commented, in his excoriating review of that whitest and most macho of sagas of jazz education, the 2014 movie Whiplash: (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/whiplash-getting-jazz-right-movies ) “…Buddy Rich. Buddy fucking Rich.”



Etuk Ubong: EP introduces a fresh trumpet voice

Once upon a time, the career path for a young jazz player was clear. Pay your dues at a succession of live local gigs in increasingly prominent, demanding and high-priced venues, moving gradually from periphery to city centre. Apartheid smashed that path in South Africa. Racial and residential segregation, public gathering laws, and the smug self-protection of the white musicians’ union combined to keep musicians of colour out of the plum metropolitan gigs – and eventually, as States of Emergency tightened, to regulate township gigs out of existence.

Twenty-odd years on, we’ve still not recovered from that destruction of the live music ecosystem.

Small and medium-sized live music venues are scarce and struggling everywhere in the country, making that ‘natural’ career progression much harder than it should be. Historically, Cape Town has fared better than some other cities. A flourishing university jazz department provided the supply of talent; affluent suburbs and the disposable income of tourists created the demand. All of that depends on exogenous factors: the economy; the fluctuating attractiveness of Cape Town as a destination; zoning policies that protect entertainment districts against gentrification and rising rents. In recent months the dice have spun against the demand side and Cape Town jazz venues have been closing apace.

There are other ways to catch the public eye. The National Youth Jazz Festival in Grahamstown is one: get selected for the youth jazz ensemble and supported tours will bring your skill to national eyes. In that context we need to applaud the selection of bassist Dalisu Ndlazi for the band. Ndlazi has already impressed in Durban and Joburg as part of reedman Salim Washington’s outfit: he manages to balance steady reliability with thoughtful creativity in ways that make him a rising star to watch.

Recorded product, (preferably accessible online) is another way to fight back against the shortage of live platforms. UCT vocalist Maya Spector managed this on a modest budget a couple of years back with her release My Simple Little EP. Now another UCT student, trumpeter Etuk Ubong, has followed the same path, with his quartet EP Miracle, (https://soundcloud.com/freemedigital/etuk-ubong-miracle) released in June this year and now starting to gain media attention.etuk EP cover

Twenty-four year-old Ubong has already been playing for close to a decade, leading his own ensembles and supporting names such as Femi Kuti in his native Nigeria, as well as working at jazz festivals in Lagos and Abuja, and in Jamie Cullum’s On Mass project at the London Jazz Festival.He’s also played alongside South African stars such as Nduduzo Makhathini.

Miracle was recorded with Ubong’s Nigerian quartet. Joburgers will get a chance to hear the music – already featured on the Expresso TV show (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRD1RoBEzlA ) – live at the Orbit this Wednesday August 3rd, with a South Africa-based ensemble.

Miracle features four original tracks. Ubong’s playing approach offers irresistible reminders of Miles Davis in the late ‘50s quartet recordings: a velvet tone and quiet inventiveness rather than brash grandstanding, but underpinned by quick fingers and an even quicker mind. Some of the compositions, too, have their feet in that same era’s atmosphere: Reading in the Dark has a distinct Freddie Freeloader vibe about it. That’s  not negative: early Miles is a fine place for any trumpeter to start, and – as the man himself demonstrated again and again – absolutely not limiting in terms of where you can travel from there.etuk pic But there’s clearly more, and more that’s intriguing,  to Ubong’s music than just remembering Miles. Prayer might start on piano like So What?, but when the trumpet begins, the note sequence is distinctively Nigerian, not American, and it’s further in that African direction that Ubong’s intelligent improvisation takes it.

An EP is always a limited launching pad: four short tracks can never demonstrate everything a player has. But Miracle offers a very attractive horn voice and enough that’s compositionally distinctive to whet audience appetites for Ubong’s future work.