Blue Note Jazz: Beyond the Notes

The Lyon, the Wolff and the impro space probe


A scant score of people turned up last night to Killarney Cinecentre to catch what may possibly be the only Joburg showing of Beyond the Notes, director Sophie Huber’s widely-praised history of the Blue Note jazz record label. Not even some opening live music from Pops Mohamed, Kaya Mahlangu and Ashish Joshi tempted more out. That’s a pity: the silvery combination of kora, tabla and soprano sax produced some quite unexpectedly beautiful textures, particularly on a re-visioning of Miles’ All Blues – the archetypal Blue Note track, if ever there was one. The many Killarney-based jazz fans (warning: I know where you live) mustn’t spend their time complaining about the dearth of live jazz when they don’t attend even when it’s on their doorstep .

But, the movie? The praise for Huber’s work is largely justified. The cinematography is gorgeous: each scene framed by an eye that respects, and translates into movement the style of label co-founder Francis Wolff’s iconic still photographs. There are also historic jazz clips galore.

Blue Note artist Sheila Jordan: invisible

The narrative – although clearly part of the marketing for Don Was’s current kaisership of the enterprise and for the Robert Glasper-led Blue Note All Stars – is not limited by that. It’s honest about the history, and respects the politics. Wolff and Alfred Lyon founded a label that was able to document superb creativity because they deliberately turned their backs on the market. In human terms, they gave the musicians respect, space and freedom to express themselves; in practical terms, they paid for lots of rehearsals. The film respects its musicians too, listening to what they have to say rather than sticking some talking-head “critic” in front of them.

Blue Note artist Anita Baker: invisible

From that, comes a discourse that gets the politics of jazz improvisation right. Whereas Cold War politics – and many critics since – represent improvisation as the apogee of heroic America individualism, all these musicians – from veterans Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter to Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Ambrose Akinmusire and more – present it as a collective and collaborative enterprise. You’re liberated to speak, they asserted, by the annihilation of ego fostered by the empathetic support of your playing peers. “When I improvise,” said Hodge, “I disappear.”

Blue Note artist Rachelle Ferrell: invisible

But the discourse goes wider, presenting the music throughout its history as a direct response to the society that birthed it, and particularly to American racism, segregation and inequality. Jazz emerges clearly as a community music, not only then, but also now: the working-class, black, hip-hop generation started sampling jazz because it was already richly embedded in their sound-world, via the record collections of parents and relatives. That, in turn, led to Kendrick Lamarr and Kamasi Washington. Anybody who wants to explore ideas about collective musical work should see this film, which gives very useful space to – although it certainly does not complete – that discussion.

And yet…and yet. One woman speaks in the film: an anodyne Norah Jones, who was responsible for the first big hit of Bruce Lundvall’s ‘new’ Blue Note label. She affirms sweetly that the label treated her right. A couple more females flash past us in a montage of album covers. Nellie Monk gets a namecheck as “always around the studio.”

Blue Note artist Dr Geri Allen: invisible

But we know that many women worked, and work, at Blue Note – Lundvall affirms that it was “a secretary” who first drew his attention to Jones’s singing. (If she were male, would she have received the title ‘talent scout’?) As for recording artists, many supremely talented women musicians have led sessions for Blue Note over the years; more have guested or been support players.

They have included – take a deep breath – Geri Allen, Anita Baker, Patricia Barber, Tina Brooks, Rosanne Cash, Rachelle Ferrell, Gwyneth Herbert, Jones, Sheila Jordan, Stacey Kent, Dianne Reeves, Suzanne Vega and Cassandra Wilson. From among those still living, surely some might have had something to contribute to the label’s story? All have contributed to its earnings. Their absence reinforces the exclusionary (and false) construction of jazz as a highly gendered, male, space.

There were half a dozen articulate, jazz-appreciating, young women in the audience last night. Where, I wonder, did they see themselves in the picture?

