In 2018, the jazz year began with tragic deaths: Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile followed by trumpeter Hugh Masekela. This year, it begins with the demise of the Orbit, not quite five years old and hailed when it opened as the gold-standard stage for South African jazz.
And that’s tragic too. Everybody who helped to build and keep the Orbit running deserves our massive thanks for the magic they made happen every open night, and we are all poorer for its loss.
But it’s nothing like a death in the same sense. The genre and the musicians and the audiences still live; creativity goes on, and we can make new stages.
That cavernous double-story floor-space in Braamfontein was set up to struggle from day one. Other good restaurants had already gone bust there. City-centre rates in a rapidly gentrifying area, service costs and the scale of staffing and maintenance required to keep it efficient meant the venue needed to fill almost every night to stay afloat. That, in turn, necessitated ticket prices unaffordable for many.
If the Melville Bassline was too tiny to be viable, the Orbit may have been too big.
Even back in the club’s heyday, in 2015, the owners discussed the difficulties of maintaining the space, (in a Financial Mail story that’s since been rendered inaccessible by a paywall).
Do the sums. South Africa has a population far smaller than that of, say, the US, only a tiny minority of that population has disposable income to spend on music, and only a minority of those people spend on any single music genre. That’s before you factor in the recession of the past few years. Coming up with the right business plan to accommodate those circumstances has stumped many venues, including those in Cape Town, which has the extra seasonal cushion of tourists’ disposable income.
Braamfontein’s major landlord was profoundly unsympathetic to the club: uncommunicative, unhelpful about easing parking constraints, and on one occasion telling a principal: “You don’t belong here.” That didn’t help – but then, the power of property developers is part of the placemaking phenomenon I discussed last week.
What set the Orbit apart in its first few years was the respect and support it provided for musicians. There was a decent piano, regularly tuned. There was a Green Room where players could be private and strategise for the performance. There was imaginative programming. And conscious effort went into building a respectful audience who listened to the music.
As the economics of the place pinched tighter, a lot of that seemed to slip. The programming that had kept genre fans loyal was increasingly diluted. Sure, a big “Afro-Soul” (or other pop genre) name may bring numbers in – but for one night, for that name only. It doesn’t build a regular albeit small audience who will turn up on spec, simply because they trust the club to provide quality even when they don’t know the name.
It may be hard to hear for those who struggled to keep it afloat, but by the end some jazz players were losing faith in the place they once called home. Many musicians I’ve talked to recently have told me so, always much more in sorrow than in anger. Sound engineering standards had become less reliable. Too many patrons treated onstage creativity as mere background noise for drinking, making the Orbit no different from Braamfontein’s other booze spots, just pricier. (As one drummer recently said: “In the end, you play, because that’s what you do, but…”). Musicians also muttered about declining transparency around payments.
Because so much of this was anecdotal, up till now, I haven’t written about it. Maybe I was wrong – please tell me if you think I was. Such problems are almost inevitable when a place has no money, and it seemed unethical, with survival hanging in the balance, to exacerbate the venue’s woes with negative publicity.
So, where to now? Musicians and music service workers need work. Audiences need to hear the quality jazz that we know is being made. We all need constant reminders that good music is more than a commodity, and that being together in a music-filled room, whether as players or listeners, is good for our souls and our intellects and breaks down the anomic individualism that global capital thrives on.
Regular venues matter: they build the culture and discourse of engaging with music; they amass institutional wisdom among musicians who work together. They don’t have to be mega-sized, though – just big enough to pay the rent and the artists without setting impossible attendance goals. They don’t need fancy restaurants (by the end, the food at the Orbit was even better, and that turned out to be profoundly irrelevant to what the place was about). They could be collectives, rather than commercial operations – they must just put the music first.
Since, incidentally, live music is good for employment and the economy too (if you want to speak the bosses’ language) both Joburg and the national government could help. They could initiate and entrench policies and processes more hospitable to creativity and the economy of the Night City. Countries such as Sweden with tiny genre music niches like ours subsidise cultural development. Those are more things to ask questions about when elections come around.
I mourn the Orbit. But we have to learn and rebuild, not just regret. In the struggle days (and, I confess, I’ve repurposed this slogan far too often) when a comrade fell, we correctly urged: pick up the spear. In the struggle for the right to access and create culture – the Freedom Charter called it ‘opening the doors’ – it’s time once more for us to pick up that piano.
***UPDATE JAN 12. If you liked this, you’ll also enjoy this thoughtful analysis which has just appeared: https://www.newframe.com/toward-new-orbits