The Mill: When The Wind Blows is too short a storm

albumI almost wish I’d listened to the new CD from South African/Swiss outfit The Mill, When The Wind Blows ( ), before I heard them live at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in March. Either that, or this ought to be a double album.

Though the band’s core – trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, pianist Yonela Mnana, vocalist/trombonist Siya Makuzeni and Swiss bassist Marco Muller – remain the same, the Mill’s touring personnel differed from that on the recording. The CD’s Swiss reedmen Mathias Wenger and Benedikt Reising were replaced by their countrymen Florian Egli, Fabian Willman and Matthias Tschopp; guitarist Théo Douboule by South African Vuma Levin; and drummer Christoph Steiner by South African Kesivan Naidoo. The solos on stage obviously reflected different characters and visions, and the interplay of three, rather than two, reeds plus trumpet and trombone provided the opportunity for some witty, self-aware riffing on big-band idioms.

in CT
The Mill onstage at CTIJF 2019

The original personnel, as heard on the album, embodies the story of how the musicians came together: though journeys, meetings, residencies and collaborations over time facilitated by Swiss Arts Council offshoot Pro Helvetia. Mlangeni and Mnana are the principal composers on the dozen tracks, with one each from Wenger and Reising and collaboration on another two from Makuzeni. And how the music sounds, tells the story of a much longer set of exposures to one another’s music between South Africa and Switzerland.

The original Blue Notes with (among others) saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and pianist Chris McGregor, for example, played in Zurich and Geneva ( ) in late 1964 and early 1965, shortly after their debut at the Antibes Jazz Festival. Former Jazz Epistles drummer Makhaya Ntshoko had an early and long-lived residency at the Birds Eye Club in Basel. Bassist Johnny Dyani played Switzerland regularly, with too many different ensembles to count. Abdullah Ibrahim remains a regular visitor – and that’s before we get to more recent generations of South African players such as McCoy Mrubata and Feya Faku, slightly pre-dating Mlangeni, Makuzeni and Naidoo. So, as with British jazz players from the 1960s onwards, the South African sound is known and has woven its way into how mainland Europe plays.

You can hear that in, for example, how everybody picks up on Mnana’s Abdullah-ish opening chords on the first track, Wenger’s Cheers for the Night and in Muller’s committed bass-line attack on Mlangeni/Mnana’s modern-jazz mbaqanga Hop n’ Skop, and more.

The album splits neatly around track six, shifting from predominantly instrumental to more strongly vocal textures – although we don’t hear quite as much of Makuzeni the vocalist on the album as we did on stage. (We do, however, hear a great deal of her as a highly capable trombonist.) Her vocal work on her two co-compositions, Let Me Walk in the Light and (especially) Msotra’s Forgotten Dues leaves your ears hungry for more.

Yonela Mnana

As on stage, Mnana’s presence is key to the outfit’s character. He is already established as a remarkable pianist: unmistakably South African, but nevertheless transforming all the familiar historical roots and reference-points (Ibrahim, McGregor and so on, classical music, traditional and church music) into a highly personal series of keyboard explorations. What we learned in Cape Town and on this album is that the same is true of his singing.

The most extended track is the Mlangeni/Mnana Inkululeko : eight-plus minutes with a shorter radio mix at the end. It’s a track whose rhythm patterns acknowledge the broader African continent, but crafted across some tricky segues and mood-changes. The tune is irresistibly reminiscent of how Pukwana melded danceable grooves with sophisticated ideas and hospitable space for tough solos. It reinforces the musical identity that Mlangeni is establishing: extending and re-dreaming that particular part of the South African modern jazz heritage. It’s what makes Moholo-Moholo such a perfect collaborator for him in the project Born To Be Black, and Mnana so much the right co-composer and pianist here.

Mandla Mlangeni

There’s a reason why the music value-chain has transformed in the digital era, with live music now the highest-value product at the end and recordings now sitting at the start as promotional devices. A live performance always has more space than a recording for stretching out; in Cape Town, half a dozen rather than a dozen numbers, but each of them much longer. And what I miss now when I listen to the album is not the alternative instrumentalists I heard there – because this album’s soloists are just as robust and creative; and the contrasts make listening more interesting – but simply the space the live stage provided for growing some of the album’s two-minute cues into joyous, vibrant, extended conversations. When the Wind Blows is both inspiring and exhilarating, but even at 40-odd minutes it stops too soon.

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The Mill take a bow in Maputo

Joy of Jazz in Makhanda and Sandton – but how much joy, really?