Cinematography: *****

Discourse: ****

Gender politics: 0

Happy Birthday Bra’ Katse – and thanks for all the music

It’s a sweltering Sunday afternoon in the late 1980s, in an ANC house somewhere in Lusaka, Zambia. Every comrade who’s not on duty is catching up on the week’s chores: washing, ironing, reading, watching football on a beat-up TV. There’s meat on the braai, and a couple of people are trudging back from a shebeen, complaining about the heat, carrying as many cold ones as the house can collectively afford. The mood turns more festive, and somebody puts on a cassette of music from home. But not everybody’s in the mood for dancing – yet. Then the tape reaches the one track nobody can resist: a song that gets everybody up; moving, remembering (and possibly somebody’s crying) – Matswale, from Caiphus Semenya’s 1984 album Streams Today; Rivers Tomorrow. ( )


On August 19, Caiphus Katse Semenya turned 80. (On the 23rd, his partner on stage and off, vocalist Letta Mbulu, turned 77. That’s an anniversary equally worth marking, but it needs a story to itself). There have been many tributes, and a grand birthday concert at the Market Theatre. And while the totality of Semenya’s life should be celebrated, one aspect needs to be in the foreground: his composing. In the field of popular song, he has written a significant portion of the great South African Songbook – possibly more than any other single composer. Where America has Jerome Kern, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, we have Caiphus Semenya.

Semenya was born in Alexandra Township in 1939, but later moved to live with his grandmother in Benoni. By 15, he had joined up with three other teenagers to form a close-harmony singing group, the Katzenjammer Kids (the punning title referenced both his name and some popular comic-book heroes). The Kids, still real beginners, entered a talent contest where their performance was so impressive that they were invited to form part of the ensemble for the upcoming jazz opera, King Kong, composed by Todd Matshikiza. There, he met a rising singing star, Letta Mbulu: the start of a lifetime personal and working partnership .

When King Kong went to England in 1961, many of the cast members took their ticket out, seeking opportunities to work and study free from the repression of apartheid. But Semenya and Mbulu, both very young, stayed in South Africa, working with a range of bands and growing their performance skills. It wasn’t until 1964 that their chance to leave came, with the Alan Paton musical play, Sponono.sponono.jpg

Sponono arrived on Broadway to a rough reception: it ran for only two weeks after anti-apartheid protests outside the theatre. Although it was not a pro-regime play, American consciousness about racial segregation at home and abroad was growing; in the same year, civil rights demonstrators picketed the opening of the New York World Fair too. But the couple soon met up with old friends from the King Kong cast, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa among them. Makeba, in particular, helped smooth the way for them to settle in New York.

UnionSemenya didn’t go the college route of his instrumentalist peers, but instead immediately began working with Masekela, Harry Belafonte and others on live and recording projects. In 1966, he composed one of the biggest hits on the trumpeter’s The Emancipation of… album, Ha Lese le di Khanna . By 1971, the couple had moved to Los Angeles, where the supergroup The Union of South Africa was formed: Semenya, Gwangwa and Masekela. Semenya wrote four of the album’s nine tracks, including Caution (which gave him another nickname) By now, he was also occasionally playing saxophone, though he never saw the instrument as his vocation.

Songwriting and arranging opportunities grew, as did his reputation. As well as working with fellow South Africans, Semenya also collaborated with Belafonte, Nina Simone, Lou Rawls, Herb Albert and more. In 1977, he co-scored the soundtrack of the original Roots television series, based on Alex Haley’s best selling book about his family history under slavery and beyond.Roots

“I really consider myself blessed [to have done that],” Semenya recalled later. “it’s not everybody who particiates at that level, on both sides of the Atlantic, in a story that is a truly African story…If you are spiritual, then you know that certain things in life are not accidents…To write the score I had to read the book, and so I came to really understand what Africans as a people went through…When today we are still being accused of being underdeveloped, when we were actually depopulated, and not by our own doing…People actually systematically underdeveloped us and now they have the audacity sit here and judge us…We dug gold and silver to enrich another people that today sit there and tell us we are underdeveloped.”

In 1985, at Quincy Jones’ request, Semenya co-wrote the score for the film, The Color Purple, for which he shared the 1986 Oscar for Best Original Score; in 1987, he arranged the Swahili chant for Michael Jackson’s Liberian Girl on the Bad album, again masterminded by Jones.

StreamsAlongside this solid and respected American career, the popular South African hit songs kept coming: Angelina, Ziph’Inkomo, Nomalanga, Music in the Air, Woman Got A Right To Be, Ndiphendule and counting.

Matswale is typical, using a framework of African tradition to tell a personal story that many listeners can identify with, over a lilting, languorous beat that compels dancing and an earworm of a hook. A man approaches his mother-in-law for advice because his relationship with his wife is disintegrating. It was written, Semenya said, after a visit to the exiled South African community in Botswana, when he saw how the pressures of that life were causing relationships to fall apart. Oh, and there’s a little chorus in the middle “Bue li Naledi/ Ake le bue li Naledi” – that you just have to join in on.

