Growing up in jazz: despite falling sales, kids in cities everywhere still come to the music


For Thandiswa Mazwai, it all started when her uncle came to stay. “He brought this massive sound system with him – and that’s when the house was filled with music.”

Mind you, Mazwai’s uncle was no average fan. He was Fitzroy Ngcukana, scion of the legendary Cape Town jazz dynasty, musician and sometime Culture Secretary of the Pan-Africanist Congress. His collection spanned genres, dominated by jazz and African music. And that, in the context of an already music-loving family, was when Mazwai began to become aware of “the stories carried by these [musicians]”. Later, she wondered why “we don’t have a culture of standards here.” It was the beginning of a journey that culminated in the release last October of Belede, where, with a jazz rhythm section, her voice curates a collection of historic South African songs carrying a powerful message for today.

Thandiswa Mazwai

Mazwai’s not alone in the influences that helped her grow up in jazz. Jazz music sales and legal downloads are declining, and, internationally, audience surveys show a predominantly ageing, male (and often white) demographic. But young people are still coming to the music.

Often, they come by routes the commercial figures can’t track, such as genre-fluid bands, or independent gigs and online releases too small to feature in surveys – or even via illegal downloads. Enrolments in university jazz studies courses are rising. And often, it’s family or community that first spark that jones for jazz.

This year’s youngest stars at last month’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival were the school bands, with players predominantly aged between 14-16. Guitarist Keanan Lewis, for example, in Grade 11 at Wynberg Secondary School, has a father and brother who are both musicians; bassist Lance Pekeur got his opportunity to pick up the bass through church. Both youngsters mirror longstanding South African jazz traditions: dynastic jazz families (like the Ngcukanas) and church music education. That’s now offered by many denominations, but historically provided by missions in the Eastern Cape, and the Salvation Army.

But it wasn’t so different for Taylor McFerrin and Marcus Gilmore in the States. Taylor’s father is world-famous vocalist Bobby McFerrin; Gilmore’s grandfather, legendary drummer Roy Haynes. So when the young Taylor, after a period of avidly consuming Wu Tang Clan and Tribe Called Quest, began noticing that much hip-hop “was sampling ‘60s and ‘70s jazz”, he was easily able to enter “a period of stealing all my parents’ vinyl”. And, he concedes, when you’ve been exposed to so many genres “they’re going to come out in your own music some way.” Gilmore went one better: his grandfather gifted him his kit – “He changed my life.”

Marcus Gilmore

For saxophonist Kamasi Washington, the lineage is also direct: his father, Ricky, is a reedman who often tours with him. In his community in South Central LA, he noticed that many of the young players he hung out with were second-generation musicians. “There’s a thing that happens when music is always around. I guess it becomes more natural, more intuitive, because it’s always been there for you.” His father and his friends practiced constantly, and talked about the other artists they’d worked with: “You heard stories about great players you’d never hear anywhere else – but it also made being a musician more normal. These were just people my dad knew.”

Yet Washington’s jazz family stretches much further, back to Africa. He describes the uncanny experience of starting to study ethnomusicology, hearing traditional African sounds and feeling a “direct connection. I’d never heard that music before – but somehow, I had.”

Kamasi Washington

It doesn’t always work that way. Cape Town trumpeter Darren English recalls being “bored” when his father dragged him to music festivals as a child. For English, what started as a whim – buying a harmonica to try and play When the Saints Go Marching In, which he’d enjoyed from the school band – was nurtured into skill and passion by his schoolteacher, Fred Kuit at Muizenberg High. It was Kuit who shaped the school band community within which English grew, followed by other musician/organisers, such as Derek Gripper and Bryden Bolton.

That’s similar to how another LA-born player, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa was drawn into the music. His liberal parents gave him and his brother the opportunity for music lessons. But it was the hybridity represented by jazz music and the jazz community, discovered after those lessons, which attracted him as much as the technical challenges. As an American of South Indian heritage, it offered a voice to “the beautiful confusion of knowing who you are, but not yet having the language to tell it.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Those responsible for music education in Cape Town value that same kind of voice and opportunity. For music teacher Celeste Moses-Toefy at Wynberg High, the jazz band offers a creative outlet for intelligent, frustrated youngsters whose other options are often foregrounded by the risky life of gangs and the streets. Donveno Prins, who mentors the jazz festival music programme agrees: “It’s difficult, especially if you are young.”

Music was a buffer against the streets for Washington too. The media, he says, often painted the streets of South Central LA as drugs, gangs and “ ‘you livin’ in hell’. But you’re not.” Because of the area’s arts initiatives, and brilliant and inspiring mentors (Washington cites the late pianist Horace Tapscott), “it can be a paradise of encouragement, beauty and creativity.”

Alongside good tunes, great grooves – and astoundingly audacious ideas that sometimes deal in neither – it’s the music’s humane spirit (rooted in community) that keeps a healthy proportion of kids coming to jazz. Says Mahanthappa: “Music is a community event. We can play it alone – but it’s much more powerful when we do it together.” Both English and Washington call it “a conversation.” Gilmore defines working on music within your community as “a foundational principle” of the enterprise.

And why is that important? Let the last word, as the first, go to Mazwai: “All we can do as artists is create the spaces where people can express their humanity.”


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