International Jazz Day is music-rich but gender-poor; SAMA25 jazz excels

After Freedom Day comes an event marking creative freedom: International Jazz Day ( ), on April 30.

Herbie Hancock

This year’s concert, in Melbourne, should be of particular interest to us, because next year we’ll be hosting it – in Cape Town. Which means we get to see Herbie Hancock, the event’s guiding spirit, (yay! Read his thoughts here: ) and a bunch of international jazz (and not-quite-so-jazz: that business imperative prevails everywhere) names from around the world. The Melbourne bill is impressive and interesting, from Beijing keyboard prodigy A Bu (Dai Liang), to Lebanese-American improviser Tarek Yamani.

Tineke Postma

Of the 28 performers listed on the event site, only four are female, and three of those are vocalists (the exception is Dutch reed player Tineke Postma, whose skill South Africans have already encountered). That compares poorly with what South Africa managed at the much smaller Cape Town International Jazz Festival in March. Let’s hope we do better than that next year – we could, for example, invite home Shannon Mowday and one of her all-women Scandinavian ensembles, just for starters. The event is marked by multiple South African events listed on the site’s interactive map, including several in Cape Town – including a Jazz in the Native Yards concert headlined by Salim Washington and Afrika Mkhize, as part of the SAJE jazz festival – as well as gigs in Soweto, PE, East London, Mogale City and more. Happy jazz day: go listen to some live music!

At the same time, we’ve seen the jazz nominations for this year’s SAMAs25. The SAMAs are a shleb-fest whose triviality is matched only by its vulgarity, but – thank goodness – the jazz awards don’t usually form part of the cringeworthy televised main event, which this year returns to the capital of tawdry, Sun City. They happen in the non-televised bit.

As befits a quarter-century milestone, this year’s jazz selection is an excellent one – though, as usual, there are regrettable omissions (especially Reza Khota’s Liminal, and all the South African collaborations with European players). The final nominees are:

Once more, the diversity of sounds and visions represented illustrate the absurdity of a ‘competition’ between these artists. exiledExiled is probably the most completely conceived as an album, with not only musicianship but concept, art and liner booklet united in a single, thought-provoking narrative. It illustrates why the disaggregated ‘track’ does original musicians such a disservice. But that doesn’t make it ‘better’ than the sonic interrogation of what African music means on Neo-Native, or the celebration and updating of historic male vocalese on Somandla, or the intense collaborative invention on Afrika Grooves, or the power of the pianistic unexpected on Closer to Home. Each one is different because of the choices the artists have deliberately made, and I’ll celebrate whichever one wins.

Motuba stands head and shoulders above all the other ‘alternative’ albums in her category for the creative originality that presumably is what ‘alternative’ is meant to signify. As past years have taught us, though, that doesn’t mean she’ll win.

Gabisile Motuba

This year’s selection is also noteworthy for being genuinely national in spread, with musicians speaking for the jazz scenes of Durban, the Cape, Gauteng and various mixes between the three. Any overseas fan or critic listening to all six will gain a real and representative picture of the kind of jazz we listen to here. One hopes Mr Hancock and his colleagues on the UN jazz day committee will do just that.

What’s more, if we look at the roles of the women artists in the selection – as composer as well as pianist on Exiled; as composer/arranger as well as voice on Tefiti; as bassist on Neo Native; and as trombonist on Afrika Grooves – South Africa is already performing better in the gender representivity stakes than the 2019 International Jazz Day bill. IJD 2020 must reflect that.

Bokani trio
The Bokani Dyer Trio with Romy Brauteseth (centre) on bass

RIP Don Albert, 1931-2019

downloadSad news over the Easter weekend of the death of baritone saxophonist and jazz critic Don Albert on Saturday, aged 88, after a short illness. Albert wrote and broadcast about jazz for a range of South African and international media, from the Star Tonight and the SABC to Downbeat and Jazz Journal International. Albert’s own Facebook page recounts his role from 1981 in campaigning to reverse apartheid legislation barring integrated bands in officially ‘white’ music venues, a cause that was close to his heart. As a writer (and, when the occasion required, a perceptive music photographer too), he was one of the few before apartheid ended who consistently researched and wrote about the jazz of South Africa’s communities of colour, ensuring it was known and taken seriously wherever he had a platform. He made friends in all South Africa’s music communities; established a place for inclusive, informed jazz criticism in the apartheid-era ‘white’ media (it had existed in the historically Black press for rather longer), and found keen readers everywhere. When South Africa hosts International Jazz Day in 2020, it’s to be hoped that some way to make his memory part of that event can be found. May he rest in peace.

