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Dave Ledbetter: Diversity and Unity

Seton Hawkins By

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AAJ: You touched on this a little bit already, talking about Robbie Jansen, Duke Makasi, Stompie Manana, and all these amazing artists in Workforce. If we look at Cape Town broadly in the 1980s, then we bring in artists like Basil Coetzee, Kevin Davidson, or Winston Mankunku Ngozi, and indeed there is something incredible going on with Cape Town's Jazz at that particular point in time. Can you talk a bit more about that scene overall?

DL: Mentioning them in particular, I had a fairly close association with all of the guys that you just mentioned. Basil was a friend, Robbie was a friend, as well as people that I played with and worked with, and even recorded with. I think the important thing to remember about those particular players at that particular time is that they each had a unique sound. I don't know how else to describe it, but they had a sound which was essentially of Cape Town, and it sort of has become the template. When you hear the music as it is being written and performed by people nowadays who are getting the exposure that these guys never got, you can hear the lineage in this music, in the same way that you can hear in American Jazz the lineage of sound stylistically and compositionally. It's very, very important to uphold and maintain.

I'm happy to say that at the present time, South African Jazz music is rolling along merrily in the lines of that tradition. Kyle Shepherd is a great voice for Cape Town music in terms of his pianistic style. But his pianistic style is highly influenced by Abdullah Ibrahim, and great to him! Because when I listen to Jazz, when the horn player is playing for instance, I want to hear that he was influenced by Prez and Bird and Trane. I want to hear all that stuff. And in South African music you want to hear that as well. You want to hear that the cats have listened to the people who preceded them and they're carrying on that tradition.

For me, Robbie Jansen was really such a genius and was unsung. Just like Winston and just like Basil, their best work was never recorded, and so you never hear them at their burning best. Just like Johnny Fourie, the great guitarist. You never really heard them on record at their absolute best. You'd have to catch them on a good night live for that. Fortunately for me, I was able to do so with great regularity, so I'm talking from first-hand experience. But they all had unique voices, and all of those voices have now been implemented into what I would now say is the South African zeitgeist, musically speaking. I hear their influences in everything that I listen to. It's inescapable, the influence is so big.

AAJ: Sometimes that particular set of artists and traditions gets lumped into the moniker of "Cape Jazz."

DL: Yes, or "Township Jazz." I just like to call it "South African Music" myself because that's what it is.

AAJ: Absolutely. Continuing along in terms of your own work, we see you moving into projects like Free Spirit and Rough Diamond. Can you talk about those later ensembles that you got involved with?

DL: Well, I found out that I could write music. The moment I discovered that I could write, I started writing tunes and I surrounded myself with people who could execute my vision. So there was a good friend of mine, a saxophonist called Greg Telian, who's now in Australia. He and I had the idea of putting a band together where we only played original music. But where could we find a platform to play it? Fortunately, in the mid-to-late eighties, there was a venue on Shortmarket Street in Cape Town, prior to the waterfront development, known as The Bass. On Sunday evenings they had Jazz. All of the major South African acts who came through Cape Town would play at that venue. So that was where we started to find a platform to play our stuff. All the music that came out of Rough Diamond and Free Spirit, and also the later ensembles, was pretty much inspired by the fact that suddenly I woke up one day and realized I could write, and would write and play with people that I love playing with. That was pretty much the deal. And it continues to this day.

AAJ: Can you talk about your early composition process, in terms of how you began approaching writing?

DL: Well, I'm a melody man. The music I love is rhapsodic and melodic, and I grew up in a thespian family and a musical family. The songs of the Crooner period, the AABA songs, the standards and movie soundtracks, those are the first things that illumined my attention. And then when I started studying Classical music, the music of J.S. Bach just completely captivated me. So I'd say my ear was opened by the beautiful chords and beautiful melodies of the Crooner period. Later when I started listening to Jazz, I think the first time I listened to Bill Evans, I was rocked in my seat. Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock too, and Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell—it goes on and on! All of these people are an influence in everything I do.

For my process, I normally sit down and just play, because I'm a Jazz musician and I improvise. Out of that, composition normally comes quite quickly. Sometimes a section of it comes, and then I wait for a little bit—maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe an hour—and then I continue with it. I come back to it and I write that way. Most of my songs are just like one sitting. The muse is sitting on my shoulder: bring it on. That's how I roll.


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