2017: the jazz year that was

It’s always risky to attempt an annual round-up. Omit a new release, and you’re assumed to be criticizing the work. Fail to acknowledge a death, and that’s disrespect. If you notice any such omissions below, I apologise in advance. But given the complete failure this year of most South African media to deal adequately with jazz – at home or abroad – it’s becoming harder to log every event. If you think there’s something – news, a controversy, a release, a death – this column should record and reflect on, please write and tell me; I’ll try to do better next year. And my thanks to all those members of the SA jazz community whose communications have helped me work out “where one is” this year.

Thandi Klaassen: left us at the start of 2017



Here’s a list of all the new South African jazz and improvised releases that I’ve managed to hear this year, in alphabetical order by artist’s surname. They are all worth hearing; buy the ones you love:

Keenan Ahrends Narrative

Amandla Freedom Ensemble Born to be Black

Ancient Agents

Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra Live

Claude Cozens Trio Live at SBJF

Kinsmen Window to the Ashram

Vuma Levin Life & Death on the Otherside of the Dream

M&M (Manu Dibangu and Moreira Chonguica)

Nduduzo Makhathini Ikhambi

Zoe Modiga Yellow: the Novel

Pops Mohamed & Dave Reynolds Live at Grahamstown

(Expanded reissue) Moses Molelekwa Genes & Spirits

Billy Monama Rebounce

Jeff Siegel/ Feya Faku King of Xhosa

Ronan Skillen/James van Minnen/iNdwe The Cave Project

Tune Recreation Committee Voices of our Vision

Etuk Ubong Tales of Life

SLM-sankofa cover-13

Salim Washington Sankofa

Sibusile Xaba Unlearning/Open Letter to Adoniah

Sisonke Xonti Iyonde

Two jazz-related books are also worth mentioning in this context: David Coplan’s Last Night at the Bassline and Lesego Rampholokeng’s Bird Monk Seding.


Now playing the music of the spheres

Some true South African musical giants died this year: singer Thandi Klaasen, guitarist Errol Dyers, trumpeter Dr John Mekoa and singer-guitarist Ray Phiri; all have been acknowledged at length in previous columns .

Sunny Murray
Sunny Murray

However, the jazz world does not deal in borders and boundaries, and we are equally saddened and impoverished by the passing of these international artists. Guitarist John Abercrombie; pianist, composer and teacher Geri Allen; composer, pianist and social activist Richard Muhal Abrams, one of the fathers of the AACM. Saxophonist Arthur Blythe and blues and rock guitarist Chuck Berry. Godfather of fusion, guitarist Larry Coryell. Rock pioneer Fats Domino. Singer Al Jarreau, whose Would You Believe? became a liberation anthem in SA, especially in the Western Cape. Adventurous, inventive free jazz sticks-man Sunny Murray, and the first of the current new generation of male jazz singers, Kevin Mahogany. Jazz and gospel singer Della Rees. James Brown’s magical drummer Clyde Stubblefield. Flautist Dave Valentin.

Ranjith Kally

We must not forget those who devoted precious skill to documenting jazz: in South Africa, photographers Ranjith Kally – who created the only extant visual archive of historic KZN jazz – and Peter McKenzie, and in America, trenchant social commentator and wise music writer Nat Hentoff, and former Columbia and Warner label and freelance producer George Avakian.

May all these great spirits rest in peace: hambani kahle!


Jazz & politics

Most distasteful decision of 2017 was probably UNESCO’s to award International Jazz Day 2018 to St Petersburg (alongside Sydney). Yes, Joburg applied – but that’s not why the decision is a bad one. Historically, jazz has always stood for various varieties of freedom. At present, Russia is dominated by extreme right-wing nationalism, encourages homophobia and discrimination, suppresses demonstrations of political dissent, and censors critical media. Those who flock to Russian stadia for the football World Cup 2018 may be shielded from much of this draconian rule. The presence of the World Cup – and the commercial opportunities it presents – is undoubtedly one reason for this award. But jazz should not be used to prettify Putin’s pharisees.

Mind you, South Africa faces some similar risks. Support for a state media tribunal raised its ugly head again at NASREC 2017. There’s a great deal wrong with the South African media. But encouraging the state or a ruling party – any ruling party – to take a hand in fixing matters is no solution, merely the first step back down the road to apartheid-style censorship, and will have a chilling effect on free expression not only in the press but in all creative cultural endeavours including music.

And, of course, we still don’t have a finalised Arts & Culture White Paper (the M&G quoted the relevant portfolio committee chairperson as predicting it will not be completed by 2019, among multiple other DAC shortfalls http://cabinet.mg.co.za/2017/nathi-mthethwa ). No innovative proposals for improving people’s access to consuming or creating culture emerged from NASREC either.


Highlights, hopes and resolutions

Andile Yenana

This last set of reflections is purely personal. For me, the international highlight of the year remains saxophonist Rudresh Mahathappa in Cape Town (that just reflects my taste, not whether Mahanthappa was ‘better’ in any sense than multiple other brilliant performers there). A single South African highlight is harder to select, because there has been so much live music this year that has completely blown me away. When I look back, much of that has included pianist Andile Yenana: from Born to be Black to his own project Umngqungqo Wabantu. Another highlight was the panel discussion at Sophiatown The Mix, on the anniversary of Paul Hanmer’s Trains to Taung,after which he presented a short recital on what had been Todd Matshikiza’s piano (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0y4-fS0tgSc ). That was history being archived and made…

One hope for 2018 is for another album led by Yenana – it’s long overdue. Another is to see more national and local government support for live music and the night-time cultural economies of our cities. It may not seem like a priority given many other pressing social problems – but well-run night cities can create jobs and enhance real, rather than sloganised, social cohesion, as well as generally building happiness and destroying fear. Those would not be insignificant gains.

As for resolutions, they’re the same as last year: see and write about more South African live jazz. We are currently in the middle of a quite remarkably creative period in the genre; every new work missed is a tragedy.

Finally, thanks to all readers (and especially those who send comments) for being part of this blog community in 2017. Wishing you a music-filled year-end break, and an even more melodious and creative 2018! Back in mid-January.