Cape Town Conversations 1: no borders for Black British jazz

A diverse crew from the new UK jazz scene excited Cape Town this year. But how did their distinctive, diverse sounds emerge?

The most recent tune UK saxophonist Nubya Garcia composed, she tells me, “was inspired by living in London.

Nubya Garcia (3rd from right) with another of the outfits she works with: Nerija

“I tour so much I’m hardly there any more. When you are, you get used to that rat-race, mouse-wheel, ridiculous pace of the life. Then, when you’re away and come back, it really hits you. My starting points for composing are different for every tune I write, but that one started with a bass-line…”

Garcia is by no means the first musician to draw music from the feel of London. At this year’s Cape Town International Jazz Festival, she was one of a powerful contingent of visiting jazz players whose heritage lies in the historic communities of colour of Britain’s big cities. Like Courtney Pine, Soweto Kinch and Shabaka Hutchings before them, the music of Garcia, Moses Boyd and Alfa Mist was welcomed by audiences because it was crammed with tough ideas and playing, yet completely accessible – and paid no heed at all to meaningless genre walls.

A hundred year tradition

“Black British jazz” – like “African Jazz” when Todd Matshikiza first used the term back in 1957 – crams into inadequate words a multi-voiced, distinctive jazz tradition whose roots can be traced back nearly a hundred years. As in America and South Africa, its roots weave back to early dance and swing bands. And the fearless musical boundary-breaking isn’t new.

Imperialism, colonialism and racism cloud that history, of course. But while South Africa’s white musicians’ union spent vast energies excluding black players from lucrative city gigs, in the early Jazz Age its British counterpart had other worries. Invading, high-wage Americans playing this new music seemed more threatening than black citizens of countries in the then British Empire. (It became the Commonwealth in 1931.) So, from the 1920s, performance spaces opened up for skilled black musicians, especially from the Caribbean. (In fact, in the early years of the Twentieth Century, the Welsh seaport of Cardiff – not London – had the oldest and largest black British community and that left a musical imprint too, in the emergence of hugely successful pop singers such as Shirley Bassey.)

Swing bands of the 1930s

Leslie Thompson

Black players led some of the most successful UK dance bands of those early years. Jamaican trumpeter Leslie Thompson recorded his memories in his book Swing from a Small Island ( ). Urbane Grenada-born pianist “Hutch” Hutchinson scandalised English racists as he found favour among the aristocratic socialites who swarmed the original Nest Club. During World War II, Guyanan bandleader Ken Johnson – an admirer of Marcus Garvey, who inspired Johnson’s preference for all-black ensembles – scored a regular gig broadcast by the BBC from the prestigious Café de Paris. It was black music that comforted Londoners as they huddled over their radios during the Blitz. Johnson and several members of his band died when a German bomb scored a direct hit on the Café de Paris in 1941.

Free form and fusions

Shake Keane

In the post-war years, Britain’s drive to attract cheap labour from the Commonwealth for reconstruction and industrial growth brought in more skilled musicians too. Some had to combine hard work in an industrial day job with music by night; others pursued the path of precarious professionalism in a deeply racist social environment. There were calypsonians, and musicians working across pop styles such as bluebeat, ska and rock steady and, like trombonist Rico Rodriguez who arrived in 1961, they often jammed where jazz was played too – rare, undiscovered catalogue items featuring this boundary-free music are still occasionally coming to light.

Joe Harriott

But for jazz fans, the most famous name is that of saxophonist Joe Harriott, who played searching free jazz

and challenged genre boundaries, collaborating with John Mayer for the Indo-Jazz Fusions Others included trumpeter and poet Ellsworth “Shake” Keane, and guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who headlined Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in 1964.

Africa rising

KK Lond 61 playbill
The original 1961 London playbill for King Kong

In 1961, the South African musical King Kong toured London, and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa remembers how West Indian musicians in the theatre orchestra sought insight into South African jazz. “I particularly remember Paul Peterson who was a trumpeter…and we used to try and exchange ideas with them…they were kind of interested, always asking Mackay [Davashe] what’s happening now in the music, and why this, and how this?” By the mid-60s more South Africans had gone into exile in the UK: reedman Dudu Pukwana and others in ensembles around pianist Chris McGregor. Jazz photojournalist Val Wilmer noted how these South Africans “completely overturned” the London scene, and added their ideas to the collaborations among black musicians. By 1969, other pan-African influences were sounding as well, with the foundation of Osibisa by musicians of Afro-Caribbean and West African origin African independence and the striving for self-reliance was supporting strong national music scenes across the continent.