Shannon Mowday: back in Makhanda with a Norwegian/South African youth ensemble

The lineups are out for the next Big Two South African jazz festivals: Standard Bank’s Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (27 June- 7 July and Joy of Jazz in Sandton, Johannesburg (26-28 September ).

I’ve noted before the economically exclusionary nature of big-ticket national music events. Both festivals offer concessions for students and others, but attending all three nights in Sandton will set you back at least R2 100. The Makhanda jazz concerts are individually ticketed, so you can cap your own budget – but what you can’t afford, you won’t see. At both festivals, transport, accommodation and meals add to the costs. Both also run classes and some lower-cost events designed to broaden access, offering a very limited selection from the main bill.

There are other considerations too. While festivals certainly bring some revenue to the areas where they take place, in Johannesburg that’s the epicentre of conspicuous consumption, Sandton – presumably on the prosperity gospel principle of “Whosoever hath, to him shall be given.”

Makhanda is in the midst of a crippling drought. The National Arts Festival has instituted the laudable Amanzi Yimpilo project to support basic water for schoolchildren, and additional boreholes are being sunk (but see ). However, each festival-goer will be drawing extra water – that might otherwise be used elsewhere – from an already water-starved area.

Policed audience; commodified experience

Those hard impacts matter. Equally significant is the commoditised and tightly-policed discourse big-ticket music festivals establish around making and enjoying music. Go to a festival, and your identity is prescribed and inscribed on your wrist. As a writer in The Jacobin ( ) puts it: “You can be a member of the creative elite; an owner of capital; hired staff; or a member of the policed, regulated audience. The fences, hierarchy of privileges and security guards are a live theatre version of our cultural life’s stratification.”

So even for those in a financial position to attend, big-ticket festivals pose ethical questions. But if they didn’t exist, there would be one less opportunity for musicians to eat. So who’ll be on those stages?

Makhanda offers one of its most interesting programmes for years. It’s headlined by Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni and the ensemble Born to be Black, which includes drum titan Louis Moholo-Moholo, saxophonist Salim Washington and pianist Andile Yenana. Washington also leads his own challenging ensemble, Sankofa, (with whom he will also appear in Sandton). Finally, we get to hear live the gorgeous collaboration between trumpeter Feya Faku and US drummer Jeff ‘Siege” Siegel, King of Xhosa From a big bill, the other don’t-miss South African performances include bassist Shane Cooper’s Mabuta, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt with the Sama-winning ZAR Orchestra (they’ll be in Sandton too), vocalist/hornman Mandisi Dyantyis, guitarist Billy Monama and Norway-based reed player Shannon Mowday leading a South African/Norwegian youth band.

That last is one of the array of youth music projects that always makes Makhanda the place to spot South Africa’s next original jazz voices.

The Nairobi Horns

The visitors offer a diverse and intriguing range of musical approaches. The Brazilian Instituto Anielo ensemble offers close to a quarter of a century’s experience of democratising music through its jazz education work, initially in the low-income suburbs of Sao Paolo. Nils Landgren, a regular visitor to South Africa, brings the latest incarnation of his favoured funk big-band format. And the Nairobi Horns are rapidly growing a following for their distinctive urban Kenyan jazz sound ( ).

Re-dreaming the past in jazz

Coco Zhao

Most intriguing is the visit of Chinese composer/vocalist Coco Zhao and pianist Huang Juanji with their Dream Situation project (,%20Blooming%20Flowers.mp3 ) Shanghai-born Zhao is the child of traditional Chinese opera musicians and initially followed the conventional route as a highly-rated conservatoire player. But “there were such limitations [in classical music]” ( In Dream Situation he explores and re-visions the music of the Shanghai bands of the 1920s and 1930s, when the cosmopolitan port created space for musicians to riff on American jazz styles and create original dance and cabaret music.

No more war

Nothing quite so intriguing in its freshness is promised yet for Johannesburg in September. There’s certainly some very good music, including, on the opening night, something described as a “Battle of the Bands” between the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and Wyat’s ZAR outfit. That tired trope – please retire it now! – is, of course, nonsense. Notions of ‘battling’ and ‘winning’ are wholly inappropriate for both the collaborative enterprise of jazz and the experience of hearing two world-class bands on the same night. Just enjoy.