In 2004, the album A Taste of Caiphus Semenya saw various artists from Sibongile Khumalo and Yvonne Chaka Chaka to Ringo and Nana Coyote covering Semenya’s classic hits. None of those covers is ‘better’ than Semenya’s original, but the album is the perfect illustration of why his compositions merit attention and praise. Each of them is capable of multiple re-visionings without ever losing its power – the true test of a standard.

And just a final note. When writing this blog I discovered that, disgracefully, and despite his multiple national and international honours, there is no complete online account of Semenya’s life and work; what exists is incomplete and in some cases inaccurate. Like the song says, Not Yet Uhuru. Happy Birthday Bra’ Katse – and we can’t possibly thank you enough for all the music. Respect.


Woodstock at 50? Don’t forget there were two

There were two celebrations this weekend of the 50th anniversaries of American music festivals.

Crowd photo
Summer of Love? Woodstock August 1969

The one you’ve all probably read about, was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock: a 1969 rock festival held in Bethel, New York and bringing together artists across genres, from Janis Joplin to Ravi Shankar and Bob Dylan to, perhaps most famously today, Jimi Hendrix. (It was named for Dylan’s then place of residence.) 400 000 people tried to attend – some couldn’t get in, although helpful anarchists eventually tore down a few fences – and by the afternoon of the first day, all roads for 20 miles around the muddy, bowl-shaped farm site were blocked by incoming cars. That festival has had commemorations in plenty, but no ‘official’ 50th birthday event. Co-founder and current owner of the Woodstock “brand”, Michael Lang, couldn’t reach a simultaneously satisfactory agreement with both venue and artists; he dropped the idea and threatened to sue anybody else who picked it up in that precise, branded form.

Jimi Hendrix shreds The Star Spangled Banner

Woodstock is often described as the convergence and culmination of the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s: the protests against the Vietnam War; the push against rigid family and societal roles; the experimentation with mood- and mind-altering drugs; and the African-American civil rights movement.

Some of that, however, represents the rose-coloured spectacles of nostalgia, assisted by Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 movie, because that was the story the film told.

Woodstock, August 1969 – the summer of peace, love, dope and tie-dyed flares – certainly provided a home for many of those social impulses, in the sentiments of the crowd and the lyrics of many of the songs and in plenty of individual experiences. But it’s worth remembering that in the late 1960s “sexual liberation” still often advantaged cis men over anybody else, and – despite Hendrix’s magnificent anti-war shredding of The Star Spangled Banner , the crowd was overwhelmingly white.

BW crowd
Crowd members at the Harlem Cultural Festival 1969

A far more interesting six-weekend concert series was happening in Harlem over July and August 1969, with a lineup including Sly and the Family Stone ( ), BB King, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson and more. (Hendrix and Ritchie Havens were the only black Woodstock headliners; Havens also played Harlem.) It attracted more than 300 000 people. The Harlem Cultural Festival has sometimes been dubbed “Black Woodstock” – but it wasn’t a copy; it was entirely its own thing.

Nina Simone plays Harlem 1969

The Harlem Cultural Festival was barely mentioned by international media this week, while the Woodstock anniversary has been universally showcased. However, New York did remember the festival at 50, with a week of seminars and an anniversary concert on August 17th.

Harvard professor of race and public policy, Khalil Mumammad, points out the unease with which, in the still-segregated 60s, African-Americans would have contemplated visiting a white-owned farm in white-dominated rural upstate New York. “The late Sixties has been romanticized with regard to the cultural mixing of the anti-war activists and black freedom activists,” Muhammad told ( “But the reality is you had pretty clear lines of segregation. The cultural spaces [for integration] were tiny,” whereas the Harlem event represented “ black people needing to celebrate on their own terms.”

That’s not the only difference. Although mismanagement (something herbal in the air?) meant Woodstock didn’t fully realise its potential profits, the festival was a straight commercial initiative. Its co-founders wanted to establish a recording studio and artist stable in the area; the concert was designed to market that idea. The branding disputes that sabotaged this year’s attempt to stage an official anniversary party had their roots right back at the start. Woodstock, you might say, also started the wokewashing of cultural commodities that infests today’s scene.