Warriors then and tomorrow

Through the 1970s and 1980s this polyphony grew. The children of those earlier generations of migrants found their own voices as young black Britons, absorbing and re-visioning all the musics UK cities had to offer. That was the London jazz scene I was part of. Aspiring young players crate-dived the record shops for Trane, Ornette and Monk. The lineup at the cavernous 100 Club on Oxford Street featured South African bands headlined by, for example, Dudu Pukwana, but onstage you could find everybody from British reedman Mike Osborne to Barbadian trumpeter Harry Beckett to Ghanaian saxophonist George Lee. Younger players jumped musical fences with cheerful abandon; Rip Rig and Panic combined Mark Springer’s explicitly Abdullah Ibrahim-inspired piano, Sean Oliver’s dub-punk bass and Neneh Cherry’s multi-culti vocals, with a trumpet guest who might be her stepdad, Don Cherry, or South African Dave Defries.

Rip Rig & Panic: Sean Oliver and Neneh Cherry

Out of that era, the bands and individuals acknowledged as the direct mentors and inspirers of today’s generation of new musicians emerged. Most notable was the collective of black, British-born players, the Jazz Warriors , co-founded in the mid 1980s by, among others, bassist Gary Crosby and reedman Steve Williamson. (Again, the jazz label wasn’t exclusionary. Many of the Warriors worked fluidly across many music scenes; Williamson’s first band had been reggae outfit Misty in Roots.)

From there, the musical lineage – Pine, Kinch, down the line to Hutchings, Boyd and Garcia – is better known in the rest of the world. Garcia told music site The Quietus that Crosby’s successor band to the Jazz Warriors – Tomorrow’s Warriors, established in 1991 – “basically gave birth to the [current] scene”. And it was a scene that grew out of collective efforts, self-organisation, mentorship freely given and ideas freely shared. The scene is much more de-centred than in the 1970s, with pop-up events in multiple South London suburbs characterised by their own crews, loyalties and sonic concepts – but the small pop-up is the way to go when resources are tight and the desire to make music urgent.

Crosby today
Bassist Gary Crosby today

In these newer formations, the patriarchy of those 1930s dance bands – where women were only seen as vocalists – finds that stance untenable, faced with bands like the female-led  Nerija, trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, and more prominent women players. (It’s a pity that the transport picking up Garcia from the airport in Cape Town last week was under the impression she was a singer.)

In this context, your identity as a musician – your voice – certainly matters, but the hard marketing borders of the commercial music industry are irrelevant. “The creative mind,” reflects Garcia, “draws on everything you’ve ever heard.”

Open season

Composer and pianist Alfa Mist’s trajectory shows just how irrelevant the marketing categories are. His early musical interests were in grime and hip-hop. “I was sampling from the start,” he says, “things like Q-Tip and Slum Village. There are heavy jazz samples in their sound, and at some point I said: I wanna make beats like that.” Something he listened to over and over was a practice tape he found of pianist Bill Evans, and he also rates Thelonious Monk, for “completely his own approach.”

AlfaBut in the era of Kamasi Washington, hip-hop meeting jazz isn’t surprising, if it ever was. Alfa Mist cites another influence that completely floors me: film composer Hans Zimmer, responsible for the scores to Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, The Dark Knight and other big-screen epics.

“Soundtracks can work in an important way in sampling, so I’ve been into film music for a long time,” he explains, “and in terms of the films I was watching at that time, he dominated.” Alfa’s own music aims to speak to listeners’ feelings “so I’m interested in how sound manipulates emotions. That’s what film music is for …I talked to some of my classical music friends, and not everybody rated him, and that led me into listening to a lot more classical music – but I still rate him.”

Shabaka album.jpg
Your Queen is a Reptile (Impulse) Artwork by Mzwandile Buthelezi

There’s a long, proud history behind today’s generation of black British jazz. It’s rooted in the skills and hard work that kept musicians from the Caribbbean working in the most prestigious venues from the 1930s, in the open ears that saw Joe Harriott exploring Trane and Indian music, Rico Rodriguez building bridges between ska and jazz, and pioneers like Gary Crosby persistently leading, encouraging and mentoring. South African influences have played their part, and today Shabaka Hutchings’ latest release, Your Queen is a Reptile features cover art from Mzwandile Buthelezi and a track dedicated to Albertina Sisulu As for the future, Alfa Mist reckons the music can only get more diverse and untrammelled: “With the internet, you can find anything, and put anything out. It’s open season now.”