Fans will also enjoy a return visit from dazzlingly creative Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca (who was at Cape Town in 2012 and 2016), and hear original rhythm master Manu Katche, US clarinet legend Ken Peplowski, and Dutch reed veteran Alexander Beets. In addition, Sandton will have many great voices, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Soil, Nomfundo, Nokukhanya, and Siphokazi among them.


Out of Africa something new

Joburg Joy of Jazz always features a strong Africa-continental presence, which this year includes Mozambican saxophonist Moreira Chonguica and Nigerian trumpeter Etuk Obong, both of whom already familiar to South African audiences. Unfamiliar and thought-provoking, however, may be Sor Kyekyeku and the Ghanalogue Highlife band ( Like Zhao in Makhanda with historic Chinese jazz, guitarist Kyekyeku is drawing on a contemporary sensibility to get us listening afresh to Ghana’s historic urban sounds of the same period (

That’s something we’ve never heard before, and that’s the promise festivals always hold out. It’ll be audible in all the improvisation, and in one new combination: Zachusa, with the restlessly innovative South African drummer Kesivan Naidoo, Swiss pianist Malcolm Braff and US bassist Reggie Washington. A few more like that on the Sandton bill wouldn’t go amiss.

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Kesivan Naidoo (r) and Malcolm Braff

Cape Town Conversations 2: still decolonising after all these years

Why are students’ personal experiences so often marginalised?

Decolonising the jazz curriculum re-emerged as a topic at the March Cape Town jazz festival press conferences, perhaps because the September UCT Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG) report opened some specific jazz conversations that still go on. (The report at and some critical comments at ). Musicians who are also university jazz teachers, including Nicole Mitchell, Mike Rossi and John Fedchock, all faced questions about jazz curriculum and learning processes. The issues emerged in a slightly different form at the Mistra Arts and Development imbizo in Johannesburg* in April. How students encounter learning should be central to these debates; often it is pushed to the margins.

Conservatoire questions

Where it all started: fallist protests

CCWG reflected many black students’ experience that the primacy of the conservatoire model of teaching, plus foregrounding a deficit approach (focusing on “what students lack” rather than “what students bring”) and the genres and narratives of the global North, made the South African College of Music (SACM: for fuller commentary see ) feel exclusionary. Some senior faculty have questioned the process shaping the report – see the references above – but have not so far discussed the wider questions students raised, such as:

  • Is it possible to teach South African music formally given that it is primarily produced in informal sites?
  • What space does the music curriculum allow for spirituality as a musical practice?
  • Why do we study music and what do we hope to do with our music?

Those issues continued to lurk in the background when, at the CTIJF presscons, Rossi and Fedchock were asked about incorporating the South African jazz canon into the UCT curriculum. “Every one of our courses has some South African jazz in it,” replied Rossi. He described individual points in the current curriculum where South African jazz is added, and how students are encouraged to seek out and study South African works for themselves outside class. Both men also described the constraints they saw: the need to focus first on developing basic instrumental technique, the numbers of students who must be accommodated, and, said Fedchock, “there’s so much information now you have to get across to students…you have to get through that whole timeline.”

Teaching to deficits: a discredited approach

That’s presumably the US jazz history timeline; the UCT programme does not begin with Khoisan music, which has been foundational and inspirational for many of the city’s leading jazz players and composers including the late Robbie Jansen and Hilton Schilder. And technique matters, but music is more than technique. It embodies lived experiences (including spirituality and community) that can’t be fully explained by a taught unit. Further, universities often undervalue teaching skills for faculty (under-monitor and under-support). More than half a century of educational research demonstrates how employing the deficit teaching model at best fails to build on students’ lived experiences and at worst (often) marginalises them to the point of failure. The first key question still largely unanswered is how the teaching should be done. (For one alternative curriculum approach, see )

Nicole Mitchell was eloquent about the mismatch between jazz and the conservatoire paradigm with its “culture of the winner” and erosion of student confidence: “You’re automatically closing access to those who’ve mastered other musics in other ways”. That’s not a comment on the efforts of any individual instructor; it’s inherent in the model. A respondent referenced above says the CCWG report “demotivates” staff – but it’s not about you, people! It’s about how the process hurts learning. However well intentioned and diligent you are, that won’t change unless the process changes.


The movie Whiplash:  culture of the winner

Don’t just add topics – cut some

The second key issue is that curriculum reform can’t just be a matter of accretive change, as it largely has been. Rossi and Fedchock are right: it is impossible to keep cramming extra bits of South African content into an already overstuffed ‘core’ curriculum. So why not interrogate every curriculum element, including those unquestioningly defined as ‘core’, and actually remove some to make room for others that might be more appropriate for South Africa today? That has always happened in university curricula: we no longer teach that the earth is flat. Why is it suddenly so impossible when the currently privileged elements are in a jazz curriculum? (It was, after all, decolonisation that shaped modern jazz, as Robin D G Kelley discusses at – so why not its teaching?)