BW crowds
Grassroots celebration Harlem 1969

The Harlem series was organised from the grassroots up, by community groups, churches and black political formations. When the City refused, the Black Panthers provided security. There were two deaths even at that first peace-and-love Woodstock. Nobody died at the Harlem events.

Hindsight isn’t always 20:20 vision: sometimes you’ll find white blotches on the lenses. And at a time when 50s-style racism and sexism are on the rise again in America and the world, we need to be sure we read all the histories, not just the hegemonic one.

History of South African music: must-read
So far our knowledge of early South African music has been limited; we tend to think that drums, bows and pipes are as far back as it goes. Read this fascinating article from today’s Conversation to learn that as the earliest visual symbolism and patterning were being developed, so was our music!

Michael Blake and the local invisibility of South African concert music

Composers South Africa’s Michael Blake and Tanzania’s Justinian Tamusuza on a panel at Stellenbosch in February 2019

The shameful local media neglect of South African jazz is something I’ve discussed too often before. There are no reviews, and no previews of anything but the most commercial of events, which can be monetised by selling advertising alongside. Even the upcoming Joy of Jazz – a huge event with an interesting line-up featuring local innovators and international stars – has been dealt with largely through truncated reprints of its own press releases. But at least that’s something. The profile of jazz doesn’t fare too badly when you compare it with the invisibility of some other genres – in particular, South African concert music.

I’m deliberately not using the term “classical”. That term is freighted with way too much baggage. “Classical” music is, strictly, the stuff written by European men in powdered wigs, brocade waistcoats and knee-britches between 1750 and 1830. In popular usage it’s been extended to cover music written by variously-attired European men up to around the end of the Nineteenth Century. (Ignore that Mozart and Mendelssohn both had esteemed musician sisters see Ignore that composers George Bridgetower and Samuel Coleridge Taylor were black see . Ignore that analogous ‘classical’ settings of court patronage and paradigms for composition and performance also existed elsewhere, for example in the historic kingdoms of East Africa, see )

‘Concert’ or ‘recital’ music are far more useful terms, because they also don’t relegate the genre to a past historical era, but are informative about the contexts where it is played and heard.

There’s far more contemporary South African-composed concert music around than you might suspect. Pianist Paul Hanmer’s website for example (which hasn’t even been updated for a while), lists more than a score of compositions for that, rather than his jazz context. Another composer, Clare Loveday  creates work that, like Hanmer’s, , is now performed worldwide.


Hanmer and other black concert composers such as Samora Ntsebenza, Lloyd Prince and Sibusiso Njeza might not have grown in that direction without work at the early editions of South Africa’s New Music Indaba in Makhanda, whose architect was another internationally feted South African composer, Cape Town-born Michael Blake Blake himself, currently a member of the Africa Open Institute at Stellenbosch University, released a new recording recently: The Philosophy of Composition, with cellist Freidrich Gowerky and pianist Dean Vandewalle–michael-blake-the-philosophy-of-composition .

Follow the links to compositions by Blake, Loveday, Hanmer or others and you’ll rapidly realise that contemporary concert music has an astonishingly broad sound palette: acoustic and electronic, melodic and atonal, lush and arid – or bits of all of these. Somewhere, you’ll probably find music you like. For example, Blake’s track A Fractured Landscape (in memoriam Edward Said) recalls the African roots of some piano-precursor keyed instruments with its interlocking introductory patterns. By the end, it feels as if it’s referencing the Romantic composer Brahms, in allusion to Said’s book On Late Style. But, comments sleeve-note writer Stephanus Muller, the tensions in the music give neither element a comfortable home: “It is a music of exile”, just as Said’s life as a Palestinian-American was. The closing track Seventh Must Fall has the musical motif of a falling seventh, but an inescapable, implicit subtext about the possibilities for beauty-in-change that open when things (a musical idiom, fees, Rhodes…) fall.

Nobody knows what they’ll like until they get the chance to hear it, and prophets are rarely honoured in their own country. The point of this post was not only to share news of a recording of South African music that I enjoyed greatly, but to ask why access to this kind of music – and even to news about it – is so limited. Isn’t that the kind of responsibility that the SABC, our national broadcaster, due shortly to receive more wads of rescue cash, should be accepting? Couldn’t covering every area of South African music be one of the conditions for those wads of cash?