CTIJF 2019: money too tight to mention

Our depressed economy is clearly biting jazz lovers like everybody else. Visibly reduced attendance meant this year’s 20th CTIJF actually felt comfortable: no queues for the toilets; far fewer steaming, bad-tempered, crushes of people. There may be reasons other than the economy: early publicity was so disastrous that people were asking me whether the event was actually going to happen. The continuing mainstream media neglect of the arts suggests that if you weren’t there, you might still be seeking evidence it did. (UPDATE 05/04: Some platforms do still care: see for my exploration of the themes and debates the festival foregrounded, with great pix by Barry Christiansen that you won’t find elsewhere either.)

Well, it happened, and in terms of the things jazz fans seek, it was good.


Not enough jazz?

John Scofield: “I can never say something’s not jazz”

Euthanasia is long overdue for the dumb canard about CTIJF presenting ‘not enough jazz’. On the two stages that most prominently feature original improvised music – Rosie’s and Molelekwa – there was enough that a recurring complaint in the media room was the impossibility of hearing it all. But it’s niche music, and if Chaka Khan, the Gypsy Kings, the Soweto Gospel Choir and other mass-appeal acts on other stages provide an economic cushion for it, let’s be grateful. Anyway, we need to check our categories. Guitarist John Scofield said at his masterclass: “Since I started playing, jazz has been ‘impure’. I can never say ‘That’s jazz; that’s not jazz’” – and he’s a player with credentials impeccable enough for the most narrow-minded anorak. Tiago of digital improvisers rePercussions invited listeners into a sound-world where “you open a door, and there are three other doors inside – and you have no idea which of those doors you’ll open.” One point of a big, diverse festival is opening those doors, not locking them if they don’t say ‘Jazz’ in large Gothic letters. (Big festivals do have problems too; we’ll get to those later.)


Technique, passion, originality

Notable this year was the amount of jaw-dropping instrumental technique on display. Scofield and Combo66 we probably expected; likewise veteran Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias. Others were less predictable – some, because their music is less familiar here; some, because we know it so well we may not be listening carefully enough any more.

In the first category were saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s trio, and flautist Nicole Mitchell and the Black Earth Ensemble.

Siyabonga Mthembu: start of a new combination?

Garcia plus two filled the Molelekwa stage, making challenging original new music feel easy and accessible (a quality shared with the other Brit-jazz players working at Cape Town: Moses Boyd and Alfa Mist) – until you checked what was packed into the playing. Siyabonga Mthembu’s vocalese was a bonus, though the musical conversations Garcia started with him suggest we might have witnessed the birth of a fresh and striking combination.

Flute is reckoned to be one of the hardest instruments to learn, because of the challenges of embouchure it presents (how lips, cheeks and tongue relate to the mouthpiece to create sound). Mitchell commands a universe of tones: shouts, sweet, high birdsong, rough growls and whispers. In her presentations she emphasised the collective character of the 8-piece Black Earth Ensemble, and her virtuosity doesn’t stand alone. The powerhouse rhythm partnership of drummer Shirazette Tinnin and percussionist Jovia Armstrong fuels the engine and the fiery soul of singer Avery Young heats the room. It’s music with something to say, as Mitchell articulated at her press conference: “The paradigm is wrong. Everything is focussed on profit. The few benefit while the many suffer. It can’t last – this whole hierarchical system has to go.”

Shirazette Tinnin
Engine room: Black Earth Ensemble drummer Shirazette Timmin


Home crowd advantage

But sometimes we should pay more attention to the South African players we think we know. Veteran pianist Ibrahim Khalil Shihab showed once more how his technique and intelligence can open up any standard to dissect its unexpected harmonic core and delicately patterned emotions. But on the Rosie’s stage, his first five minutes presented something else: an edgy, modernist keyboard imagination that everybody wanted more of. Sometime it feels as if having to showcase all the facets of his remarkable creativity – his own jazz standard Spring, programmatic compositions like Jing’an Park, and infectious pop songs too – constricts the space for that other, recital-worthy material.