At the Mistra imbizo, Wits lecturer Rangoato Hlasane gave an example: the CAPS (secondary school) curriculum for dance demands learning on a sprung floor. “But Pantsula choreography,” he said, “demands dust.” Just adding a token South African dance style to an existing core curriculum is inadequate; a new learning process and new conditions of performance and reception – insight into another lived experience – must be part of the package.

“Pantsula choreography demands dust”

Experience speaks; privilege answers 

What spoke most strongly at the imbizo to the issue of decolonisation were the experiences of black students and teachers. For one researcher, the enforced use of English constructs and categories distorted her findings about African subjects. To decolonise, scholarly spaces must exist for the African languages that offer more precise terminology and contextual understanding. (Think about it: universities allow the sciences their own precise terminological spaces, but elsewhere privilege the approximation — however inexact — of African social, spiritual and cultural constructs into English.)

For a former Rhodes university student, studying in Makhanda (a.k.a Grahamstown) was an experience of “continuing colonialism” As a young black man, he encountered constant challenges to his presence. While the majority of the population struggled with poverty and drought, the city proudly brandished its history as a seat of colonial military oppression and seemed to see its raisons d’etre as primarily the annual National Arts Festival and the university. The first proposal for siting a drought-relieving borehole was outside the Settlers’ Monument, which is festival HQ. That experiential account provoked ire from one audience member who also lived in the city and chided: “Your assertions are strong, but your facts are weak.”

Continuing colonialism: how Makhanda (Grahamstown) sells itself to the world

But that misses the point. Experience is factual: an account of life in a body with a certain race, class or gender. If yours is different, you’re accessing things you might never otherwise learn. How students experience an institution impacts powerfully on their progress. When other human beings narrate their realities, it’s not about you – except that your open ears might help.

(*For a fuller account of discussion at the Mistra arts imbizo, see )

Beth Carvalho 1946-2019

Before Beyonce and other individual stars today wielding their financial success and popularity to construct narratives of experience, there’s a long tradition of women musicians who simply sang experience to a working class audience that shared it. One of those was Brazil’s ‘Godmother of Samba’, Beth Carvalho, a singer, composer and guitarist who died yesterday in Rio de Janiero aged 72. For those of us who saw Carvalho at the Joburg Arts Alive Festival in 2000 it was an experience still vibrant in our memories.

carnival 2016
Carvalho at the Rio Carnival 2016

Carvalho was taken by her lawyer father to watch Rio’s samba schools rehearsing from an early age, and fell in love with the sound. She won a national TV talent contest with a song influenced by the radical bossa nova movement, but her musical life from that point was dedicated to samba, and particularly identified with the Manguiera school.

The shapers of samba cited outside Brazil are often predominantly male, with women mentioned only as ‘singers’ – but Carvalho was a sambista of massive distinction who won  the Latin Grammy in 2009. She defined the sound, drawing music from the finest composers, wrote songs herself, brought rising stars (such as the group Fundo do Quintal) on to her stages so that they benefited from her success, and was always at the leading edge of the modernisation movements within the genre.

Her work with Grupo Fundo do Quintal ( ) for example, helped foreground the pagode (backyard) movement: get-togethers of favela (shack settlement) musicians and lyricists that were essentially communal and community-based. Their work provided a powerful counterpoint to the middle and upper class patronage and gentrification of samba, which was also under way at the time. The discourse of the  pagode insistently reminded listeners of the 1930s roots of the music in impoverished communities uprooted to the favelas on the outskirts by capitalist city development. Samba pagode was not a tourist-friendly, appropriated ‘national’ music, but a specific and proud assertion of Brazil’s African communities; their heritage and history.

Carvalho had more than 30 albums to her name, possibly the most substantial opus of any woman sambista. Her 1979 song Coisinha do Pai

was one of the ‘Earth songs’ carried into space on the Mars Pathfinder mission, while many of her lyrics echoed the struggles of Brazil’s working class communities and indigenous peoples.  A lifetime socialist, her latter years saw her appearing at many events in solidarity with ousted and imprisoned former president Lula da Silva, even though she was in crippling pain from a spine disorder. Descansem em paz.

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.”