Hugh Masekela: Strength in Music and Character
As he grew, Masekela began playing in other dance bands. He joined the African Jazz Revenue in 1956, did a Manhattan Brothers tour of the country in 1958, and wound up playing in the orchestra for "King Kong," a musical that had blockbuster theatrical success, featuring the legendary singer Miriam Makeba (who would later become his first wife). He also became part of Jazz Epistles, which included the outstanding pianist Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim). In 1959, it became the first black South African group to record an LP, Jazz Epistle, Verse 1 and became very popular.
With the brutality of apartheid on the rise, including the 1960 incident in Sharpville, South Africa, in which 69 protesters were killed by police bullets, Masekela left the country with the help of Huddleston and his friends Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth (an English jazz musician and husband of singer Cleo Laine). He went to England, where he enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music, but he was restless in the United Kingdom.
"I wouldn't let it rest," says Masekela. "I wrote (Huddleston) two letters a week, saying, 'Get me out of here!' I felt that I needed to have access to the kind of teachers people like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Miles and all those people had. I was really determined by the time I was 17 or 18 that New York would be my destination. And it came true for me. Of course, Miriam had made a success here in 1959." Makeba, Belafonte and Gillespie were keys to getting Masekela to the United States.
In New York, Masekela attended the Manhattan school of Music. Also, in the world's jazz capital, he began to meet many of his heroes. Jazz musicians in general, because of their independence, achievement in the face of adversity, and their individual strength, served as inspiration to South Africans, he says.
In his autobiography ("Miles, the Autobiography," Simon and Schuster, 1989), Miles Davis says he met Masekela through Gillespie and that he was "in awe" of meeting the South African who was earning a good reputation in the states. Davis writes that he encouraged Masekela to play in his African-influenced style, rather than American jazz. He also notes he was surprised that he was a hero to Masekela, based on the infamous incident at Birdland where Miles was clubbed over the head by a police offer after being roused without cause by officers.
"Miles Davis was a major hero to everybody because that was on the front page of every South African newspaper, even though it was an apartheid country. The guy stood up to the police outside Birdland. It was international news. We became very good friends. Miles was one of the first people who told me not to become a jazz musician. Because when I first came there, I was a bebopper. I was looking forward to maybe becoming a Messenger in Art Blakey's band. Blakey and Dizzy and Miles, all of them said, 'Why don't you put some of what you got from your country and mix it in. Maybe we can learn something from you. Otherwise, it's just going to be a statistic, like all of us.'
"Belafonte cited Miriam (Makeba) as an example. He said Miriam stood apart from Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae and all those people because she hit them with a whole different thing. I had to dig back into my old dance band days in South Africa, the township dance band, and I came up with the hybrid that I got known for later on."
Masekela was well-versed about things happening in New York City and elsewhere in the U.S. from his regular reading of the major jazz magazines and other publications that made their way to South Africa. He also knew of America's race problems, and found a strong distinction between the overt oppression in his homeland and the covert racism of the States.
In the U.S., in many ways, "It was more dangerous," says Masekela, "because in South Africa, all you had to fear was the police. In America, anybody could kidnap you or tar and feather you in the South, or hang you from a tree. That could have never happened in South Africa. So it was different in that way. In the States, a racist could take care of you themselves. I wasn't naive about the States. I knew everything about what was happening here. We knew who Rosa Parks was, who Martin Luther King was. We knew who Booker T. Washington was, Harriet Tubman. When I came, I was in the company of Miriam Makeba, Dizzy Gillespie and Harry Belafonte. I knew what the deal was."
He also began to gain in popularity and was recording in the early 1960s. His success came as somewhat of a surprise. "I really came to go to school and hoped to play in a jazz group for a while, then go back to South Africa. By the time I finished the Manhattan School of Music, it was too late to go back, because by that time people like Nelson Mandela and others were arrested and some were sentenced to death. People were fleeing from South Africa into exile. I had major success here, but I did not expect it. So it was all gravy. It was something I hadn't planned on."