Sydney Mnisi
Keeping African Time: reedman Sydney Mnisi

Herbie Tsoaeli and African Time offered their well-loved mix of intense, down-home sounds: ‘Xhosa jazz’ not as narrow tribalism but as something new built on the foundations of a rich, searching regional jazz tradition. It honours Eric Nomvete, Tete Mbambisa and Chris McGregor: chords and harmonies inspired by bow music and overtone singing; the cantering rhythms of rural horsemen; and the community celebrations and historic big-band concerts of PE, East London and Cape Town. But it’s music reworked to be fresh at every gig. “We always try,” reflected reedman Sydney Mnisi the next day, “for perfection in bringing it all together. One day, maybe we’ll get there…”

Vuma Levin: meticulous craftsmanship and killer solos

The more I hear guitarist Vuma Levin, the more I hear his early teacher John Fourie in him – not in his style and voice, which are very much his own, but in the low-key, unsparing craftsmanship he applies to every detail. Live performance foregrounds intricacies such as the relationship, on a work like Life and Death …, between the speech sounds of his samples and the way they segue into notes. But Levin’s performances have changed over the years. His body language is looser now, he’s smiling more, more comfortable in his guitarist/leader’s skin and soloing like a dream. And the new music he presents (the suite Antique Spoons, set for a 2020 release) offered fresh moods and textures too: raggedy folk-dance feels; a good-humoured scramble through an invisible city; hints of bluesiness and club beats. There’s wonderful empathy with the quintet, and fierce solos from everybody – all in all, a set meriting a more respectful time-slot than that dead 5pm opener.

Siya Makuzeni: From Mahube (above) to The Mill

Siya Makuzeni, offering firecracker vocals and dance-friendly ‘bone riffs with Mahube on the outside stage, only had half an hour to switch headspace for her intense vocal and instrumental explorations with Swiss/South African outfit The Mill. And for me, it was The Mill rather than any more prominent name (superb though they all were) that provided the set of the festival. Jazz isn’t a competition: accomplished players are not ‘better’ than one another, just saying different things in different voices. The Mill took us everywhere. We went to church, to a dancehall, to the fried chicken shop, to a Swiss village square for some serious oompah brass and to a basement club for some free and out impro. Mandla Mlangeni’s trumpet-playing commands attention partly because most of his sonic reference points are South African. Miles may be flapping his angel-wings above, but it’s Tex Nduluka, Mongezi Feza, Dennis Mpale and those guys you think of first. Many of the compositions and arrangements are Mlangeni’s, offering the classic landscape of chorusing horns and braided meshes of free brass behind adventurous solos. But other players (there are 10; they were all superb) are no less remarkable. Yonela Mnana’s unique pianism is already known – but here it was his singing, alone and in partnership with Makuzeni, that was most striking. There have been many recent projects revisioning the music of Chris McGregor’s formations. All have been cool, hot and often beautiful – but at points, this lot caught more of the Brotherhood’s joyous live energy than any of them.

The Mill
Joyous energy: The Mill — Mandla Mlangeni, extreme left


So what didn’t go so well?

The acoustics on the outdoor Manenberg and indoor Kippies stage remain patchy and sometimes (when the wind blows the notes from one into the other) disastrous. After 20 years, surely some better solution than simply putting the biggest, loudest outfits there and hoping for the best can be found? Time slipped by ten minutes on Rosie’s Saturday programme – which made dovetailing-in a taste of snippets from other stages impossible. But sound quality matters, and musicians have a right to their perfectionism. They also have the right to sound-check in peace, without the distraction of an audience admitted early (much as we love the insight into such processes it provides).

MC-ing on the Rosies stage was inept: empty gushing, and burbling about the imperative to Tweet are no substitute for knowledgeable and respectful commentary. By contrast, Africa Melane on the Molelekwa stage pitched it exactly right – can we have him on Rosie’s in 2020, please?

The biggest staging error was the tiny, once-off slot allocated to Sho Majozi. She’s huge right now, not only here but overseas, and the hunger to see her caused the weekend’s only crush, even with smaller crowds.

Oh, and of course it was heartening to see the Department of Arts and Culture displaying its usual enthusiasm for all the great South African jazz I’ve described. None of their reserved seats was occupied during any of those acts.


The point of it all

A big festival made everything I’ve described above possible. But – and despite the investment which Cape Town, still more than any other festival, makes in free gigs, free classes and other attempts at equalising – such events remain expensive and exclusionary. They centralise resources and commoditise the music as a status good for the metropolitan rich. For South African jazz genuinely to flourish, we need support for more, smaller, events and local circuits using community spaces. The Freedom Charter acknowledged the importance of culture, and we’re still nowhere near realising its goals: access to create, and access to appreciate. To get there, we need to build cultural life beyond big-ticket calendar events.